• Devyn Molina

Can Instagram end toxic bikini body culture?

Instagram allows users to continue to perpetuate the narrative of one acceptable bikini body type. However, more women are using the platform to destroy the stigma once and for all.

Illustration by Emma Turney.

As summer progresses and the temperatures rise, pictures of women wearing bikinis will consume the Instagram feeds of many. While people are mindlessly scrolling through Instagram, these images are perpetuating the toxicity of bikini body culture. The narrative that women have to spend more than half of the year to lose weight and be 'summer body ready' enough to be considered as having a desirable or ideal body. Even though this is not a new concept, Instagram has given people the means to continue to push the idea that only one body type will amass adoration and guarantee a larger following.

It’s no secret that people use Instagram as a highlight reel of their lives. Photos can be altered, imperfections blurred and no one is aware of how many times it took to get the perfect, Instagram-able shot. These women will make their waists smaller, their bums bigger and somehow never have an ounce of cellulite or body fat. Because of this, it has made it easier to alter the idea of what is deemed as a body type to strive for. Of course, there are still a number of accounts that celebrate diversity, body positivity and larger women but the fact of the matter is that Instagram primarily caters to one body type.

Influencers and fitness brands capitalize on using Instagram to sell weight loss products and reinforce fatphobia and diet culture. There is a larger emphasis on being thin rather than being healthy. This idea is only exacerbated by mainstream media and its influence on how society views women and ultimately how women view themselves. Instagram and mainstream media go hand in hand in that they continually highlight misrepresentations of what a woman’s body looks like. These images and bikini body culture as a whole have been known to trigger disordered eating and other body image issues.

In recent years, women have taken to the platform to confront bikini body culture and expose people to the notion that their current body is already ‘summer body ready.’ The idea that even the people that are seen as attractive don’t look that way all the time and that includes their body. More and more Instagram pages have popped up promoting a healthier mindset and body without feeling the need to make drastic modifications to fit the mold.

Bikini body culture’s long-term relationship with fitness

One of bikini body culture’s claims to fame is the idea that one has to lose a certain amount of weight, regardless of how it's done, to have the right body type. Fitness companies have used capitalism and the narrative that there is only one body type to strive for in order to sustain business. They will use marketing tactics to use women’s insecurities as a way of making money.

However, fitness and body positivity accounts have been making waves on Instagram, especially due to the gyms closing because of lockdown. These accounts are using a platform that is so saturated with unrealistic photos and influencers that are maintaining the one body type image to educate people on the healthy approach to fitness.

London-based personal trainer at Peach, Lauren Slater, prides herself on creating an Instagram page that is dedicated to fitness with videos on effective home exercises, debunking fitness myths and preaching the importance of health over being thin. Lauren uses her growing platform to empower women in the body they currently have, not the body they want. She focuses on intuitive training, rather than sticking to a strict workout regimen.

While Lauren is trying to encourage her clients to listen to their bodies and help them reach their goals, she knows how much Instagram and the fitness industry have made this difficult for some. Her clients biggest insecurities are self-esteem and body confidence.

She claims, “The fitness industry is absolutely not innocent and often quite literally makes its money from profiting off people’s insecurities. The idea of a ‘bikini body’ has been grasped by the fitness industry to sell ‘summer body’ programs leading to a cyclical process of people feeling they need to ‘shape up’ for summer or feel guilty if they don’t. Content like ‘before and after’ pictures online helps to reinforce the narrative that weight loss is always desirable and should always be part of someone’s goal when approaching an exercise plan.”

Emily Harding, a 29-year-old yoga teacher at Yeh Yoga, is also very vocal on social media about empowering women through fitness. She continually reiterates that although she works out for a living, her body is nowhere near perfect. She uses her Instagram to promote fitness as a way to practice self-love and body positivity.

Working in the fitness industry, she’s seen her fair share of body shaming and how fitness feeds into bikini body culture. She believes that fitness has contributed to bikini body culture in more ways than one: “There’s a total lack of diversity from big brands who will put out these fitness adverts. We never see women who’ve just had a baby, or women with love handles, belly rolls, cellulite, bingo wings, just one type of 'fitness'. Thankfully, there’s been a lot of traction in the movement for plus-sized models, but there’s no representation or messaging for anyone who doesn’t consider themselves plus-sized. Plus sized models start at size 12, which is insane as the average UK dress size is 16! If you fall somewhere in between rake-thin and plus-sized you can feel like it’s just you battling these body image issues, as we just don’t share these 'normal' parts of our bodies enough.”

Every body is a bikini body

While Instagram has done more harm than good when it comes to bikini body culture, it’s also a place where people go to feel good about themselves and find themselves being represented in ways mainstream media doesn’t. The freeing nature of the platform gives all bodies to post what they want, bringing about diversity and acceptance.

Emily started garnering more followers due to a video she posted where she had been vulnerable about her bloated belly. In the video, Emily shows her followers what her belly looks like, why it’s that way, but most importantly, she wants to destigmatize the notion that bellies are supposed to be flat. In mainstream media, the only time a woman’s body is round is when she’s pregnant. It’s rare to see what women’s bellies look like on a daily basis, forever changing and never flat all the time or ever.

Despite what is seen on her Instagram, she points out that her body regularly looks like that. Since then, she has posted a number of videos, detailing her chronicles of bloating and body positivity with the hashtag #AllBelliesAreBeautiful.

When asked why she decided to post the video in the first place, she said, “The first video just honestly came from such a sudden place of exasperation and having had enough of feeling like I wasn’t a good enough woman, human, yogi, teacher or community leader in my body. I’ve struggled with bloating for so many years, since my early twenties, and it’s something that has caused me a lot of mental and emotional pain and trauma in that time. I just wanted to try and shake people into waking up about what they see online!”

Before Instagram can be a safe space for body positivity, it’s important to acknowledge what images or accounts can be triggering. Raffela Mancuso has been a mental health and body positivity advocate on social media for two years. She’s known for being vocal about fatphobia and how diet culture and skewed body perception from the media has led to eating disorders.

She candidly shares her own struggles that she had with body image due to bikini body culture, “It’s brutal! It’s causing eating disorders even for people who don’t know that. I’ve had an eating disorder probably my entire life and I was not diagnosed until this year, at the age of 24 even though the height of my struggle was probably when I was 18. I didn’t know. I thought it was all my fault because I was living in a bigger body. I didn’t stop to think that it might be that society is wrong and not me. It’s selling the summer body.”

Being able to share her journey and mental health struggles with her followers has given Raffela a sense of newfound purpose. She’s taken on her role as an activist and continues to use her social media platforms to encourage all body types, especially larger ones as they are not seen as the norm on Instagram. Recognising that social media can be both a toxic and wonderful place, she started curating her feed to be less triggering and more inspiring.

She suggests, “For me, a big thing was following fat women on Instagram because we all have internalised fatphobia and to see big women, who I think are drop dead gorgeous, living their lives. They just seem like they’re thriving. I can look at them and think they are so beautiful but I look at myself and I can’t say the same thing. What is wrong with that? That’s something I’ve been working through.”

She adds, “[Follow] people that make you feel good about the body you’re in and make you feel seen and that your experience is valid.”

Women on Instagram have made strides in ending bikini body culture, but there still is a long way to go. Hopefully the platform can become a place of growth and acceptance for all bodies.