I was 16 when I bought my first bikini at the mall. It was a reward. That morning, when I knew my stomach was flattest, I had lain on my bed, taken a deep breath and rested a ruler across my hips. Just barely, but sure enough, there was space between the plastic and my flesh. I deserve this, I thought, as I proudly plunked down the money I had earned scooping ice cream to pay for the few inches of shiny purple fabric. I had finally achieved the “bikini body” plastered on the pages of the teen magazines I pored over.
More than 20 years later, the anecdote makes me cringe. Openly aspiring to attain a “bikini body” has become shorthand for a slavish, self-hating fealty to a set of beauty standards decidedly out of step with the “empowerment branding” that today predominates in the fitness industry. Women’s Health banned the phrase from its cover in 2015, and a ubiquitous meme on the body-positive Internet reminds women that a “bikini body” is, well, any body that happens to be wearing a two-piece.
Yet ditching the phrase hasn’t destroyed its underlying ethos. Consider that the most popular global fitness celebrity is arguably Australian Kayla Itsines, whose “bikini body army,” armed with old-school before-and-after photos, is over 10 million strong.
This ethos still lingers because the sprawling fitness culture that popularized the “bikini body” in the early 1960s before declaring it taboo in the 2010s is shaped by two powerful historical forces that have long been at odds: the beauty industry and the feminist movement. The result is an incoherent set of norms that have women decrying the bikini-body ideal, while still hewing to some of its most toxic elements.
If two-piece bathing suits were considered as explosive as the nuclear test site for which they were named, the notion that women would physically exert themselves to fit the revealing style was even more outré. While working out was beginning to gain acceptance among a generation of World War II veterans, women in the 1940s largely avoided strenuous exercise. Doctors and educators warned that it would make them look muscular and unfeminine, and even jeopardize their fertility.