This post originally appeared on the Change.org Women’s Rights Blog. It was the channel’s most popular post of the quarter, inspiring nearly 150 on-site comments from registered users plus hundreds of social media interactions.
Like baseball and BBQs, attaining the perfect bikini body has evolved into an all-American pastime. Starting with spring break and extending through Labor Day, women and girls across the country strive to lose weight, tone their tummies and find a flattering swimsuit. We must earn our fun in the sun with a suitable figure.
Our nation is once again in the grips of bikini body disorder. So People magazine is patting itself on the back for putting a 48-year-old TV star in a two-piece bathing suit on the cover. And while this editorial decision does challenge one ideal, the article staunchly supports another. The Valerie Bertinelli story is merely a glorification of weight loss. Thanks to a rigid diet and exercise routine, the actress was able to whittle her figure down to a stereotypically accepted size 6. Apparently middle aged women can be sexy, but they have to drop 50 pounds first.
This wasn’t Bertinelli’s first People cover. In April 2007, she earned that honor for her public declaration to slim down. “I need to do this in front of millions of people so I can’t mess up,” Bertinelli said. “It is freeing because I can say it first: I know what you’re thinking – I’m fat.” According to the current issue, she rarely made public appearances at her high weight of 172 pounds. This is obviously a woman with serious body image issues. But two years and a Jenny Craig endorsement later, she’s bearing it all on the beach, promoting herself as a health and weight-loss activist.
Because age is one of the ways our society discriminates against women’s bodies, the story initially appears inspirational. “A bikini? I’m too old for bikinis!” cries Bertinelli. “Then I realized, Wait a minute. Why not a bikini?”
But the article quickly devolves into a glorified diet ad. At times, it goes a step further, eerily echoing eating disorder rhetoric. “I’m just one jalapeno popper away from being 40 lbs. heavier again,” says Bertinelli. She adds that every time she looks in the mirror, “My eyes go immediately to the parts I don’t like, the jiggly bits.”
This type of story reinforces extreme dieting and negative body image. Bertinelli claims, “We all just need to appreciate our bodies for what they are, jiggly bits and all.” Yet she could not do that herself. Not only did she diet down to 132 pounds in nine months, she got down to 123 for the photo shoot, hiring a personal trainer and restricting her calories to rock bottom levels. Now she vows to “stay vigilant” and keep working on her waistline.
Far from a tale of body acceptance, Bertinelli’s bikini quest exemplifies our twisted obsession with losing weight. It supports the cliché that no matter how old you are, no matter how much you’ve accomplished professionally or personally, there is always room for improvement. And for American women, that improvement starts on the scale.