Where Does the Harmful "Bikini Body" Concept Even Come From?

As Kayla Itsines strikes the words from her program, a look back at the fraught term.

bikini on clothes line


If I were to tell you I had a "bikini body," what would you imagine it looked like? Chances are, you're envisioning contoured abs, smooth legs, and skin that challenges more than one law of gravity. It's an image ingrained in all of us since we were young enough to flip through a teen magazine. It's also one that, despite efforts, we as a collective society can't quite shake. If I have a body and it's wearing a bikini, I have a bikini body. It's an easy enough thread to follow—or at least it should be.

According to some records, the first usage of "bikini body" popped up in 1961 to promote a weight-loss fad called "Slenderella." The tagline for Slenderella, a soda brand, would soon define the relationship between countless people, their bodies, and several inches of waterproof fabric for decades to come.

The first blush of spring brings with it flowers and the incessant noise of Hydroxycut ads, gym membership specials, and cover lines promising a six-pack by summer. "Get a bikini body fast!" they all say. "Buy our stuff," they all mean. After hearing these messages enough times, we unwittingly become our own body haters, enforcing and patrolling ourselves with loaded language. It's your friend saying she's going to be "good" and get a salad. It's the cognitive dissonance you feel at the grocery store where candy displays live right next to the latest swimsuit issue. It's me saying, "I'm not ready for all that yet," to a beach invite for an afternoon of fun.

Though fat activists and body positivity advocates fought for respect and equality through the '60s and the decades that followed, the concept of body positivity didn't get mainstream attention until around 2012. It was then we began to see women of size score magazine covers and people use social media to proudly proclaim, "I love my body the way it is right now."

Of course, that body positivity forced many brands and companies to reassess potentially damaging messaging and ideas (to continue collecting our money, but still, progress!), there was one major exception: the fitness community.

It's not about a famous fitness guru tweaking the name of her workouts: it's that the fitness community is still so rife with covert and overt fatphobia striking the words 'bikini body' from a program looks like progress.

Recently fitness influencer Kayla Itsines changed the name of her best-selling workouts from "Bikini Body Guide" to "High Intensity With Kayla." In an Instagram post explaining the rebrand, Itsines says while she developed the program with good intentions a decade ago, "I feel the name now represents an outdated view of health and fitness so as co-founder of Sweat, I feel it is the right time to change our approach with BBG and to evolve and use language that feels more positive for women today."

The new name is long overdue, especially considering her considerable influence and 13 million Instagram followers. But the bigger story is the fact that this change still sparks so many reaction articles (including this one). It's not about a famous fitness guru tweaking the name of her workouts: it's that the fitness community is still so rife with covert and overt fatphobia striking the words "bikini body" from a program looks like progress.

It's not just the proverbial bikini bod, either. Exercise is absolutely essential for many humans to feel healthy—that's not the issue. What we should be concerned about is how easily the bikini-body concept was able to become an avatar for perfect health (or, rather, just weight loss).

Preoccupation with fitness has long been a willing disguise for struggles with body image—in large part because of the community's language. It's easy to frame running a few miles as working off dinner, or a meal with friends as a cheat. Foods are often marketed with promises like guilt-free or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, sinful.

All of this is to say, words have power. These feedback loops particularly affect marginalized groups, as the faces of fitness are primarily cisgender, able-bodied, and often white. Studies show BIPOC girls and women are much less likely to be asked about disordered eating by their doctors, leaving a massive gap in the current medical system. 30 million people in America will struggle with an eating disorder in their lifetime, and many experts suspect that number is underreported.

Even as our society phases out the term "bikini body," the people raised on it still struggle. No fitness program name change or Instagram Live summit can undo decades of internalizing harmful language, but it does suggest the future may look brighter. Hopefully, someday, summer can play out how it's meant to: feeling good, running around, having fun, and wearing, but not really caring, about our bikinis.

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