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Swimsuit Season: The Summer of Our Discontent

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SWIMSUIT
Datacraft Co Ltd via Getty Images

Summer is in full swing -- meaning "fun in the sun."

Are you excited? Or does the idea of donning a bathing suit in public fill you with a sense of existential dread as deep and unfathomable as the Marianas Trench?

If so, you're not alone.

As a culture, we place too much emphasis on appearance. Social media and celebrity culture is pervasive, letting us know how we "should" look. If we are not thin, tanned and toned, somehow we are led to believe we're not "working" hard enough.

Never mind that human beings come in many varieties. What has been touted as "ideal" may be quite unhealthy for many people.

Nevertheless, there's a lot of money to be made by selling a certain image.

Have you ever browsed the headlines of many popular women's magazines in the grocery store check-out aisle? Why is the psychology -- building you up to knock you down -- so incredibly effective?

Many such magazines have one article about self-esteem, self-confidence or the power of positive thinking. The other six or seven articles let you know what is wrong with you.

Like hungry sharks honing in on the flailing swimmer, they deliver the final death blow as a series of tiny bites:

Lose 15 Pounds! Get Shinier Hair In Two Weeks! Be More Outgoing! Finally Meet A Guy! Look Great In A Bikini! Learn How To Say The Perfect Thing All The Time!

"I'll put back the Ben and Jerry's and the frozen cheese pizza," you quietly tell the checkout clerk. Sheepishly, you toss the magazine onto the conveyor belt.

I would be amiss not to mention that men also suffer in response to our body-obsessed culture. Thankfully, the headings on men's fitness magazines tend to fall into two camps: "Get Six-Pack Abs!" and "Meet More Women!" (Mercifully, there's nothing about looking 15 pounds lighter by sitting certain way on a pool chaise or creating the perfect smoky eye.)

Our media culture is laying waste to a more complex, nuanced understanding of the world faster than you can say Attila the Hun. We have become a society focused on externals and cheap, external validation (e.g., Facebook likes) and less attuned to the intrinsic qualities you can't suss out from a photo -- kindness, compassion and thoughtfulness, for example. If you can't say it in 150 characters or less, you might as well forget it.

We live in a world where we "critique" celebrity physiques mercilessly, and where pictures of Kim Kardashian receive more social media attention that the crisis in Syria or Iraq.

Is this the downfall of Western civilization?

Maybe. Maybe not.

I harken back to my youth. It was a kinder, simpler time, at least as far as working out was concerned. In the late '80s, the "fitness industry" had yet to emerge in its current glory.

Everybody was not trying to get an eight pack. The "workout selfie" (taken daily in the gym mirror, lips pursed into an intimidating scowl, midsection shining forth) had yet to emerge in its excruciating glory.

I do remember seeing my first workout video for sale. I was in elementary school and it was the Christmas season.

"Buns of Steel," the brightly-colored print read. Or, rather, screamed into the crowds of holiday shoppers.

There was a palpable sense of immediacy. Either your life was going to change or you were just about to be abducted by an alien ship, never to be seen again.

The VHS cassettes had been stacked in a perfect pyramid. The display had been sprinkled with silver tinsel and adorned with crimson bulbs whose spherical contours conjured a type of Amazonian gluteal perfection out of reach to all mere morals (except, of course, for those willing to surrender a few bucks for the cassette).

"Here, my child, lies the solution to your earthly woes," the store display seemed to speak from On High: "You will be fit and fabulous by June." The voice was raspy, yet authoritative. It sounded like Richard Simmons after a couple of cigarettes and a few vodka martinis.

The "Buns of Steel" looked like two rotisserie chicken legs, encased in a sleek spandex bodysuit, dewy from exertion, tanned to the point of crispness. It brought to mind glitter and glamor: white sand beaches, red Ferrraris and diamonds. It was flashy and fancy. It represented a potent antidote to Western Pennsylvania winters, to snowstorms and Christmas cookies, to burgeoning waistlines and flaring fannies.

Why would anybody want to look like a Thanksgiving turkey? I secretly wondered.

I guess I still can't really understand.

Maybe our ancient ancestors had the right idea as far as fitness is concerned -- a little cardio here, some cross-training there, all during the course of a day. There were, after all, saber-toothed tigers to fend off, marauding hordes to be outmaneuvered and crawling cavelings to protect. Who needs CrossFit anyway?

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