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The Problem With The Bikini Body Guide

Photographed by Lauren Perlstein.
Last year, I spent four months working my way from sedentary to active. I'd gone from breaking a sweat just walking up a flight of stairs to running miles every day on the treadmill. Believe it or not, my motive couldn't have been any less superficial at the time — I wasn't trying to lose weight or look like a Sports Illustrated model. No, my husband and I were planning to start a family soon, and I was simply getting my body ready for a healthy pregnancy.

Eventually, I was ready for something different: Proud of myself for getting in shape and a little bored with my workout routine, I wanted to keep the momentum going and find a new challenge. That's when I started noticing some of the "fit girls" I followed on social media tagging their pictures with #deathbykayla, #kaylasarmy, and #thekaylamovement. I didn't know who Kayla was, but rumour had it her workouts were hardcore, so I wanted in! With a little digging, I discovered that Kayla is an Aussie trainer named Kayla Itsines, and her gruelling program is called the Bikini Body Guide. Even back then I cringed at the name, but charmed by the promise of a challenge, I thoughtlessly clicked the follow button and handed over $48 (£32) for her program.

Over the course of the next 12 weeks, I got what I wanted — burpees, push-ups, sweat, endurance — yet at the end of the programme, I had more body issues than when I'd started. How’d that happen?

Following Itsines on social media was an education on what a “bikini body” is. Her Instagram feed is a gallery of six-packs, thigh gaps, and bubble butts — a steady stream of superficial inspiration that’s scored her five million followers, more than Jillian Michaels, Shape magazine, Shaun T, and Dr. Oz combined.

I quickly learned that her brand seemed less focused on the physical challenge the hashtag #deathbykayla had suggested, and more on aesthetic results. Her marketing strategy relies on snapshots of her own sculpted abs along with transformation photos of the young women who’ve used her programme. Before and after pictures that make you think: If strangers on the internet can achieve this ideal, so can I! Sprinkle in some pseudo-empowering messages, and voilà. All of this fitspo isn't supposed to be about getting skinny; it’s about “inspiring” an audience. After all, look how much happier she is! Strong is the new sexy! You can’t fake fitness!

I fell for it.

Within a few weeks, a major shift happened to my motivation and mentality. I was no longer focused on the intrinsic benefits of exercise — endurance, endorphins, energy; instead, I was hung up on how toned my abs, arms, and legs looked — the “proof” of how fit I really was. Like Kayla says, you can’t fake fitness. Exposing myself to her version of a bikini body brainwashed me into believing I needed to look like the girls on her page to validate my healthy lifestyle. I was Pavlov’s dog in a case of classic conditioning — trained to associate the bikini body with health.

There’s a thrill that comes with finishing one workout. That thrill has nothing to do with how you look in a bikini.

No matter how many salads I ate, no matter how many smoothies I drank, no matter how many seconds I shaved off my mile, I needed the bikini-body trophy before I could truly consider myself healthy. My health was now tied to my beauty, and while I’d always thought of myself as a woman with a sound outlook on body image and beauty standards, this was new territory. I know that celebrities and models in movies and on magazine covers are photoshopped, airbrushed, unnatural. In other words, not real life. Then social media came along, and isn’t that supposed to be real life?

The burden of keeping body-image issues in check has always been on us, the followers, rather than on them, the manufacturers of these problematic standards. I’m supposed to know that pictures don’t give you the full picture. I’m supposed to be happy with my progress even when it doesn’t match the perfect bodies on my feed. I’m supposed to know that a bikini body is just a body in a bikini.

I’m supposed to know better.

Well, I don’t.

I’d started working out in the first place with the goal of having a baby; now I found myself secretly wanting to postpone getting pregnant to achieve this new standard. I dove deeper into absurdity when the “proof” never showed, and flip-flopped into thinking that pregnancy would actually be a great excuse for not having a bikini body. You know, take some of the pressure off. Make no mistake, I eventually felt mortified about the direction in which my train of thought headed, but only after I scraped together enough good judgement to take a step back and jump ship from the BBG online community. I realised that social media is a trigger for me. I’ve learned to follow responsibly.

I've since moved on to Fitness Blender, a programme created by a husband-and-wife team who don't put the focus on appearance at all (at least from what I've seen in their videos). It's all about improving your strength, flexibility, and endurance, and it's been fantastic. I'm on week 20 of Fitness Blender, and I do not follow the programme on social media, just to be safe.

There’s no doubt in my mind that my experience with BBG would have been more body-positive had I opted not to follow Kayla Itsines on Instagram. Despite its awful name, the Bikini Body Guide is actually a good workout program — great, even. It’s quick, challenging, effective, and inexpensive. The PDF guides are easy to follow. There’s a balance of high- and low-intensity exercise. The difficulty progresses every week. There’s even a thrill that comes with finishing one workout, and of course the entire 12 weeks. That thrill should have nothing to do with how you look in a bikini. Now that I’ve unfollowed Kayla Itsines, that’s going to be enough for me.