Too many of us struggle to achieve a body ideal that’s just not obtainable by humans. It’s time to redefine what’s good, healthy and attractive on our own terms, say writers (and sisters) Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski.
The Bikini Industrial Complex. That’s our name for the $100 billion cluster of businesses that profit by setting an unachievable “aspirational ideal,” convincing us that we can and should — indeed we must — conform with the ideal, and then selling us ineffective but plausible strategies for achieving that ideal. It’s like old cat pee in the carpet, powerful and pervasive and it makes you uncomfortable every day but it’s invisible and no one can remember a time when it didn’t smell.
Let’s shine a black light on it, so you can know where the smell is coming from. You already know that basically everything in the media is there to sell you thinness — the shellacked abs in ads for exercise equipment, the “one weird trick to lose belly fat” clickbait when all you wanted was a weather forecast, and the “flawless” thin women who fill most TV shows. The Bikini Industrial Complex, or BIC, has successfully created a culture of immense pressure to conform to an ideal that is literally unobtainable by almost everyone and yet is framed not just as the most beautiful, but the healthiest and most virtuous.
But it’s not just magazine covers, ads and other fictions that get it wrong. The body mass index (BMI) chart and its labels — underweight, overweight, obese, etc. — were created by a panel of nine individuals, seven of whom were “employed by weight-loss clinics and thus have an economic interest in encouraging use of their facilities,” as researchers Paul Ernsberger and Richard J Koletsky put it.
You’ve been lied to about the relationship between weight and health so that you’ll perpetually try to change your weight. But listen: It can be healthier to be 70 or more pounds over your medically defined “healthy weight” than just five pounds under it. A 2016 meta-analysis in The Lancet medical journal examined 189 studies, encompassing nearly four million people who never smoked and had no diagnosed medical issues. It found that people labeled “obese” by the CDC have lower health risk than those the CDC categorized as “underweight.” The study also found that being “overweight” according to the CDC is lower risk than being at the low end of the “healthy” range as defined by the US federal government and the World Health Organization.
Another meta-analysis even found that people in the BMI category labeled “overweight” may live longer than people in any other category, and the highest predictable mortality rate might be among those labeled “underweight.” Taking it further, newer research is suggesting that doctors warn their middle-aged and older patients against losing weight, because the increasingly well-established dangers of fluctuations in weight outweigh any risk associated with a high but stable weight.
Our culture has primed us to judge fat people as lazy and selfish. And it goes deep. Amelia conducts a children’s choir, and she has to teach her kids to breathe. At ten, eight, even six years old, they already believe that their bellies are supposed to be flat and hard, so they hold their stomachs in. You can’t breathe deeply, all the way, without relaxing your abdomen, and you can’t sing if you can’t breathe. So Amelia has to teach children to breathe.
Please: Relax your belly. It’s supposed to be round. The BIC has been gaslighting you.
We’re not saying the people or companies that constitute the BIC are out to get you. Frankly, we don’t think they’re smart enough to have created this system on purpose. But they recognize there’s money to be made by establishing and enforcing impossible standards.
We all encounter the BIC every day. So how can we make it through the fray?
One strategy: Play the “new hotness” game.
When we reconstruct our own standard of beauty with a definition that comes from our own hearts and includes our bodies as they are right now, we can turn toward our bodies with kindness and compassion. Well, easier said than done.
Amelia is vain about pictures of her conducting, in which she inevitably has her mouth wide open and her hair is a sweaty wreck. Emily watches herself on TV and worries that her chin is too pointy because one time, somebody said it was. (We are identical twins.)
Neither of us has ever had the skinny proportions of a model, and we watched our mom — who was model-thin before she gestated two seven-pound babies at the same time — look at her reflection in mirrors and cry at what she saw there. What she saw there is very much like what we see in our own reflections now.
Which is why we play the “New Hotness” game, a way to let go of body self-criticism and shift to self-kindness. One day, Amelia was at a fancy boutique, trying on gowns for a performance. Attire for women conductors is hard to find: solid black with long sleeves, formal yet not frumpy is an unlikely combination. Finding all of this in her size is even more difficult.
She tried on a dress that looked so amazingly good she texted Emily a dress selfie, with a caption paraphrasing Will Smith in Men in Black II: i am the new hotness.
And now “new hotness” is our texting shorthand for looking fabulous without reference to the socially constructed ideal. We recommend it. It’s fun.
Maybe you don’t look like you used to, or like you used to imagine you should, but how you look today is the new hotness. Even better than the old hotness.
Saggy belly skin from that baby you birthed? New hotness.
Gained 20 pounds while finishing school? New hotness.
Skin gets new wrinkles because you lived another year? New hotness.
Hair longer or shorter, or a different color or style? New hotness.
Mastectomy following breast cancer? New hotness.
Amputation following combat injury? New hotness.
The point is, you define and redefine your body’s worth, on your own terms. It’s not necessary to turn toward your body with love and affection — love and affection are frosting on the cake of body acceptance, and if they work for you, go for it. But all your body requires of you is that you turn toward it with kindness and compassion, again and again, without judging all your contradictory emotions, beliefs and longings.
No doubt after you finish reading this, you will go out into the world and notice the diversity of bodies around you. And you will still have reflexive thoughts about the people who don’t conform to the aspirational ideal, envious thoughts about the people who do, or self-critical thoughts about the ways the world tells you that you fall short. And then you might even have emotional reactions to your emotional reactions: “Darn it, I shouldn’t think that!”
Change happens gradually. Your brain has been soaking in the BIC for decades; any time you step outside your door, you’re back in it; any time you turn on a TV, you’re back in it; and any time you put clothes on, you’re back in it. Just notice it, as you’d notice a fleck of dust floating through the air. Smile kindly at the mess. And know what’s true: Everyone is the new hotness. You are the new hotness. So is she. So are they. So are we.
Excerpted from Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily and Amelia Nagoski. Copyright © 2019 by Emily and Amelia Nagoski. Used by permission of Ballantine, an imprint of Random House Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Watch Emily Nagoski’s TED talk here: