Outfit Post: The tyranny of the "bikini body"

Memorial Day weekend, 1981: I am seven years old. My parents are hosting a barbecue and have invited my grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and neighborhood friends. The air smells like roasting barbecue briquettes, daylilies, freshly cut grass and hot dogs.The rhythmic spurt-spurt-spurt of the sprinkler permeates the air. I am wearing an enticing two-piece yellow terry cloth bikini which ties around my neck, and my cousins and I shriek as we run through the needle-sharp spray of the sprinkler. My waist-long hair drips water down my back. I feel happy, unencumbered and free.

Flash forward to Memorial Day weekend, present day: I am 36 years old. My husband and three children chatter excitedly about going to the neighborhood pool. I have zero desire to go to the pool, because going to the pool means wearing my swimsuit in public. I stand in front of my dresser and try to calm myself down. I try on two-piece after two-piece, self-esteem plummeting in the process. Swimsuits lie tangled on the floor. My thighs seem to expand with each selection. My body takes up too much space. I am flabby and fat and all-together unacceptable. I feel like a failure.

Every summer, I go through the exact same ritual. I become obsessively focused on the notion of the perfect bikini body, an entity I am certain every woman possesses except for myself. The NY Times recently ran an article exploring the notion of the bikini body, examining the effect it has on fear-inspired marketing campaigns and as a symbol of physical perfection.

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 RĂ©ard who christened it after Bikini Atoll. The style became popular in the 50's and by the 80's was standard beachwear. As our culture increasingly enshrines physical perfection, the bikini has come to inspire dread and awe. It wasn’t always so. In the 1960s, when bellybutton-baring suits first became popular in America, “it was a youthful phenomenon definitely,” said Sarah Kennedy, the author of “The Swimsuit: A History of Twentieth-Century Fashions.” Then the high-fashion set and movie stars began to put on bikinis, and by the ’70s, she said, the bikini was “worn by all ages.”

And a few extra pounds didn’t disqualify anyone, considering the fitness revolution was still roughly a decade away. (The NY Times mentions that in the book there’s a 1940s photograph of a fresh-faced still-brunet Marilyn Monroe looking smashing in a two-piece, a roll of pale flesh at her midsection.)

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.
When did  the bikini become the standard of all beauty? I'm going to theorize that the first Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues, published in 1964, had a lot to do with it. With that publication, swimsuits became explicitly linked with the standards of female desirability. Also, the Swimsuit Issue is published in the winter and 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.

"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
bikini body tips
bikini body fast
quick bikini body

The bikini body has nothing to do with overall health, or fitness, or lifestyle. No, it's about shedding "winter weight" fast, before some arbitrary deadline known as "Bikini Season," at which point we're forced to confront a two-piece suit with, naturally, the requisite "bikini wax," and no trace of cold-weather pastyness. Jezebel argues that 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 criticized.  Our society seems to think that a woman wears a bikini not for herself, but for the public to decide her worthiness.

Will the world end tomorrow if I can't cram my butt into a bikini? I was going to ask Stephen Hawking, but, after some careful mathematical calculations, I was able to come up with the answer on my own: No. Does this mean that I still don't have days where I hate my thighs and stomach so much I want to carve them off of my body with a fillet knife? No. But I understand that those days will happen and that they really don't matter because there truly is NOTHING wrong with my body. I've put it through a lot in the past 36 years and it's stuck around and carried me through everything.

So my motto is this: Just be healthy. Eat things that are nutritionally good for you and exercise, but don't forget about delicious, delicious baked goods and gelato from Pacuigo. Don't deprive yourself of things to satisfy the warped and nonsensical views of people that see you as another bottomless pocket and empty head. 

Do what you want, eat what you want, wear what you want, and be who you want.

Now I ask you: How you deal with the pressure of the "bikini body?" Does wearing a swimsuit in public make you break out in a sweat? Do you avoid going to the beach, pool or lake because of this fear? Does wearing a swimsuit cause you to dread summer activities? And do you have a favorite swimsuit that makes you feel great about yourself?

Thrifted Gap chambray shirt: thrifted vintage dress; Old Navy belt; White Mountain sandals; TIKKR watch; Charming Charlie bracelet; Forever 21 necklace


  1. I don't even *like* bikinis, even during the rare times in my life I have been perfectly happy with my body, I prefer one piece. I just feel more secure, so I guess for me I'm offended by the notion that I should even want a bikini!

    Posts like this, and all of the rest of yours, are the reason you are the only outfit blog I ever read. (I apologize if that is the wrong term, "outfit blog?" You know what I mean.) After 3 1/2 years of battling breast cancer, and all the attendant physical problems that go with it, I have very little patience with blogs that the goal of which seems to be to get readers to fawn over how pretty the author is. But yours makes me feel better, and think, too. (Well, that, and you're pretty!)

