Popular magazines are ditching ‘bikini body’ message
By the time summer comes around, women’s magazines have already spent weeks convincing their readers that there are those who are “bikini ready” and those who are not. They splash on their covers Photoshopped images of skinny women to depict the beach body ideal. They say: Ladies, this is how you must look to be desirable.
With that kind of pressure, it’s no wonder women have become conditioned to harshly critique their bodies.
But this year, at least one top magazine took a first step against that kind of body shaming. Women’s Health Magazine no longer puts the phrases “bikini body” or “drop two sizes” on its cover, the Los Angeles Times noted Friday. Instead, the magazine continues to impress upon its readers the importance of a healthier lifestyle, but it doesn’t have to come in a size 6 package.
The change was announced in the January issue, and it was a decision based on feedback solicited from readers. To drive home the point, Women’s Health Editor in Chief Amy Keller Laird wrote Dear John letters to the ousted terms:
“Dear ‘Bikini Body,’ You’re actually a misnomer, not to mention an unintentional insult: You imply that a body must be a certain size in order to wear a two-piece. Any body-every body-is a bikini body. You’ve got a shaming, negative undertone that’s become more than annoying.”
“Dear ‘Drop Two Sizes,’ We’ve grown apart. Frankly, we’ve outgrown you. Yes, it’s true that many of us are looking to drop a few pounds – surveys and studies prove as much. But two sizes in one month? Not super practical, or even all that healthy. Sorry, but women in 2016 want stories that, as one reader so aptly suggested, ‘focus on wellness and less on unrealistic weight-loss goals.’ ”
Studies over the years have shown that young women internalise the media’s image of the perfect body. Nearly all the research about body image shows that most women are generally dissatisfied with how they look, leading to lower self esteem and, sometimes, eating disorders.
Carolyn Ross, a physician who has a focus on women’s health, in a 2012 article, described unrealistic images on magazine covers as “a setup for self-hatred.”
But in recent years, there has been a noted cultural shift in how society celebrates physical appearance. Social media is filled with “body positive” campaigns, urging women to love their bodies. Normal-sized women such as Amy Schumer and Mindy Kaling are romantic leads in movies and TV. Sports Illustrated featured a plus-size model on the cover of its annual swimsuit issue. Barbies now come in a variety of body shapes. Regular women of all sizes post photos of themselves on Instagram rocking crop tops and bikinis.
In Women’s Heath the focus is still wellness, but Laird said it’s more about fitness and empowerment, rather than thinness and perfection. Readers will still find thin, toned women on the cover and tips for weight loss or flat abs inside, but there is also an effort to show there isn’t a “one size fits all” for beauty, Laird said.
“We wanted to publicly acknowledge that our mission is to empower people, never to shame them, but to make them feel better,” she said. “You can be fit or toned at so many sizes.”
Renee Engeln, a psychology professor at Northwestern University with an expertise on women’s body image, doesn’t think the effort goes far enough. She said the magazine remains too heavily focused on weight loss.
“There are ways to talk about health without talking about weight,” she said. “If you look at the overwhelming evidence that diets fail, if you look at evidence of how hard it is for people to lose weight and keep it off, it’s [odd] that you’d have a magazine with health in the title that is still obsessed with weight loss.”
While all efforts to push back against body shaming are commendable, she said, women who are heavier still live with society’s bias. One need only to look back a week to the story of the Playboy model who mockingly snapped a photo of a naked women in a gym locker room and posted it on her Snapchat.
But there is reason to be hopeful that people’s attitudes are changing.
Earlier this week a British woman posted a question on Reddit about her body. She described herself as a UK size 16 and wanted to know if she could wear a bikini on her summer vacation.
“I’m 5’5″ and fairly muscular but I still have cellulite on my thighs and I have a tummy. I’ll be going on holiday to Portugal soon and I’m feeling nervous about the whole thing. I’m taking a one piece and a few kaftans just in case I get too afraid to leave my hotel room in a bikini.”
Here’s some the uplifting responses she got back:
“Well, UK 16 seems like the perfect size from my perspective.”
“Wear what makes YOU feel comfortable. Be confident and rock it, girl!”
“Go for it! Wear one, rock it and your confidence will be all you need :)”
Still, Engeln wishes the woman didn’t feel the need to ask the question at all.
“People are always going to worry about how they look,” she said, “but I would argue that what we need is not a different way of talking about how women look, but instead not talking about how women look.”
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