Challenging the “Bikini Body” Myth

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This article was written by Holly Tritschler (Student Dietitian & Dietetically Speaking intern) and reviewed by Maeve Hanan (Disordered Eating Specialist Dietitian & Founder of Dietetically Speaking).


With summer upon us, you are likely to have heard people using phrases like “summer body” or “bikini body”. The idea that you need to become the smallest version of yourself for the warmer weather is not new, but what impact is this messaging having on our relationship with our bodies?

This article explores the origins of the “bikini body” mindset and why it can have such negative consequences on body image and relationship with food. It also provides tips on how to navigate the summer season without body image anxiety. 

Why Do We Feel We Need a ‘Bikini Body’?

Studies have shown that body dissatisfaction consistently peaks in Summer (1). So where is this collective attitude coming from?

Marketing

Using beautiful people to sell products and services is a tried and tested marketing strategy. Industries are adept at capitalising on people’s insecurities, developing campaigns which target our desires to look more like the model in the image (1). A new alcoholic drink will be held by a gorgeous woman (with a flat stomach) on the beach. A new summer gym line? Modelled by a bodybuilder in the sun. 

Sadly this advertising works. It earns big companies millions of pounds, and leaves people feeling deflated and ashamed that they don’t meet the brand’s aesthetic. 

Highly Edited Images

Behind every great shot of a bikini clad model on the beach will undoubtedly be a team of professionals with one goal: to make her look desirable. The combination of lighting equipment, editing software and multiple makeup artists may create the illusion of a perfectly candid shot, but it also creates unrealistic ideals. It’s no wonder everyone is self-conscious of their very natural stretch marks when every single one has been airbrushed away. 

The images we consume on a daily basis can have a huge impact on our own self-worth. And when all of them include perfectly smooth, blemish and bump-free skin, feelings of inadequacy are only natural. But remember those images are not real. They are carefully curated by entire teams of experts whose job is to create the unattainable summer body archetype.

And it’s not just limited to advertisements. Nowadays, anyone with a smartphone can access high-quality editing software with just a tap. Images on social media during summer will not only reflect Summer-centric bodies (1), but could just as easily be highly smoothed and perfected as the model on the billboard. 

Friends and Family

Often the most painful comments and attitudes can come from those we love the most. There is often no intent to cause harm, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be hugely triggering. 

Everyone has their own lived experience of growing up in a society which puts beauty and ‘thinness’ on a pedestal. Your mum may have grown up surrounded by magazines which claimed to help her get ‘bikini ready’ in weeks. Your friend may have a personal trainer (with zero nutritional qualifications) who has given her a 1200 calorie meal plan in preparation for her summer holiday. Dismantling these attitudes is really difficult, even more so when the people you care about still embody them.

What’s the Impact of the “Bikini Body” Narrative?

Diet culture and media advertisements have long perpetuated the idea that to wear a bikini you must be slim, toned and devoid of stretch marks. That you can only enjoy an ice-cream on the beach if you have abs, and that you need to earn that week of relaxation by punishing yourself for weeks/months beforehand. But what impact is this having on your mental health?

This annual bikini body pursuit can have serious negative impacts on body image and self-esteem.

Constant comparison to unrealistic beauty standards can erode self-confidence and contribute to feelings of inadequacy, shame, and anxiety about one’s own body image (2). 

This narrative can also evolve into disordered eating patterns (2). It imposes immense pressure to conform to an unrealistic body ideal which can lead to individuals adopting extreme dieting behaviours in an attempt to achieve this physique. They may restrict their caloric intake severely or eliminate entire food groups, leading to an unhealthy preoccupation with food, calories, and weight. 

How to Challenge the “Bikini Body” Mindset

Unfortunately, fatphobia and discrimination towards people in bigger bodies is very real. So there can be very valid reasons for feeling worried about certain situations which can be beyond an individual’s control. This section is not intended to dismiss this, but to provide some ideas when it comes to supporting your body image this summer. Of course, you are the expert of your body and experiences, so you will have the best idea of what may or may not be worth trying.

