lifestyle

The flaw in Kayla Itsines' 12-week bikini-body challenge

Kayla Itsines is the kind of person whose fame is really hard to explain to your mum.

At just 24, Itsines is an entrepreneur and social media celebrity.  She designed her Bikini Body Guides with the promise of getting her clients ‘bikini body ready’ in as little as 12 weeks.

Itsines has as many Instagram followers as New Zealand has people, she has launched her own fitness app, has three e-books to her name, one world tour under her belt, and was recently named Cosmopolitan’s Woman of the Year. She is a hard working young woman whose self-professed goal is to “help women around the world every single day”.

So why does Itsines, and her notion of ‘bikini body confidence’, make us so uncomfortable?

Against the backdrop of an obesity epidemic, where a healthy lifestyle has become synonymous with piety and morality, it is unpopular to suggest that #fitspo and weight loss programs might be part of the problem.

But we don’t think ‘bikini body challenges’ are the key to tackling the health issues of our generation. Instead, the message  we need to be ‘bikini body ready’ is harmful, particularly for women.

At the very least, the phenomenon of Kayla Itsines and her ‘army’ of followers is worthy of some critical analysis.

Kayla Itsines
Kayla’s army. Image via Instagram @kayla_itsines.
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Our discomfort begins with the tagline of her fitness app: “Fast track your journey to Bikini Body Confidence today!”

This is clever marketing – because until now, we weren’t aware we were on a journey. The ‘product’ has invented a problem (women’s bodies), in order to market us the solution.

Why does bikini body confidence only emerge from a journey? Why does anyone still use the word ‘journey’? What is a bikini body, and who designed it? Isn’t a bikini body just a body in a bikini? Any body? The focus on the ‘bikini’ in so many weight loss campaigns implies that women have to earn their right to display their body. Unless they are a size 6 with rock hard abs, a bikini is not theirs to own. Why does living a healthier life have to be conflated with the way you look?

Despite Itsines’ best attempts to promote a “focus on health, not on weight”, it is entirely unconvincing when paired with images such as this:

Kayla Itsines
Image via Instagram @kayla_itsines

While there are some clear theoretical inconsistencies with Kayla Itsines’ brand, people will tell you none of it matters – the point is her bikini body guides work. Most of us want to lose weight and get in better shape, and Itsines helps her clients to do that.

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Some clients may well be telling the truth. We have absolutely no doubt that if you followed Itsines guides you would lose weight, and by our incredibly narrow and rigid beauty standards, probably look better in a bikini.

But that’s not the problem.

The problem is the vast majority of people don’t stick to ‘guides’ or ‘diets’. That’s why weight loss is a multi-billion dollar industry – because people fail. The industry relies on short-term gains, and then a relapse to previous habits, so that people will keep coming back.

Another flaw is that fitness gurus, in presenting extreme diets and exercise plans, alienate many of those they wish to help. When lifestyle changes appear unrealistic and unachievable, people become apathetic.

Lorna Jane’s unrealistic fridge got many of us talking.

We are not implying that people like Itsines are manipulative or dishonest, or want people to waste their money and not achieve their goals. Her intentions are probably extremely genuine, and she might really want to change people’s lives.

But unfortunately, the evidence isn’t in her favour. The fact is that despite decades of research, and intricately designed behavioural weight loss therapies, experts are still unable to find weight loss plans that reliably work. And, to put it quite simply, if images of thin women in bikinis helped people to lose weight – we wouldn’t have an obesity epidemic.

kaylaitsines4
Image via Instagram @kayla_itsines.

The entire ‘bikini body’ phenomenon is dangerously flawed but also socialises women to believe our value is inherently connected to our physical appearance – and that our physical appearance is always inadequate. Ultimately, we are never good enough, and this infiltrates deeply into our lived experiences.

We do not claim to speak for all women, but we know that when we look at Itsines’ Instagram, we do not feel empowered or motivated. We feel we’re not good enough.

Itsines doesn’t inspire us to make real, sustainable changes to our behaviour to improve our health in the long term –  that’s not what her brand is about.

Kayla Itsines before and after.
Images via Instagram @kayla_itsines.

It doesn’t matter how you package it or how many success stories you sell – bikini body challenges are not the real challenge for women. Overcoming the oppressive forces that tell us we are never good enough is the challenge. Because there’s no such thing as being ‘good enough’ to wear a bikini. You are good enough as you are, at any size.

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