Within a few days of each other, two of my very intelligent friends shared this blog post on Facebook. Both celebrated what is being hailed as a new movement toward healthy body image for a younger generation of gurls.
“Strong Is the New Skinny” seems like a positive leap forward in the narrative of women’s bodies. Every woman’s body tells a story. Most women might even consider them war stories. We “battle” weight and “fight” for self-esteem. We struggle to accept (never mind love) our bodies as they are, while living in a world where we don’t yet entirely own our bodies in the first place.
Basically, “Strong Is the New Skinny” tells us we no longer need to look like skinny models (but it’s okay if we do!).
This new narrative seems much brighter and more hopeful; we are now allowed to be strong. Our bodies are made to perform incredible feats. We are now encouraged to sport muscle instead of ribs, a 6-pack instead of a concave stomach, and a round butt instead of a junkless trunk. This is better because we now need to eat to fuel our growing muscle mass.
So why do I still feel shortchanged by what “Strong Is the New Skinny” is telling me?
“Strong Is the New Skinny” risks catapulting women into a new set of standards for what the “ideal body” should look like. Many of the photos associated with the movement highlight butts and legs and abs. All are “perfect,” or on their way to being perfect. It’s clear in much of the messaging that your primary reason for subscribing to “Strong Is the New Skinny” is to sculpt your body into a lean frame with very little body fat. Sure, your body’s performance and health will most likely improve as a result of your efforts—but it’s clear this message is secondary to that of, “you should work out a lot so you can look like the new ideal.”
Instead, let’s focus on what it actually means to be strong.
If appearance could somehow be stripped from the “Strong Is the New Skinny” story, what might be left? Let’s say, hypothetically, we could remove all the objectifying imagery attached to the movement—what sorts of valuable messages might emerge from a genuine exploration of what it means to be strong? I like to think it would go a little something like this:
“I have a body that can withstand tests of physical strength, and this gives me confidence.”
I became a bit of a fitness junkie 2 years ago, and I remember barely being able to withstand 45 minutes on an elliptical. My energy levels were low, and I frequently caught colds and flus. One day, after 2 years of weight training and regular cardio, I was suddenly able to get myself into yoga’s crow pose—without having done much yoga.
For me this was a great accomplishment. It was also a surprise, in that my body could do something it couldn’t do before. When something you once thought wasn’t possible becomes so, you’re given a reason to pursue even more challenges. For some gurls that means finishing the excruciating Tough Mudder course or being able to do a pull-up—but it could also mean asking for a raise or having the courage to open your own business. Performance-based confidence empowers women in all areas of life, not just in the physical sense.
From an early age, we’re not encouraged to be aggressive in the pursuit of the impossible. We’re taught to please others, lean back and move their goals forward within the limits of a prescribed ideal of “femininity.” Physical activity, an act that encourages the setting and surpassing of goals, may be a way to show women that it’s okay to pursue what they want in life in ways that sometimes aren’t so delicate.
Our culture should empower women to feel good about their bodies as they are. Women’s bodies are complex and powerful; we adapt to massive hormonal shifts every month, and if we want to, we can use our bodies to grow a person and make another life happen. Our bodies, regardless of appearance, are capable of colossal feats by default. Mainstream society should celebrate these attributes without subscribing to messages that reduce women’s bodies to extreme ideals. We are smarter, stronger and more awesome than a six-pack and a rock hard ass.