Where Did The “Bikini Body” Concept Even Come From?

Photographed by Lauren Perlstein.
It’s a sign of liberated female sexuality. It’s another way for men to ogle women. It’s a status symbol, and a mass-marketed form of swimwear. If you haven’t guessed it already, we’re talking about the bikini. As a piece of fashion history, it’s iconic. But it’s also become a vehicle for body shame, seen most clearly in the idea of the “bikini body.” The fashion industry, the fitness industry, and the media have all played a role in keeping this concept — which, at its core, is simply the idea that only a person with a certain type of body is entitled to wear this ubiquitous piece of swimwear — alive. Every spring, without fail, we start to see the phrase pop up: on magazine covers, news headlines, even in memes.
The "bikini body" concept has such a hold over women’s body image that some women will completely avoid going to the beach out of self-consciousness. Because of that, here at Refinery29, we have made it central to our mission not to use the term at all — yet that hasn't stopped us from wondering where it came from. Ahead, we trace the “bikini body” back to its origins in order to pick it apart, once and for all.
Thanks, Sexism
The sad reality is that women have always had a messed-up relationship with the bikini. After its debut in 1946, adopting the style was thought of as a sign of loose morals. Then, in the wilder 1960s, Brigitte Bardot made it acceptably sexy, while Cheryl Tiegs and the women of Charlie’s Angels imbued it with a feminine athleticism characteristic of the '70s. All the while, women worked to keep up with the bikini’s ever-shifting image. As for the phrase itself, we have weight-loss salon chain Slenderella International to thank, according to reporting by The Cut. Back in 1961, Slenderella launched an entire summertime campaign around the term, with ads promising customers a “high firm bust — hand span waist — trim, firm hips — slender graceful legs — a Bikini body!” However, it wasn't until 1964 when Sports Illustrated published its first swimsuit edition that the "bikini body" was fully integrated into American beach culture, argues Elizabeth D. Hoover in a article for American Heritage magazine. As time went on, and the influence of the swimsuit edition grew, past producers and models began discussing the work required to make an issue. While the models learned “how not to have your stomach out, and how not to have your thighs look too big in this position or that position,” the producers searched for “flawless” pictures (no wrinkles, blemishes, or awkward angles), happily retouching the images when none met the grade.
And this only got more extreme as technology in digital design advanced. In his book Bikini Story, Patrik Alac writes that this reached a fever pitch in the '90s. For designers and advertisers alike, it was “no longer enough to show a reasonably pretty girl in a brief two-piece costume,” he writes. Instead, swimsuit models needed to embody effortless unattainability — posing in tropical locales, flashing even, white smiles, and, of course, appearing tanned, toned, and thin. “The model...may have undergone procedures twice over — first physically by means of surgery and through the conditioning processes of sport and dieting, and second pictorially by means of computer graphics,” Alac writes. But that didn’t seem to matter. Even as the effects of photoshop, airbrushing, and the like became public knowledge, women still felt pressure to look like these images.
Looking back now, it’s pretty easy to see that the bikini’s cultural connotations have always been rooted in downright sexist ideas; it started as a sign of being unchaste and later became another example of the male gaze. Saying No More
Once established, even young girls found the bikini hard to ignore. Lenn Peril, in her essay on the bikini in Girl Culture: An Encyclopedia, describes the startling trickle-down effects of the bikini’s marketing. When asked about the bikini in an early-'60s survey, one teen girl said she liked it, “unless worn ‘by girls who are too fat or too thin, by my mother or any other female relatives.’” Roughly translated: The bikini is meant for young women with a specific body type, and anyone else should stick to being fully clothed. Looking ahead, Peril shows how these ideas have stayed with following generations of teen girls — and turned sinister. She cites a blog ring called the ‘Bikini Coming Soon Challenge’ from 2006, in which young women swapped tips on “self-starvation and extreme exercise, the better to become what one blogger called the ‘tan, skinny girls, [who] looked perfect in their bikinis.’” Since then, journalists and therapists alike have highlighted “bikini body” rhetoric as a potential trigger for women with eating disorders.
And of course, it's no secret that the pressure to look a certain way in order to wear a two-piece has followed women into the present. Decades can’t be undone instantly; as recently as last year, one woman told us, “when I hear the phrase, ‘beach body,’ I don’t think of me.” Far from outdated, terms like “beach body” and “bikini body” are still widely used. But, remember how many times the "bikini body"’s definition has already changed since 1946? We get to decide what it means to us now. Women's Health magazine has joined us in banning the term, and even Sports Illustrated has broadened its definition of a beach-ready body. Most importantly, more and more women are starting to embrace their own bodies. So whether wear a bikini or not, there’s one thing you need to know: It's your body. It's your summer. Enjoy them both. Check out more #TakeBackTheBeach here.

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