Getting Rid Of “Bikini Body” Is A (Baby!) Step. We Have A Long Way To Go.

By Natalia Mehlman Petrzela

It is possible to narrate American history through shifting obsessions with women’s particular body parts. The nineteenth century, age of the corset, celebrated tiny waists. The 1950s — era of “I must, I must, increase my bust!” — fixated on large breasts. The 1980s channeled our efforts on thin thighs, though I doubt anyone actually achieved them in the 30 days the bestselling book promised. Girls and women of the 1990s inherited not only a fascination with perfecting the entire female form – aka the “bikini body” – but also a raft of new women’s magazines dedicated to reminding us, with cheery how-to articles and top-ten tips, that bikini season is perennially just around the corner. This month, one of those publications, Women’s Health (founded somewhat later, in 2005), banished the phrase “bikini body,” once a mainstay, from its cover. This is a baby step in the right direction.

On the one hand, it’s great news, because…

Bikini Body Shames

“How to get a bikini body? Put a bikini on your body.” Variations on this matter-of-fact meme went viral in 2013 in the unapologetically feminist neighborhoods of the internet, calling out what WMH apparently just figured out: “bikini body” is an insult. The term deems some bodies unworthy of wearing a two-piece. This both marginalizes fat bodies and suggests that women should dress according to other people’s aesthetic preferences rather than to their own sense of what feels and looks good.

Bikini Body Distracts

As a passionate exerciser and a researcher on gender and fitness culture, I know from countless interviews and locker-room conversations that women exercise to find community, to heal from injuries, to relieve stress, to have fun, and to learn new skills. “Bikini body” all but silences these varied reasons for exercise, subordinating them to achieving some elusive swimsuit ideal. This happens at the supermarket checkout but also every time a spin instructor yells “BIKINI SEASON, LADIES!” as “motivation.” It is easy to get distracted from optimizing wellbeing when the two-piece becomes the centerpiece of our fitness goals.

Bikini Body Breeds Misogyny

Judging women by their ability to meet dominant beauty standards is a tradition as timeworn as it is troubling. Research shows thin women earn more money, are treated better in public and at work, and generally enjoy positive assumptions about their moral qualities and personality. Ironically, a powerful form of misogyny ridicules women for paying too much attention to their looks.  Girls and women are encouraged to prioritize prettiness, but when they spend time and money on leg lifts or lash extensions – or dare to take a selfie – they are dismissed as silly. Moreover, while glossy spreads of smiling swimsuit models might seem unrelated to the rollback of women’s reproductive rights and our epidemic of sexual violence, all three reflect a tendency to reduce women to little more than body parts. The bikini-body paradigm is lose-lose.

Yet we have a long road ahead…

“Bikini body” is hardly a relic of a bygone era. If the body-positive #effyourbeautystandards hashtag has one million instagram mentions, Kayla Itsines’ immensely popular “bikini body guide” boasts an “army” of over four million bikini-body aspirants, who post before-and-after bikini photos, often with their faces obscured. Called simply “Bikini,” the newest category in women’s physique competitions is unapologetically described as “primarily a beauty contest,” as opposed to its more skill-focused bodybuilding and fitness counterparts. Itsines launched her online empire less than five years ago; the rapidly growing “Bikini” category debuted in 2010.

WHM EIC Amy Keller Laird’s Twitter feed is full of grandiose RTs to the effect of “this is a huge step for womankind and sisterhood!!” but WHM, its peer publications, and all of us who care about gender, body image, and justice need to seriously step up our game beyond these reactive baby steps. As forWHM, committing to get rid of “bikini body” AND promote body positivity throughout the magazine would be one significant step forward. One Facebook comment on Laird’s announcement merits quoting: “As a more muscular black woman and an athlete, I look at that magazine and the thought is always… There is nothing in here for me.” A truly inclusive fitness media would reflect not only diversity of size, but also race, age, and ability, to name a few intersecting categories. Now THAT might be a step forward for sisterhood.

From Bikini Body to Love Your Body?

It’s also up to us to imagine a new paradigm rather than to leave it up to some vague, depersonalized “media” or “society” to shape our attitudes and experiences.

I’m cautiously optimistic the WHM decision truly is part of a paradigm shift; Laird made her decision thanks to reader feedback, and she echoes peer publications. Cosmopolitan now dedicates more column inches to politics than pleasing your man and Yoga Journal, long criticized for perpetuating the “skinny, bendy, white” yogini, has responded to efforts such as the grass-roots Yoga and Body Image Coalitionto begin discussing self-acceptance and “loving your curves.” The online pubs long reflect this rising tide: Refinery29 launched an “Anti-Diet” section, Well+Good eschews the weight-loss beat, and blogs like Fit and Feminist so intrinsically reject the bikini-body business, they barely even address it anymore.

Going further than just banning a few words from the cover might not even be commercially risky in a moment when Venus and Serena Williams are sports and fashion icons and Lena Dunham, once called by Howard Stern a “little fat girl,” unapologetically instagrams in a sports bra from the Tracy Anderson Method, a studio once best known for enshrining the “teeny-tiny body”.

“Love your body,” albeit haltingly, might well be replacing “bikini body” as a 21st century slogan. This is welcome and long overdue. It is vital, however, that we do not replace one body orthodoxy with another. Dismissing as “skinny bitches,” for example, those who possess conventional “bikini bodies” either by an accident of nature or their efforts can be as divisive as circling the fat on the bodies of the women who don’t. Judging women who diet as somehow failing to love themselves enough – as even Oprah has recently experienced- only distracts from our collective cause. Let’s celebrate the exciting promise of replacing vigilant self-regulation with self-love, while remembering that since generations of social messaging have instructed precisely the opposite, we will need more than Pinterest platitudes and feel-good hashtags to arrive to a more inspired future. Wearing bikinis along the way is optional.

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