Practice Gratitude Towards Your Body

One technique that many people find helpful is trying to shift your perspective towards what your body can achieve this summer, rather than what it looks like. Our bodies are incredible vessels for movement, sensation and experiences, regardless of the shape they are. They allow us to explore new places, hug our loved ones, and enable us to connect with others. 

You don’t have to force this, or try to feel grateful about something you don’t feel grateful about. But when you notice self-critical thoughts creeping in, can you try and reframe it to one of self-respect, such as:

“I’m feeling uncomfortable about how I look right now. But I am grateful to my body for allowing me to go swimming with my friends”

A simple practice may be to name 3 things you are grateful to your body for each day. These could include:

  • I am grateful for my legs for allowing me to explore new cities when I am on holiday
  • I am grateful for my senses that allow me to enjoy new and delicious foods
  • I am grateful for my eyes that let me see the colours of a sunset

By valuing your body’s functionality over its form, this helps reinforce the idea that your worth isn’t tied to your appearance (3).

Unfollow Triggering Accounts

Comparison is a huge hindrance to creating better body image (4). 

When bombarded with others’ ‘summer shred,’ it’s tempting to think we should also do the same. No matter how much effort you put into escaping diet culture, if it regularly appears on your feed, it’s hard not to let this messaging take hold.

Unfollowing or muting accounts which are fuelling feelings of inadequacy is a great first step. Ask yourselves the following questions to help you decide whether it might be time to remove an account. 

  • Is this account’s posts in line with my values around body image?
  • Is this account bringing me joy?
  • Do I feel more critical of myself when I view this person’s posts?

Intentionally following a more diverse range of people with varying body shapes and sizes can help challenge beauty ideals which have been ingrained into us by years of societal pressure. Maybe you are self-conscious about the (perfectly normal) cellulite on your legs? Find a page who has the same cellulite but is celebrating it,  joyfully wearing shorts and feeling proud. Viewing these images, instead of unattainable (often edited) ones trains your subconscious to feel positive about your own body. 

Have Conversations With Friends and Family

This can often feel particularly challenging, especially when loved ones are still entrenched in diet culture themselves. However, having gentle conversations about the language used and setting boundaries on certain topics can help foster a more supportive social environment.

Try these conversation starters to help you navigate these discussions with sensitivity and clarity:

  • “Mybody image hasn’t been great in the lead up to summer. Can we try to avoid talking about diets or body sizes when we’re together?”
  • “I love talking about our summer plans. Can we focus on the activities we enjoy instead of how we look while doing them?”
  • “I feel better when we don’t discuss weight or appearance. Can we agree to steer clear of these topics?”

Speak to a Healthcare Professional

If you find yourself struggling with negative thoughts about your body or engaging in harmful eating behaviours, it may be beneficial to seek support from a healthcare professional or a registered dietitian.

If you are looking for a disordered eating specialist dietitian to support you or a loved one, you can find information about how we can support you here.

Conclusion

With the likely inundation of “bikini body” messages on your timeline, TV and conversations, it’s understandable that you might be feeling the pressure to ‘tone up for summer’. But summer is about so much more than your appearance, and anxieties surrounding body image shouldn’t stop you from enjoying yourself. 

If you are struggling with your body image this summer, check out our new Body Image Toolkit designed to equip you with the knowledge, skills and tools to help you cope on difficult body image days and to improve your overall body image. 

References

  1. Griffiths, S., Austen, E., Krug, I. and Blake, K. (2021) ‘Beach body ready? Shredding for summer? A first look at “seasonal body image”’, Body Image, 37(1), pp. 269-281. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2021.03.004 
  2. Vartanian, L. and Dey, S. (2013) ‘Self-concept clarity, thin-ideal internalization, and appearance-related social comparison as predictors of body dissatisfaction’, Body Image, 10(4), pp. 495-500. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2013.05.004
  3. Alleva, J. and Tylka, T. (2021) ‘Body functionality: A review of the literature’, Body Image, 36(1), pp. 149-171, Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2020.11.006 
  4. Fardouly, J., Pinkus, R. and Vartanian, L. (2021) ‘Targets of comparison and body image in women’s everyday lives: The role of perceived attainability’, Body Image, 38(1), pp. 219-229. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2021.04.009 


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