    OMG, rambling today. My favorite suit is the retro black one-piece I got a few years ago from UO. It's a halter top with shirring and low leg openings. It totally fits my body type.

  2. Due to some health issues I've been having, my mom asked me (as a mom) to please put on 10 lbs. this summer. So I did. My husband says that I look beautiful, and when I'm rafting or swimming or playing in the backyard with my dogs, all he sees is my sun-bleached hair, my glowing skin, and my smile. He says he can't even see 10 pounds. I pay more attention to what my husband says these days. If he thinks I'm beautiful, I remind myself that he's the only one that matters. If "sex" is supposed to sell, the only one who I'm actually being "sexy" for (my husband) is the one who matters. I don't ever sit still in my bikini. I run, jump, play, swim, and throw a frisbee. That way, I feel my body move and flex and do all the things a healthy body can do...and that makes me feel very sexy.

  3. Ahhhh, Elissa, what a wonderful post. I am saving the paragraph with the "gelato" in it and pasting it in my daybook. : >

    The word "bikini" can still give me hives, if I let it. The tyranny! Now I just wear my comfy board shorts and bathing top and focus on the fun.

    Love your relaxed outift, you look fantastic!

  4. I've been thinking about this since I read that Jezebel article. I don't wear a bikini--never have. I'd much rather wear a 1 piece or maybe a tankini and I always thought it was because I more enjoy swimming and diving around in the water (generally you don't 'lose your top' in a 1 piece)--I'm not a sunbather. But then I began wondering if it really is due to body image. This weekend I went camping and forgot my suit. That wasn't going to stop me from getting in the water though so I just rocked my sports bra and gym shorts. It was probably the first time my belly had seen the sun in over 15 years and it was fine--I was busy having fun and not worrying about it...so it's a thought....
    Maybe some of us bloggers need to post photos of our bellies in whatever shape they are in...

  5. I love that you managed to mention Stephen Hawking in your post about bikini bodies. I bow down to your prowess.

  6. A very timely post: I've never thought much about wearing a 2 piece in my parents' backyard pool, even after gaining 20 lbs when starting grad school. But this summer, I have 2 beach trips planned and a week at a pool with my family and the in-law family, meaning lots of time in a bathing suit with people who I am just getting to know.

    So I got a the new bikini with more boob support, but it just was not flattering and I was not excited. It also was a color that i was not thrilled with and I returned it - getting ready to leave for the whole summer with no suit in my luggage. But it was so hard to tear myself from the idea of a bikini, as if switching to a one-piece was like giving up - on my weight, on youth - exactly the things connected to the bikini by society.

    But then I was wandering through kohls and randomly tried on a one piece with out checking the size or price, just on a whim - and I love it!! I would wear it everyday, to dinner, to the store, if I could. It a little retro and super super flattering.

    I am more than happy to give up the bikini for something that I can not wait to wear. As many fashion bloggers agree, its not the size, its the fit that matters. So true!

  7. As someone who's gained weight in the past four years and gone from a size 8 to a size 12, I can tell you that a bikini isn't my favourite thing to wear, but I do wear it without agonizing myself or fearing nasty comments on the beach.
    However being tired of uncomfortable swimwear or dowdy bathing suits designed for plus size women, this year I made my own bikini. It fits, it's comfortable and I actually feel good wearing it.

  8. Bikini, shmikini!

    I've always been happier in a one-piece anyway, and I think the tankini is a genius creation.

    Wear what you like. Period.

    I just got two gorgeous new Carmen Marc Valvo suits at Bluefly and they're both one pieces: http://www.bluefly.com/Carmen-Marc-Valvo-onyx-Safari-Solids-one-piece-swimsuit/cat20202/313131301/detail.fly and a one-shoulder that looks like it's sold out.

    Besides, who says a bikini is the only sexy style?

    (Not me. Here's my gentle rant on the topic: http://bit.ly/sexy-swimsuits)

  9. I actually went to a water park yesterday, so this is fresh in my mind, but I was totally uncomfortable in my swimsuit, and have been since I was probably 13. The interesting thing is that of the hundreds of women I saw at the park there were only a couple I would have considered to have what I think would be considered a bikini body. A friend who was a lifeguard for several years assured me that no one looks good in a swimsuit, and honestly, I think she's probably right.

  10. So inspirational!

    I'm only 25 years old and due to having put on a bit of weight over winter I've been DREADING holiday season. I've bought a 50s style bikini because it's just more flattering to my new curvier shape.

    There's no way I can diet, I have NO willpower!


