If you read tabloids or ladymags, pay attention to advertising campaigns, or happen to live on planet Earth, you know that the one thing women are supposed to strive for — more than a functioning body, a healthy body, or a strong body — is a bikini body.
Catherine Saint-Louis examines this phenomenon for The New York Times, and finds that in advertising, from yogurt to lotion to 100-calorie "snack packs," the bikini is a symbol of victory, a goal, and a fear motivator. She also discovers that decades ago, when the bikini was invented (and even when it gained popularity) women didn't feel they had to lose pounds — or even wax intimate parts — to sport a two-piece.
Back then, bikini preparation was starkly laissez-faire by today's grooming standards. In her recently published literary memoir, Art and Madness, Anne Roiphe wrote that in 1965, she suspected that a suitor was into her because of, not in spite of, the "tufts of dark hair that stuck out of the top of my bikini."
But today it's assumed that only the lean, muscular, hairless and ab-defined will feel comfortable in a bikini. "It's become difficult to feel natural with a normal body," [Sarah Kennedy, the author of The Swimsuit: A History of Twentieth-Century Fashions] said. "Fatism has taken over. It's O.K. to be mean to lumpy, lardy people. It's a sort of subtle intolerance towards people that's very bad."
The truth is, the "bikini body" craze goes so much deeper than fatism or fatphobia. It is part of our society's relentless insistence that a woman's body is not her own. It is an object, to be gazed upon, to be commented on, to be pored over with a magnifying glass. It's as though we believe that a woman wears a bikini not for herself, because it feels good to have the sun on her skin, but for the public to consume her anatomy. To reveal more of her physique, for us to critique.
Saint-Louis speaks to Melissa Perlman, owner of the resort Amansala, which runs a "bikini boot camp," in Ibiza, Spain, and Tulum, Mexico (six-night stays start at $1,875). Perlman says: "Our society definitely has a stigma of bikini readiness — my business thrives on that… But at the same time, we send a different message that you don't have to be perfect. Feel good, take care of yourself, and looking good in a bikini will follow." Yeah… Pretty sure that Star magazine would beg to differ. Do you think they would ever feature Beth Ditto — who takes care of herself but is not stick-thin — in a spread of the "best" "bikini bodies"?