The Iron-Fisted Tyranny Of The 'Bikini Body'

One brave woman strikes a blow against the most absurd phrase of our time: "The bikini body is not supposed to be naturally occurring...it is a quasi-religious state of myth and artifice to which only the truly virtuous can aspire:"

Writes The Guardian's Laurie Penny

When it finally became popular in the 1960s, the bikini was a symbol of physical liberation, of beautiful women reacting to the stern sexual prudery of previous decades by exposing as much skin to the sun as they pleased. Today, as with many iterations of the sexual emancipation rhetoric of the 1960s, wearing a bikini is no longer associated with pleasure and daring, but with anxiety, dieting rituals and joyless physical performance...The bikini body has become cultural shorthand for a moral standard of female perfection whereby any physical flaw should be regarded as a source of shame, an obstacle to collective fantasies of glamour and happiness.

She's right: "bikini body" is the going code for "acceptable." It is always in bikinis that the tabloids feature the "best" and "worst" bodies. Type "bikini body" into Google and you get the following suggested searches:

bikini body workout

bikini body diet

beach body

bikini body tips

bikini body fast

quick bikini body

bikini body types

shape bikini body

But there's no way of figuring out when the phrase "bikini body" was first uttered or when its tyranny took hold. It's common knowledge that the two-piece as we know it was invented in 1946 by engineer Louis Réard who, topically, christened it after Bikini Atoll. The style became popular in the 50s and by the 80s was standard beachwear. But when did it become the standard of all beauty? I can't say for sure, but I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that the first Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, in 1964, had a lot to do with it. Swimsuits had always been sexy, but now they were explicitly linked in the popular imagination with the standards of female desirability. Also, the Swimsuit Issue came out in the winter, as a slow-season sales boost: from the outset it had little to do with the reality of actual women being at the beach, let alone swimming, and a lot to do with unattainable goals.

The "bikini body" is a particularly American concept in that it's all about quick-fixes. The bikini body has nothing to do with overall health, or fitness, or lifestyle. No, it's about shedding "winter weight" (the Bikini Body's evil cousin), fast, before some arbitrary deadline known as "Bikini Season," at which point apparently we're all shot out of a cannon onto a beach in the Hamptons and forced to parade in a two-piece suit with, naturally, the requisite "bikini wax," no trace of cold-weather pallor and, incidentally, 500+ proof sunblock.

If ever I write a comic book, I think the villain will be named Bikini Body. It will be a monstrous, radioactive dressmakers' dummy who has the power to enslave all women with a siren-like song and haunts their dreams, always laughing cruelly, out of reach. And just when you think you've grasped it, it shifts and changes. The cruellest part is, when you are much older you will look back and understand that Bikini Body was a cruel illusion, a hologram produced by some evil mastermind, along with the lackeys Ladymag and SkinnyGirl. Here is the best thing to do: search "Bikini Body." Many things will come up, a staggering, overwhelming, absurd number of things. And make yourself look at it until your eyes dim and your brain turns to mush. Because after reading about a few hundred "bikini bootcamps," "bikini revolutions," "bikini body systems," "bikini body alerts," and "bikini tricks" the words become gibberish that loses all meaning - which really isn't that bad a thing.


Bikini Body, Anyone?
[Guardian]