Welcome to Your Fall Body

It’s not bikini body. It’s fall body.

Vintage paper dolls with bikini and jeans.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Alfadanz/iStock/Getty Images Plus and CSA-Printstock/Getty Images Plus.

It’s happening here in New York, and if it hasn’t happened near you, it will soon: that chill in the air, fresh school supplies on the shelves, the perennial onset of pumpkin spice everything (including, this year, limited edition Cheerios). It’s the time when we retire sandals and beach cover-ups to the backs of our closets and pull on jeans for the first time in five months. And then button them. And then walk around and try to sit down in them. And then confront the reality that, over so many weekends of lounging in the park and drinking rosé, we may have gained some weight since we last wore them.

We realized that, rather than be trapped alone in this psychological face-off with our pants, probably just about every woman in our hemisphere feels similarly right about now. Perhaps you’ve been going bare-legged to work and plan to continue doing so for as long as possible even as the temperatures drop. Don’t do that. Let’s talk about it. We are gathered here neither to celebrate not condemn this phenomenon, just to name it: Welcome to your fall body.

Think of fall body as the inverse of that other seasonally linked corporeal form, the bikini body.
Every winter across America, the specter of the bikini body (with some help from the more sadistic workout instructors out there) taunts American women to make their flesh flatter and sinews slimmer so as to prepare for the summer season, when they’ll no doubt be dressed in two-pieces morning, noon, and night. The bikini body is more a cultural construction rather than an actual thing; it’s able to shift to fit in with whatever fashion and social trends are happening, while still being restrictive.

Our body politics are such that the bikini body has, rightfully, been under siege lately: Many, though not all, of the very women’s fitness publications that popularized it have now banned it from their pages or sought to evolve their coverage past skinny-for-skinny’s-sake. Sports Illustrated, for its part, professes to be fighting to expand the bounds of the ogle-able body shape by featuring models who are larger and softer than their traditional norm. But far from dying off, instead the bikini body has just migrated—to YouTube self-improvement channels and Instagram workout plans, where the notion endures more strongly than ever and its central meaning remains “traditionally hot.”

The logic of the small, washboard-ab bikini body has always been hopelessly centered around the onlooker’s gaze. Consider the bikini itself, a clothing item usually made of stretchy material, with adjustable straps and ties. Purely in terms of how much surface area of your body it covers, a body wearing a bikini can be a body that grows and shrinks, on its own terms, unconstricted. If we use “bikini” as a stand-in, this also holds true for the now-trendy-again one-piece: a similarly elastic item that, even with an additional pound or two, is never going to feel like a corset when you put it on. The suits themselves are forgiving.

Tying on a bikini is easy. You know what’s hard? Squeezing into denim. What garment is more unforgiving than a classic pair of blue jeans? You can get away with wearing skirts, dresses, flowy linen, and elastic waists all summer, but fall tends to demand bona fide pants. Even when our jeans fit perfectly, we wiggle and jump to get them on; there’s that Dazed & Confused scene (based on ’70s lore, no doubt) where the girls lay down and use pliers to get a particularly tight pair on. Bathing suits have a little give, but if your jeans are even a few millimeters too snug? Misery awaits. You can be completely comfortable with your health and size and still be rudely brought back down to earth by the structured waist of jeans that are just a little bit too small. (Stretchy jeans have helped a bit in making jeans a little more flexible, but even stretchy jeans have to button.) No matter how much you love your body, no matter whether you’ve chosen to ignore it, clothes still have a certain physics about them.

Our bodies shift, going through seasons both literal and emotional, in ways we have to attend to. “Bikini body” is an evil phrase because it’s prescriptive, a body deemed a “should.” “Fall body” is descriptive: This is simply your body when you haven’t worn jeans in five months. Language should follow how our bodies behave rather than dictate standards for us to aspire to or avoid. Unlike the bikini body, the fall body is not about the Instagram camera gaze. It is about the way that flesh and skin feel against your clothes. We all have fall bodies sometimes, and it’s OK to feel some fall body–related anxiety. Critique as we might the diet-industrial complex, fall body reminds us that we cannot transcend having a body altogether.

So here is our advice: Rather than risk a first-chilly-Monday-morning fallbod freakout, maybe set aside some low-stakes time on a Sunday to haul out the fall gear and get acquainted with this year’s edition of your waist. Set a calendar reminder right now to do it in August next year. Fall body might need jeans that are a size or two larger: Budget appropriately so you can welcome fall body. The best thing about fall body is that you don’t have to do anything to get one; there’s no such thing as a fall body workout or cleanse. The work is done: The way your body is right now—that’s your fall body.