Yesterday, Women’s Health editor in chief Amy Keller Laird made a bold announcement on the magazine’s website: They would no longer be using the phrases “bikini body” or “drop two sizes” on their covers. Taking cues from a reader survey, Laird wrote:
You told us you don’t love the words shrink and diet, and we’re happy to say we kicked those to the cover curb ourselves over the past year. But we’re still using two other phrases—“Bikini Body” and “Drop Two Sizes”—that you want retired. Since our goal is always to pump you up, and never to make you feel bad, here’s our pledge: They’re gone. They’ll no longer appear on Women’s Health covers.
The announcement comes after a year where body-positive activism, especially around the concept of what’s “acceptable” to wear according to your size, was prominent. In June, size 22 model Tess Holliday released a 16-second video for plus size clothing company SimplyBe, whose clothes range from sizes 10 to 32, in which she demonstrated in one simple step that all that’s needed for a “bikini body” is to wear one. Holliday was quoted on SimplyBe’s site saying, “All women need to do to get a bikini body is to put a bikini on, then they’re ready to hit the beach! There is no such thing as a perfect body and the hardest barrier for women to overcome is themselves. And no wonder, considering the skinny body ideals that are portrayed widely across the media today.” The blog Fat Girl Flow posted a photo essay of fat women in bikinis and dedicated it to “every fat babe who has felt under represented in the community because of the color of their skin, the size or shape of their body, their ability, or their gender. For the beauties with huge bellies and tiny legs, and the babes who can’t find their size even in the plus size section, it’s for the hairy babes, for the double chins and double bellies.”
In July, Wear Your Voice magazine launched its #DropTheTowel campaign to encourage readers to “proudly proclaim that they are done hiding their already beautiful beach/pool/lake or otherwise summer body – and are ready to lose that cover-up and drop the towel!” Also in July, “Orange Is the New Black” actress Danielle Brooks donned a bikini as part of People Style Watch’s #LoveYourShape campaign. In August, the blog Fatshion Peepshow posted photos and inspiring quotes from 101 “body positive bikini babes.” And when Patrick Couderc, the managing director of Herve Leger in London, gave an interview stating that “voluptuous” women and those with “very prominent hips and a very flat chest” shouldn’t wear the company’s popular bandage dresses, he was met with a call for a boycott by comedian and actress Margaret Cho and a disavowal from parent company BCBGMAXAZRIA, which terminated his employment.
In other words, it seems that Women’s Health has come to realize what many already know: Consumers, even health-conscious ones, even ones who may want to lose weight or have other specific fitness goals, don’t like being told that there’s something inherently wrong with their too-big bodies when they pick up a magazine. They want to be inspired to live healthfully at whatever size they are now, without the default assumption that certain sizes are inherently better than others. Laird states that outright, quoting a reader who told the magazine, “I hate how women’s magazines emphasize being skinny or wearing bikinis as the reason to be healthy.”
While Laird’s stated promise is to remove the phrases from Women’s Health covers, not necessarily from inside the magazine’s pages, she did go so far as to write “Dear John” letters to each phrase, emphasizing her point. Of “bikini body,” she wrote, “You’re actually a misnomer, not to mention an unintentional insult: You imply that a body must be a certain size in order to wear a two-piece. Any body—every body—is a bikini body. You’ve got a shaming, negative undertone that’s become more than annoying.”
This is a wonderful start toward creating a media landscape where women aren’t bombarded so blatantly with the message that they should constantly be trying to make themselves literally smaller in order to be “healthy.” By nixing “drop two sizes,” the magazine is openly acknowledging that not only can losing too much weight too fast be unhealthy, but also that there’s no standard one size fits all way of measuring health based on size, because everyone’s body works differently.
Many observers have expressed cautious optimism about the Women’s Health announcement. After all, it’s one thing to take those provocative words off their covers, but that doesn’t mean they’ve conceded that women shouldn’t strive for what’s traditionally considered a “bikini-ready” body. They have, after all, advocated eating just 1,350 calories a day in an article titled “Safe Weight Loss: Get Bikini Ready in 7 Days.”
At Refinery29, Health and Wellness Director Anna Maltby, who’s worked at both Men’s Health and an unnamed women’s health magazine, highlighted some of the things she hopes will go along with Women’s Health’s attention-getting change. “[W]hile I’m proud of the team at WH for making a splashy, body-positive statement like this — I’m not so quick to interpret this as an earth-shattering, needle-moving change in the vast and sinister world of body-shaming messages that women have to deal with daily. Are they still going to run diets inside? Are they still going to help you ‘target’ your ‘problem areas’? Let’s hope that as the negative messages on the cover begin to dwindle, so do the ones hiding behind it.”
On social media, users applauded the decision with similar sentiments:
On Instagram, the company Super Sister Fitness wrote that they also hate the term “bikini body”—even though they run a Bikini Bootcamp Challenge—and praised the magazine’s decision. They went on to say, “Our best-selling ‘Bikini Bootcamp’ program was never intended to be built around the phrase ‘Bikini Body’ and we still hate even having the word bikini in there at all.” They are considering changing the title, but cited a high SEO ranking for “bikini body” as the main impediment to doing so.
Melissa Toler, a life and wellness couch who encourages people to break free from “food rules,” told Salon, “For the past few years, I've stopped buying health and fitness magazines like Shape and Women's Health because of the constant ‘lose weight,’ ‘drop two sizes,’ and ‘blast fat’ cover articles. It was the same old story every month repackaged with a new fit celebrity gracing the cover. Plus I was tired of getting a monthly reminder that there was something wrong with me and this magazine would help me fix it.”
Toler is optimistic about this new look for Women’s Health, but is reserving judgment about its long-term impact. She continued, “So when I saw the decision by Women's Health, I was happy but a little skeptical. There's a trend in the diet and fitness industry where companies like Weight Watchers and Lean Cuisine are moving away from traditional weight loss marketing to putting a focus on the whole person, not just the numbers. But they continue to perpetuate diet culture in an effort to sell products. The Women's Health decision is a step in the right direction, but only time will tell if this is the real deal."