As a Fitness Instructor, I Refuse to Use the Words "Bikini Body"

young fitness woman runner  running at forest trail
young fitness woman runner running at forest trail

In a brilliant editorial New Year's resolution, Women's Health editor-in-chief Amy Keller Laird recently decided to ban the phrases "bikini body" and "drop two sizes" from future covers of the magazine. The move, while bold, is not unprecedented: the phrases join the already-banned words "shrink" and "diet," which the magazine did away with last year. But it was Laird's explanation behind the decision, which came in the form of two poignant "Dear John" letters, that had women across the Internet declaring their resounding approval.

"You've got a shaming negative undertone that's become more than annoying," Laird wrote to "Bikini Body." "Listen, rocking a bikini does require confidence, but we'd rather focus on the greater benefits of getting a strong-as-hell core: running, surfing, dancing, climbing, being able to carry a 2-year-old up and down the stairs 10 times a day."

Across the magazine's social media accounts, the response was swift and overwhelmingly positive. One Instagram user commented, "Thank you for this. Shifting from unattainable and unrealistic attention-grabbing articles to a focus on long-term health and wellbeing [...] I have a newfound respect for your magazine." While there is nothing new about women demanding more inclusive, genuine content from magazines, every step in the right direction counts. Laird told BuzzFeed News that Women's Health recognizes there has been a "cultural shift in the way women view health, fitness, and wellness."

It's no secret that women consistently fall prey to the perfectionist tendencies that the fitness industry has, for decades, incessantly asked us to live up to. Every spring, it seems, we are reminded (as if we could ever forget) that we must drop two sizes in order to achieve our dream bikini body by summer. As a longtime consumer of magazines like Women's Health and as a fitness professional who has worked in the health and wellness industry for the past 10 years, I am no stranger to this struggle. In a way, the industry has made it my job to be a walking billboard of six-pack abs and invincible cellulite in order to seem credible. I spent years trying to live up to the industry's ideals by eating and exercising my way to a perfect body--without stopping to think about my actual health or happiness.

In March of 2013, I was in Atlanta, Georgia, preparing for a once-in-a-lifetime debut on a fitness DVD. In the months leading up to the taping, I relentlessly followed a diet of strictly "clean" food (whatever that meant). I ate on the hour, every three hours, and never left the house without Tupperware containers of chicken, sweet potatoes, and asparagus. On the outside, I looked the happiest and most fit I'd ever been. But inside, I was emptier than ever. My body (specifically, my hormones) were crying out for help. Night after night, I found myself standing in my kitchen, spoon buried deep in a jar of creamy peanut butter, looking for comfort in calories that I was absolutely not allowed to be eating.

A month after the filming, I weighed the most I had in years. The perfectionism that had been lurking in every aspect of my life had finally caused me to break down. I felt like I was drowning in shame.

Even exercise felt lackluster. At the gym a few weeks later, I joined 40 or so other women for an hour of cardio strength training. The group fitness class began like it usually did; endorphins buzzed, sweat gathered. Moving my body like this was still my favorite part of every day--the part when I felt my strongest, and most sure of myself.

And then the instructor began to talk.

"Picture yourself on the beach," she said. "We're gonna tighten that jiggle in your thighs with these fat-blasting exercises." I immediately stopped doing squats. The instructor's words rang in my ears, and for the first time since the class had started, I looked at myself in the mirror, taking in every inch of my body, my jiggle, my to-be fat-blasted frame.

It's been three years since that group exercise class, but I think about it often. Last year, I founded RetiFit, a wellness company aimed at empowering people to live healthier and happier lives. RetiFit provides products and services that help embrace our motto: "Progress over Perfection." These days, when I'm teaching a group fitness class, I choose my words carefully, knowing how much of an impact they can have. I emphasize how the exercises we do in class are in preparation for activities we do outside the gym. I push class participants to persevere through tough sets, because I know that how we face challenges inside the gym directly translates to how we face challenges outside the gym.

Unfortunately, this is not how most health and wellness industry professionals approach their work. When it comes to marketing, it is virtually impossible to go against the grain; editors have magazines to sell, after all, and marketing is a very valuable tool. For years, entrepreneurs have used Google search engine optimization (SEO) as a powerful tool to tell them what they should name their fitness programs--which is why "bikini body fitness program" is one of the most-searched fitness programs today.

Except women are not actually searching for a "bikini body fitness program." They are searching for a place to find self-worth and satisfaction, hoping Google can provide something that can only be found within themselves.

Look, I get it. I absolutely bought into all of this. But I've officially opted out. And as you ease into this joyful new year, I hope you'll do the same. Join me in deciding to feel and look good on your own terms, for your own body, for your own health and happiness. The magazines will catch on soon enough.