By Aly Teich
It’s that time of year again. The sun has finally come out, our winter jackets have gone back into storage, and summer is just around the corner! However, with the summer season quickly approaching, also comes the annual stress-inducing push and pressure to get “bikini ready,” and even to get your “best bikini body ever!” Media outlets, social media feeds, and even many health and fitness companies go into overdrive with bikini body guides, diets, and fitness programs catered to just this, and it’s impossible to ignore. Some of these campaigns have even made international news for their questionable tactics. This year, I have finally had enough. Not only am I rebelling against the entire concept of “the bikini body” — but I am going to go so far as to say, I believe it is one of the most detrimental concepts to women’s health.
Let me offer a few caveats, before I explain why I feel this way:
First, having body-oriented goals in mind when approaching your health routine can be positive, and I actually think it is unrealistic to expect people — especially women — not to have goals. I know I do!
Additionally, many of you have seen me post pictures in a swimsuit, while enjoying myself on the beach, and you might think, “Well, this is all easy enough for her to say, as she already has a 'bikini body'.” To that I would say, whatever you may think of my body, I never post photos for the sake of implying anyone should look like me (or that anyone should look like anyone other than themselves, for that matter) — and I hope that is always clear.
Most of all, there is nothing wrong with wanting to feel and look your best in your clothes, your skin, or even your bathing suit! However, when this becomes the single goal for getting healthy or getting in shape, that is when the problems begin. Here is why.
1. Looking “Good” Shouldn’t be the Main Focus of Getting Healthy
Getting in shape should be primarily focused on feeling great over looking great. If you like the way you feel, you will like the way you look. Think about it in reverse — even when you are at your “skinniest,” if you fill your body with foods that make you feel not great, or skip your workout and feel lethargic, do you feel as “healthy” as the scale reflects? Now think about how you feel after an amazing workout or a sustained period of healthy eating. For me, I feel light, energetic, and strong, which automatically translates into liking the way my clothes fit and the way I look in the mirror — even though that is not my primary goal for working out and eating right.
Another benefit to getting healthy? Feeling empowered — over your body, your mind, your strength, your health, and your life. As simple as it may seem, if you haven’t experienced pushing past a physical goal in a workout (running your fastest sprint, doing one more pushup than you’ve ever done, or simply going a month straight without missing a workout), then you are missing out on one of the great pleasures in life. To me, there is no better feeling than achieving or surpassing a goal I have set for myself. I walk away with a sense that I can apply this to any part of my life, and in these moments, feel my most confident and powerful - and THAT is more beautiful than any body in a bikini.
Last and most important, the true route of getting healthy should be focused on just that — your health. Having recently lost my mother and a dear friend to cancer, it has completely shifted the way I treat my health. I know it is easy to assume you will never be touched by such illness (and I hope this is the case), but the reality is that cancer has become an epidemic. Heart disease has become an epidemic. Diabetes has become an epidemic. It is not the exception anymore. Whatever your beliefs are, we have one shot at this life, and what’s the point of any of it if we end up sick? If you think about it this way, really — who cares how we look in our bathing suits?!
2. Looking “Good” in a Bikini Does Not Necessarily Equal Being Healthy
This one deserves a little anecdote.
Last year, I was laying out, enjoying the sunshine on the roof of my building with a girlfriend - let’s call her Jess. Jess is one of the most beautiful women I know - inside and out. She is vivacious, confident, smart, a bundle of energy, and hilarious. She also happens to have a beautiful figure. She’s in fantastic shape, very active, and was born with beautiful, womanly curves (and I don’t even mean that in the “tongue-in-cheek” way that people sometimes use the word “curvy”). So I was incredibly surprised when Jess turned to me and said, “I’d love to get your advice on how to get better results from my health routine, as I feel like I work out all the time and my diet has been on point, but I’m still not seeing results.” Since she looked fantastic to me, I asked what results she was looking for, and asked if she wasn’t feeling well. She said she felt great — a lot less tired than she had during times she didn’t work out, her digestion was great from the foods she was eating, she just felt balanced all around!
"Okay, then what’s the problem?” I asked, surprised.
“I want to get the body I had two summers ago when I was 10 pounds skinnier.”
I asked, “What were you doing differently that summer than you are doing now?”
She replied, “Well I was going through a horrible breakup, so I was barely eating.”
Again, taken aback, I asked her if she felt that lifestyle was either healthy or sustainable?” With a chuckle, she said, “I doubt it.” Then I asked her if going back to that emotional place where she was so sad she could barely eat, would be worth having the body she wanted?” She then stopped. There was no chuckling. And after a long pause she turned to me and said, “Thank you.”
If we dissect this story a bit, my friend, who was feeling and looking great, and working out all the time, was so focused on wanting to achieve the body she had when she was in a miserable state of mind and life, that she forgot how great life was currently, and how healthy she felt compared to when she was simply skinnier.
Being thin at any cost does not equal being healthy or happy. Depriving ourselves of foods and nutrients we need to live does not equal being healthy or happy. Becoming so weak you can’t even make it through a workout does not equal being healthy or happy. Being so focused on how you look, that you are missing out on enjoying the rest of your life (especially during summer!) does not equal being healthy or happy. So I beg you to ask yourself, what is it worth to you to get “bikini ready”?
