Recently, after a day observing bodies in bikinis at the beach, I convinced myself the bikini body was gone for good. I'm fat, I've written about body image and plus-size fashion for years, and spend the majority of my time with fat and body-positive people. In my bubble, people of all body types wear crop tops and G-strings to the beach, show rolls on Instagram, and regularly encourage one another to hit the sand as themselves, no crash diets or cover-ups necessary. In other words, I exist peacefully in an anti-bikini body bubble.
The thing about a bubble, though, is that once you start poking around, it's bound to pop. As it turns out, the bikini body isn't dead; much like my own bikini after an unexpected wave, she's clinging on for dear life.
First, some history — the start of a eulogy, perhaps. As The Cut reported in 2014, the term "bikini body" was popularized in 1961, when a weight-loss salon chain called Slenderella International ran ads containing the term in the New York Times and Washington Post.
"Summer's wonderful fun is for those who look young," the ad reads. "High firm bust, hand span waist, trim firm hips, slender graceful legs, a Bikini body!"
The "beach body" is an iteration of the bikini body: One tells you where you're allowed to go, and the other tells you what you're allowed to wear. Both terms reference a body changed in anticipation of summer; the noble pursuit of a slim, perfectly proportioned frame worthy of showing off.
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Hanna Limatius, a postdoctoral linguistics researcher in the School of Marketing and Communication at the University of Vaasa in Finland, studies the language of social media. She researched words in the English language correlating with "beach body" and found strong relationships between that term and "tone," "sculpt," and then "flaunt" and "show off."
"You can see a sort of morality in these [words]," Limatius says, noting an arguably more disturbing word correlation.
"I saw quite a lot of instances of the word 'ready,'" Limatius says. "It's interesting ... before you can go out and be yourself, you have to be 'ready.' You have to do all this work before you deserve to go out on the beach and enjoy yourself."
Before life in the bubble, I spent years believing my body had to be "ready" to go to the beach: prepped, baked, and basted to a condition that meant I deserved to be seen. I've since learned to plug my nostrils against the stench of diet culture, which has taken years and access to resources many people lack. The discourse muddies these waters, too. There are a good number of op-eds claiming that the beach body is dead or should be dead, but also recent news articles about celebrities trying to achieve one — not to mention a seemingly endless number of tips and tricks and sodium-free/carb-free/joy-free diets that make the same promises Slenderella once did. The effects of the latter can be disturbing, particularly when summer's in full swing.
"A lot of my clients dread the summer, especially a lot of my teenagers," says Shira Rosenbluth, an eating disorder therapist and licensed clinical social worker based in Los Angeles. "A lot of times, their eating disorder symptoms get worse before the summer. They know they're going to be seen wearing a bikini or swimsuit, and it's really scary for them."
Rosenbluth says that in order for the notion of the bikini body to truly die, we have to look at what's keeping it alive.
"From the time we have words and brains, we're literally getting the message that bodies need to be small, and that the only way to exist is to try and make yourself smaller," she says.
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If that sounds familiar, don't blame yourself. The diet and weight loss industry is a lucrative machine engineered to make a lot of bad ideas seem really, really good: data showed market valuation at $72.6 billion in 2021, with projections to grow in 2022. There are also countless diet and fitness influencers invading your brain from all angles; the TikTok algorithm can curate itself into an endless scroll of diet tricks, "internal shower recipes," and "what I eat in a day" videos that clock in well under the necessary calorie count for a human being to function.
"The average person still wants to lose weight," Rosenbluth says. "I think that there's a little bit more questioning involved, and of course there's fat acceptance communities, but I still think that's the fringe idea."
Undoubtedly, that fringe idea — that all people, including ones with fat bodies, deserve to live happy, judgment-free lives — is slowly but surely making its way to the mainstream. Theoretically, every step forward in the realm of fat acceptance and size inclusion should add another nail to the bikini body's coffin — but the idea of it dying completely still feels far off, even for people who've buried it themselves long ago.
"I don't think that the idea of the beach body is dead. I just think the political climate of how we talk about bodies has a lot more consciousness around it," says Kellie Brown, a marketing consultant with over 15 years of experience in the plus-size fashion industry. In 2013, she worked for Swimsuits For All, an online swimwear retailer. At the time, the brand catered to an older demographic, and tasked Brown with attracting a younger, fashion-forward crowd. Brown immediately thought of Gabi Gregg. Gregg, a preeminent plus-size fashion influencer, had recently posted a photo of herself in a bikini on Tumblr.
