From a young age, we are told that perfection means looking a certain way, and that in order to be great, we must be beautiful. This idea of physical excellence is nothing more than a social construct, a set of standards that have changed and evolved for decades, while keeping the human body the only constant. Romans believed that the perfect body was voluptuous and curvy, while the early 1990s used dress sizes to quantify beauty. Regardless of the criteria, people have been on a quest to achieve beauty and physical perfection in all eras. And while the criteria may be constantly evolving, the average body has traditionally been seen as less than ideal for both sexes. Today, the search for the perfect body is rapidly changing once again, leading us to deconstruct social norms and individualize what it means to have the ideal body.
This idea is most clearly illustrated in the health and diet industries, which have experienced significant changes to the meanings of the words health and beauty over the last decade. Prior to the 2000s, consumers were told by both businesses and the media that health was directly correlated to weight loss and that the perfect body was a skinny body. This allowed products like jazzercise, zero-calorie Tab soda, and SlimFast to reign supreme. However, as the new millennium brought changing definitions in both the food and wellness industries, the embodiment of beauty shifted from thin to healthy.
Brands have had to reassess and understand these shifts in order to ensure that their strategies remain relevant and that they meet the new desires and needs of the consumer. These changes also paved the way for new brands, while simultaneously making older business models obsolete. People no longer want restrictive diet plans, instead they are seeking more balance in their diets and lifestyle. Highly processed foods have fallen under intense scrutiny and people are more aware of what is on the ingredients list than ever before. Take milk, for example; the milk industry has seen a rise in the sales of full fat milk, which can be attributed to better education on the added sugars that are required to reduce the fat content of milk products. While people used to consume products that they believed would make them thin or help them lose weight, they now opt for more natural foods and products. This is evidenced by the real food movement and the large number of “natural” and “real” attributes that are gracing the aisles of CPG products.
The affects of this shift can be seen in traditional diet programs like Weight Watchers, who have had to reimagine their business models in order to keep up with changing consumer perceptions. There became an apparent disconnect between their old points-based system—that allowed dieters to eat whatever they wanted so long as it fell into their daily points allocation—and eating real, healthy food. In 2015, Weight Watchers introduced a new plan focusing on healthy eating and holistic weight loss, values that are more aligned with today’s consumers.
Diets and eating plans are also becoming highly personalized. Delivery meal plans like Blue Apron or Mindful Chef allow customers to choose which meals they want to include in their box, while also enabling them to filter selections based on their own diet choices. DNAFit, a company that upgrades 23andMe’s genetic testing, goes as far as to recommend diet and fitness based on one’s own DNA, suggesting that what makes a healthy diet is unique to each individual.
The way people think about food is not the only change in the wellness space; people are also changing the way that they think about their bodies, focusing on the idea that healthy bodies are beautiful in their own right and not all bodies are meant to look the same. The belief that every body is beautiful is being increasingly highlighted in popular culture and the media, placing the onus on individuals to create their own definitions of health and beauty rather than following dated cultural norms. We are told to embrace our “dad and mom bods,” and search for balance and health rather than perfection.
While slim and healthy has come to develop new meanings for individuals, this movement is also highly social in nature, allowing us to openly talk about changing perceptions around the perfect body. For example, yogis of all shapes and sizes are taking to social media to try and shift perceptions that yoga is only for the slender and toned. Meanwhile, Kayla Itsines has broken Instagram with her introduction of a bikini boot camp guide that can be done by anyone with minimal gym equipment. And it isn’t only fitness professionals engaging in this social space, but everyday people who are sharing their workouts, before and after photos, and personal ideas and anecdotes around health and wellness.
But it goes beyond empowering one another and discovering new ways of being healthy; consumers are looking for products and companies that do so too. CrossFit has been able to capitalize on our changing beauty perceptions by encouraging members to engage in physical activities that were once perceived as masculine and could lead to bulking up. By cheering on its members with mottos like “strong is the new skinny” and focusing on strength and stamina, CrossFit has rearticulated what it means to be in shape.
Individualized ideas of health and beauty are changing the way people interact with one another, and what they expect from companies in this space. As the world continues to move towards more personalization, companies will need to continue to cater their offerings to move beyond a one-size-fits all approach and embrace every body as the unique system that it is.