3. It Sends the Message that Looks are All that Matter
How are we ever supposed to embrace this concept of focusing on how we feel over how we look, when the opposite message is constantly being shoved down our throats? It’s hard to open a magazine, look at a website, or pass an advertisement that isn’t in some way sending the message that being skinny (or at this time of year – “bikini ready”) will make me happier, more popular, more desirable, and even more successful. I am lucky enough to work in media and see right through this — but my 13-year-old niece, however, does not have the same level of awareness and takes this messaging quite literally. I understand branding, I understand advertising, and I understand aspirational images are what sell products and magazines. However, have these companies thought about the fact that these tactics make any woman who doesn’t naturally have the build of a model, feel as if they have somehow failed if they haven’t achieved such a figure come Memorial Day Weekend?
More importantly, as someone who spends more time than most in fitness studios here in NYC, I can rarely walk into a class at this time of year without even some of my very favorite trainers offering regular reminders throughout class that summer and bikini season is upon us. While I understand this is a tactic to incentivize people to push themselves through a workout, it’s just the wrong message for why we should add more resistance to the bike, push another .5 faster on the treadmill, or squeeze our butts a little harder at the top of a kettle bell swing. You guys are better than this. I can say this with full confidence, as I have experienced first-hand your wisdom and your ability to push me and others to new levels physically, and in our lives. I have heard you offer SO many other messages that have nothing to do with the way I will look as a result of your workout. I am regularly inspired by you guys reminding me to put a life goal in front of me and visualize reaching it, or reminding me that if I can push that little bit harder in my workout it will translate to the rest of my day. So why the need to revert back to the “bikini body” tactics?
Instructors and trainers: We follow your social media posts, and we listen to every word throughout your workout. I beg you to respect the power you hold, and the power of the words you choose. I am not telling you anything you don’t know already know, as I walk away from my workouts feeling nothing but empowered — and often with a little catch of wisdom of the day! However, perhaps it’s worth a friendly reminder: Do you want people to walk away feeling pushed for a tighter booty, or do you want them to feel empowered by the strength they gained by sticking with you and pushing it out for an hour? You have the power to guide how people approach their workouts, their health, and even their life — what do you want them to walk away with.
4. The Focus is on Short-Term Goals, as Opposed to a Healthy Lifestyle
Look, we all need goals in life — goals in our career, goals in our relationships, and we certainly need goals when it comes to our health. However, when these goals are tied to something as superficial and fleeting as bikini season, this often leads to extreme diets and over-exercising, which is not only unhealthy, but unsustainable.
Being truly healthy is a lifestyle choice. I know this is something you hear all the time, and it seems like a catchphrase you would hear in a cereal commercial (which ironically, is generally UNHEALTHY) — but it’s actually true, and something I deeply hope I am convincing people of, even in a small way, with The Sweat Life. As I have said so many times before, being healthy should be about just that — being healthy — and your health doesn’t come in a little pill, or a number on the scale, or just cutting out carbs, or counting calories, or doing double SoulCycles five times a week for two months. Because then what? Being healthy comes when you find a diet and exercise routine that makes you feel good, that gives you energy, that you enjoy, and that you will realistically stick to for the foreseeable future.
5. It Creates Body Shaming and Self-Criticism Among Women
At this point, many of you have seen fitness sensation and founder of Blogilates, Cassey Ho's YouTube video about the realities of body shaming over social media. It is hard to swallow that even someone who is making such a positive impact on the health community and simply helping people to get healthier (in my opinion in a very positive way!) would face such ridicule. While I understand that anyone who opens themselves up to the public (myself included) needs to accept the reality that we are also opening ourselves up to public opinion, it is the nature of these opinions towards Cassey that were so upsetting. These comments, which came from Cassey’s followers — mostly comprised of teenage and twenty-something females — bashed her figure in such a cruel way, it made me wonder what these women were then saying to each other?! During a time when female power seems to be on the rise, why is something as simple and superficial as our figures garnering such ridicule and criticism from our peers. As women, we should be on the same team. We should be lifting each other up. We should be supporting our successes and our growth as a gender. This will never happen until we learn to love ourselves first. How are we supposed to learn to love ourselves and let go of our insecurities, when we are constantly being reminded of everything we are not?
When the media continues to encourage us to place more and more value on our looks, our clothes, and our age (or lack thereof), how are we supposed to see any other value in ourselves? By the same token, when getting a “bikini body” is the sole focus of getting healthy during this time of year, how are we supposed to place any other value in what our health is really about?
So, I encourage the media and brands — especially the health and fitness media and brands — to consider your messaging and model choices. I encourage health and fitness trainers to consider your words. And most of all, I encourage all of you to start loving yourselves, and think about what your health and happiness means to you. Then, put on that bathing suit, strut yourself to the beach, and soak up some f*&@ing sunshine. (But don't forget your sunblock!)
Aly Teich is Founder and Host of The Sweat Life.
Aly is a native New Yorker who grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She left Manhattan for Madison, Wisconsin to become a proud Badger for four years, and since then has lived on both coasts, traveled around the world…twice, and found herself right back here in The Big Apple.
Aly has always been an active kid, and now grownup (although she still acts like a kid.) She danced her way through the School of American Ballet until her teens, competed on horseback at a pre-Olympic level, lettered in three varsity high school sports, and completed three marathons and numerous triathlons. She’s also an avid skier, golfer, aspiring surfer, and can do a mean belly flop.
Following a ten-year career in television and media — including the Late Show with David Letterman, CBS Television, Tribeca Film, and Conde Nast — Aly switched her focus to health and wellness five years ago when her mother was diagnosed with stage IV ovarian cancer. Trading in her Late Show with Letterman badge for Nikes, Aly made it her goal to help people live healthier lives. In the fall of 2013, she decided to bring all of her experience and passion to one place, The Sweat Life.