"I remember thinking, 'I have never in the history of my life seen a person of size in a bikini," Brown remembers. "She looked amazing. I said [to the brand], 'This girl is in a bikini. It's super viral. People are paying attention."
Brown insisted Swimsuits For All meet with Gregg and collaborate, and anyone who was around when the resulting collection of plus-size swimsuits came out remembers how well it did. It was the beginning of a mentality shift Brown calls "exposure therapy." Influencers started posting themselves in "fatkinis," and brands started paying more attention. With a larger range of sizes available, consumers started playing with the idea that a bikini body could simply be... a body in a bikini.
"You can't wear a bikini if it doesn't exist," Brown says. "[Brands] just needed to see that people would buy them, and they started making them."
In addition to plus-size brands like Torrid, Eloquii, and Lane Bryant, massive retailers like Target, Walmart, and Old Navy have all started making swimwear in a broader range of sizes, as have fashion startups like Andie and Girlfriend Collective. There's also growing interest in swimwear for diverse bodies that subvert the classic bikini body in other ways. Becca McCharren-Tran, the creative director at Chromat, started designing inclusive swimwear 10 years ago — back then, she says, brands like Nordstrom and Barneys refused to order and stock her designs above a size large. In 2021, the brand collaborated on a collection with Tourmaline, a Black trans artist who was looking for swimwear to accommodate trans-femmes and gender-diverse bodies in general.
"[Tourmaline] told a story about going swimming... and staying in the water a lot longer than she should have, because she was scared to get out of the water and scared for people to see her body," McCharren-Tran says. "That's a very real thing that a lot trans femmes and non-binary people experience — not having garments appropriate for their anatomy that also reflect their gender."
Still, the chasm between what most brands are messaging and what's actually available to shop is wider than it should be. Each year, more brands tout inclusivity in their marketing campaigns, but options over a size 12 remain paltry compared to what's available in smaller sizes, if they're even available at all.
"I think we need to be critical if we see a clothing brand using a phrase like 'everybody is a beach body' in their advertisements or a social media post, but they only feature images of models who are young, white, able-bodied, smaller than a size 16," Limatius says. "That continues to represent a narrow beauty ideal, but they're masquerading as being inclusive."
The smoke and mirrors hover around our own slow mentality shift as well. One recent consumer survey found that 42% of Americans feel pressured to have a "beach body" during the summer, with numbers growing to 75% and 65% among Gen Z and millennials, respectively.
"There are a lot more loud voices in full support of you shaking every bit of your fat, as naked as you want to be," Brown says, "But we still have people who think there's a right way to be fat, or people with internalized fatphobia. I think thinner people are having these conversations [about their bodies] even more than [fat people] are. Maybe it's because we're already fat — there's freedom in that. In our bubble, we've just learned to say fuck it."
Admittedly, saying "fuck it" isn't easy. Refusing to shrink and contort yourself to fit an ideal requires a massive amount of work, often done in tandem with the rejection of larger, more complicated ideas, like misogyny and fatphobia. Cleansing your social media feeds of diet culture messaging or being able to buy a bikini in your size certainly helps, as does finding community with people who are keen to ditch the cover-ups and tightly-wrapped towels alongside you. Ultimately, though, halting the pursuit of a bikini body requires extricating yourself from a belief system most have been told to buy into for their entire lives.
"I think the feeling of wanting a bikini body is valid, because that's what we've been taught," Rosenbluth says. "People just want to fit in and be seen, and be respected, and not be humiliated and made fun of." What we do next is key, she explains. "It's about empathizing and validating those feelings, but not colluding with them."
Sometimes, in my bubble, the idea of everyone rejecting the bikini body ideal feels possible. Other times, it feels like a masked killer in a summer slasher: weakened but nearly impossible to kill and moments away from springing forth to terrorize us all over again. The one thing I know for sure is that when the bikini body breathes its final acrid breath, we'll all deserve to celebrate. I suggest we hit the beach.
Amanda Richards is a Brooklyn-based writer and the host of Big Calf: a podcast about being the fat kid.