I love summer. Sunshine and warm breezes. Green grass. Vacation. But every year, the transition from spring to summer is rudely interrupted by an outbreak of advertisements and click-bait articles reminding women, Game of Thrones-style, that “Bikini Season Is Coming.” The message is clear: Be afraid. Be ashamed. And fight that fear and shame by pouring time, money, and energy into fast-fix weight-loss schemes that are unlikely to lead to any long-term changes in your health or body shape.
Don’t be fooled. When people tell you it’s time to think about getting a “bikini body,” they’re not doing so because they’re concerned for your health. All that bikini body talk does is reinforce the toxic notion that women’s bodies must conform to a certain shape in order to be acceptable or in order to even be seen in public. Aiming for a “bikini body” is much more likely to lead to destructive feelings of body shame than a sustained commitment to caring for your body. And taking good care of your body shouldn’t have a season. Our bodies deserve our care every day of the year.
Given how many women struggle with body dissatisfaction, it’s only natural that we look for ways to feel better. One of the best ways to feel more at home in your body is to exercise regularly. Physical activity has a number of well-documented psychological and physical benefits. That’s why it’s particularly galling when bikini body rhetoric comes from those who claim to care about fitness. Instead of focusing on the power of exercise to decrease stress and increase well-being, fitness centers around the country exhort women to achieve an extremely thin, largely unattainable body ideal. Their marketing focuses on selling the dream that we can all look like fitness models. They tell us that fitness is something you see instead of something you feel, that it’s not about what you can do, but whether you can count your abs.
Official marketing by fitness professionals finds a ready partner in “fitspiration” websites that are ostensibly focused on health, but in reality are nothing but invitations to self-doubt for most women. A 2016 analysis of fitspiration websites found that there was little to distinguish the imagery on these sites from the imagery on openly pro-anorexia sites. Both types of sites are riddled with weight-stigmatizing messages, messages linking food with guilt, and messages promoting unhealthy eating habits. Almost no one actually looks like the women in fitspiration images or the models whose images grace the walls of gyms. When you make that type of body your goal, you’re setting yourself up to get sucked into a cycle of body shame — and body shame is the enemy of a healthy, long-term approach to taking care of your body.
My lab recently administered a survey to more than 400 women who take group fitness classes. The first thing we learned from these women is that they regularly hear body-shaming commentary from their fitness instructors. The second thing we learned is that women who take these classes hate these types of comments. In fact, when asked to list their “least favorite” motivational comment, 56 percent of women surveyed listed some type of appearance-related comment.
About half of our respondents told us that their instructors make comments about exercising to get a flat stomach or to get a six-pack. Many find these comments demeaning and dishonest. As one woman wrote, “I’m ALWAYS going to have belly fat. I’ve been at a place where I run six miles a day and eat really well, and I still have a bit of belly fat. But so what?” Around half of these women also reported hearing comments about earning bikini bodies or getting ready for bikini season. They don’t like these comments either. Many pointed out that this type of talk suggests that only certain women should be “allowed" to wear a bikini. Others simply noted that they find such comments objectifying and resent the focus on appearance over health.
When we asked these women what types of comments from fitness instructors were most motivational, not one responded with anything having to do with appearance, flat stomachs, bikini bodies, or the magical (and unrealistic) blasting of cellulite. Instead, they overwhelmingly listed phrases that were encouraging and health-focused, especially phrases that emphasized incremental improvements: You’re almost there! Keep going! You can do it! You’ve got this! Do a little more today than yesterday!
When fitness centers and personal trainers encourage us to work out in order to get a “bikini body,” they’re not doing us any favors. Women who want to improve their fitness need realistic, healthy goals — not shame. Researchers have found that women who exercise to increase their health rather than to change the way they look actually enjoy exercise more, and stick with it longer. One study from the University of Michigan found that women who exercise with weight loss as their goal engage in less physical activity than those who exercise for a sense of well-being or stress reduction. A different study found that fitness instructors who emphasize health outcomes instead of appearance and weight loss leave their students feeling better post-exercise.
Fitness instructor Colleen Daly has collaborated with me on research related to body image in fitness settings. Colleen is fully committed to the notion that the right kind of fitness environment can improve both body image and health. She recently shared what happened when she walked by Washington Sports Clubs (a D.C. gym) with a large sign in the window asking, “Are you beach body ready?”
“I walked in, found the director of the club, and asked if we could make the signage more encouraging and body positive. Much to my surprise, he didn't wave me off as ‘one of those damn feminists’ or usher me out of the gym. Instead, he handed me some expo markers and said, ‘Go for it.’”
Colleen erased “Are you beach body ready?” and replaced it with, “Your body is a tool to do what you love. What will you do?”
I love Colleen’s initiative and Washington Sports Clubs’ willingness to listen. What a wonderful piece of evidence that we can change the conversation about women’s bodies and the way we talk about fitness. Every step we take toward focusing more on what our bodies help us do and less on how they look to other people is a positive step. Instead of talking about bikini bodies, talk about getting stronger or more flexible. Talk about feeling better. Talk about what women want to do with their bodies. Forget about how our culture wants women’s bodies to look. We hear enough about that already.
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