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.
Even Abbye “Pudgy” Stockton, a rare advocate of weightlifting for women in the 1940s, instructed that its benefits were aesthetic rather than athletic. “Beneath every desirable curve is a sculpted muscle,” she reassured readers of her magazine column “Barbelles” as she tried to entice them to the gyms she opened near Southern California’s Muscle Beach. If Stockton, who spent much of her time in a two-piece for the freedom of movement it afforded, earnestly embodied a “strong is the new skinny” sensibility, its widespread appeal was still decades away.
But fashions were becoming more revealing, and cosmetics entrepreneurs like Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden turned light exercise into a requirement of midcentury middle-class ladyhood. The forerunners of today’s women’s fitness classes often took place adjacent to beauty salons and defined themselves as anything but athletic, and certainly not requiring unseemly, sweaty exertion.
In 1961, the Slenderella chain of slimming spas introduced the term “bikini body” to an uninitiated public: “hand span waist — trim, firm hips — slender, graceful legs — a Bikini body!” This ideal physique, Slenderella reassured potential customers, could be achieved without transgressing the social taboo against strenuous exercise, or even messing up their hair. “Passive” and “soothing” exercise to discipline “fat flabby droopy bod[ies]” was all it took to look attractive in newly fashionable bikinis.
By 1970, the term needed no explanation, and advertisements in women’s publications like one for a “Pretty Body Salon of Figure Development” in Women’s Wear Daily promised a “bikini body” through a combination of the most innovative “flesh-firming machines” and something just beginning to gain acceptance: “active exercise.”
For some women, wearing a bikini meant liberation rather than objectification. To Judy Cornelius, a 24-year-old living in a California singles apartment complex known for its acceptance of sexual and spiritual experimentation, and the Cosmopolitan journalist who described her, Cornelius’s “bikini body” crystallized her commitment “to do anything but the diapers and the dishes.” In an era just beginning to recognize female sexual autonomy, the “bikini body” ideal could represent rejecting gender norms as much as embracing them.
But even as some women felt empowered by the bikini body, the burgeoning feminist movement chafed at the social expectations heaped upon women, not least among them the exacting beauty standards Slenderella and its industry peers promoted. Directives like “you must start today” to have your “bikini body” ready by “hot weather time” seemed anything but liberating. At the 1968 Miss America pageant, protesters identified the bikini’s close cousins — “bras, girdles, curlers, false eyelashes, wigs” — as symbols of oppression to be destroyed along with the pageant. (Ironically, bikinis were not permitted at Miss America until 1997.)
During the 1980s, some feminist critics of the dominant beauty standards made a fateful move. Rather than trashing the fitness industry pushing the bikini-body norm, they set out to change its assumptions: Women could work out not only to achieve a particular aesthetic, but also to enjoy the exertion and experience — just like men.
At the same time, women were entitled to their own unique forms of exercise that shared little with the stereotypically macho gym world, and, in fact, advanced female empowerment. Women like Lotte Berk and Judi Sheppard Missett launched programs based in traditionally feminine modalities of ballet and jazz dance. Berk’s barre-based lessons were famously punctuated with comments on the necessity of women owning their sexuality, even if it meant taking a lover. Jane Fonda unapologetically linked aerobics exercises with her feminist project to combat eating disorders and the unrealistic beauty standards that had tormented her personally until, she wrote, she found fitness.
Yet even Fonda, the most unapologetically feminist of the bunch, embodied the bikini-body ideal as much as she proclaimed to unseat it. And her contemporary Missett, perhaps by virtue of hailing from conservative San Diego County and first catering to suburban military wives and homemakers, coyly distinguished the empowerment her students felt in Jazzercise from that of the activist “women marching with signs in the streets.”
This new era — when participation in aerobics swelled to over 20 million — highlighted the ideological and emotional tension created by the exercise craze. Astute critics questioned the impulse, even as they embraced it. One feminist film-studies scholar, Margaret Morse, concluded that the aerobics videos to which she herself was addicted promoted a “passive femininity” and sexualized women even as they might improve physical health. Feminist New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen lamented the culture even as she left its assumptions largely unchallenged in 1988, bemoaning her own “post-bikini body” and fantasizing about a swimsuit that would hide the pounds her pregnancies bequeathed her.
As one Canadian writer expressed with hopelessness in 1993, she and many women felt trapped by the imperatives of a newly ubiquitous fitness culture they knew was problematic but also felt powerless to escape. Case in point: She assured the reader “Don’t get me wrong: I am not looking for a bikini body (a body where I can walk onto a beach without having to suck in my midriff)” but berated herself and her exercise mates all the same for making fools of themselves “all in the name of some elusive body shape. And for what? To have people like my husband look down on us because we spend too much time on our bodies.”
In 2018, the “bikini body” has become distasteful to a relatively woke, but influential, segment of wellness consumers. But it is unclear whether anything more empowering has emerged to replace it. In a post-#MeToo shake-up, the Miss America pageant chucked the bikini competition in an attempt at a feel-good feminist flourish. But as sociologist Hilary Levey Friedman has observed, that category was the only one in which contestants demonstrated physical fitness, a pursuit arguably worth preserving if celebrating women’s strength and health is a sincere aim.
We’ve done well to define an old cliche as disempowering. It’s now up to us not only to dispose of the phrase but also to imagine new, healthier assumptions and aims for a fitness culture that’s more expansive than ever. With “bikini season” ending and the January gym rush months away, we’ve got some time to think about it.