  11. Love, love, love (!) your posts about body image! Not only are you a funny and talented writer, but your insights always make me feel happier and more accepting of myself. Thank you!

  12. Great post Elissa! Very well written! I wear a bikini. I do not have a perfect body. It's not terrible but hey...I'm almost 38 and don't really "work out" so I have some loose skin. I have a small chest. I have a bigger bottom. I still put on my bikini. The beginning of the season is always hard. It's like I'm naked but after a few times at the beach or pool I feel a little better about. Wear that bikini if you want to Elissa! Your beautiful!

    Love your outfit. The red belt is a nice touch.

  13. Oh. thank you so much for this post. I agree that Bikini Tyranny has become way too much. Personally, I prefer one-piece suits for figure flattery (with my body type, they are super-flattering because they pull everything inwards and upwards). But yes, we should all wear whatever we want -- proudly.

  14. Tyranny indeed! Very timely and well written.

    I wore (and designed my own) bikinis in the 70s. I felt good in my skin.

    In the 80s I fell in love with the bubble nylon/spandex developed by swim designer Liza Bruce and again designed my own suits - now tankinis + short shorts. Slightly less comfortable in my skin.

    My latest challenge is that I had a mastectomy last year -- no right breast. I'm also not supposed to expose areas that had radiation (includes collarbone) to the sun. Going on vacation to Martha's Vineyard that will involve beach time. Will I make it out from under the huipil and into the water? Stay tuned!

  15. Wow, Elissa!! I'm speechless. What a fantastic post!! I am so impressed by 1. your transparency and honesty. 2. your ability to so beautifully articulate your insights and feelings. You're an amazing writer, Elissa!!

    Also, you totally aren't alone in battling those negative thoughts about needing a "bikini body." I, myself, have had my share of those battles. It happens to all of us. But you're right- the expectations we and the media hold about women's bodies are totally unrealistic! Keep being fabulous, woman!


  16. I have pictures of myself as a teenager wearing a tshirt into the water. Looking back on the pictures I would have been much happier to be unencumbered and my flesh on show rather than be uncomfortably covered up... I hope I've learned my lesson

  17. "Does this mean that I still don't have days where I hate my thighs and stomach so much I want to carve them off of my body with a fillet knife? No." What are you doing inside my head, anyway? How else would you know my exact feelings?

    "Do what you want, eat what you want, wear what you want, and be who you want." My new mantra. Thanks!

  18. I totally agree with you- Just be healthy- and comfortable with who you are. I think you're gorgeous and could definitely wear a bikini if you wanted to. Personally I can never find one that actually fits me, so I wear a tankini or one piece instead, and I'm totally ok with not being in a bikini. It's more so for the lack of support in bikinis, than it is for lack of want/ lack of body/confidence. What is the perfect bikini body anyway? Everyone will tell you a different set of criteria. It's all up to perspective. And you have a great one.

  19. thanks for the timely post. i love the feel of the sun & sand on my skin and have loved bikinis ever since I felt comfortable with y body enough to wear one. I've sported them through the years and through many different body sizes. This year I went to pull out my bikinis and for the first time hesitated, felt ashamed rather than proud of my body. I was surprised by the change at first, and then looked at my coffee table and saw the fitness magazines that I had been buying for the exercise articles and recipes, each one of them plastered with a perfect woman in a bikini and the messages on how to pare your body down to perfection. Ironic that my quest to feel more fit had this unintended side effect. more ironic still that my body this year is probably closer to "bikini body" perfection that it ever has been in my life, and yet this year I struggle to venture out of my one-piece. the mental process has been illuminating, and I'm working on recapturing the proud me that I once had.

  20. Wonderful post, so true. At 47 (but still feeling 27), I have not figured out how to (swim)dress my changing body. The swimsuit that I feel least awkward in is an Athleta one piece: http://athleta.gap.com/browse/product.do?

  21. I loathe bathing suits. I just do not like being that exposed in front of people. Well, actually I don't necessarily mind it if it's just my husband and I, but pools? No way. I wish I could change the way my brain thinks about bathing suits but once I see myself in a mirror, there just aren't enough reasons to keep them on. So I don't. But when I have to, I wear a full body bathing suit with a wrap around my bum.

  22. You mentioned Stephen Hawking in a post about the bikini body. Awesome! Extra gelato for you!

    Anyway, I don't worry about the bikini body because the only reason I would wear a bikini is for swimming---and I can't swim. :-)

  23. I'm a little late coming into the game but I actually dont wear them. I dont like wearing something smaller than my underwear in public. I use a tankini. Took a LONG time to find one appropriate for a 26 year old woman but I did it. And now I am much more confortable.


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