Strong is the new skinny. You’ve probably seen that mantra splashed across social media, magazines or on television. Muscular (attractive) young women in workout gear telling YOU that muscles are in and waif thin bodies with no definition are out. While I appreciate that muscles on women are now ‘in’ and it’s okay for women to lift things heavier than a pie, I roll my eyes at the mention of skinny – ever. Unfortunately, strong appears to be new flavour du jour for women’s body image.
I think the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) may have been at the start of the curve with their Strong is Beautiful campaign. It was a clever attempt to disassociate strong as a purely masculine trait. They wrote “Strong is Beautiful” across Samantha Stosur’s biceps and across Maria Sharapova’s triceps and back. They then ruined the campaign with a number of photos of top tennis players with windswept hair and club lighting ‘playing’ tennis in cocktail dresses. Strong is beautiful quickly became these women are beautiful…and coincidentally strong.
Samantha StosurSamantha StosurNow, thanks to (my guess) the popularity of Crossfit, strong has become the new skinny, but here’s the catch – skinny didn’t go anywhere. They write “strong is the new skinny” but they don’t just show strong women like Laila Ali, they show skinny women with defined muscles. Anyone who understands sport science knows that strong and skinny are, for the most part, contradictory. As my blogger buddy, Caitlin, over at Fit and Feminist has pointed out you need to eat to be strong and muscles make you big, not skinny. Thus, strong and skinny stand in opposition to each other, yet women are expected to be both. I challenge you to find me a “strong is the new skinny” ad with a lithely thin and muscular man. Furthermore, Caitlin explains:
“Strong” is a word that describes actions and state of being, not appearances. Yet fitspo rarely shows women in the act of doing things that require strength, and instead shows them posing and flexing. Posing a-straddle a loaded barbell while showing some impressive underboob might make for some good cheesecake photography, but it does nothing to convey that the woman doing the straddling is actually capable of lifting said loaded barbell. Often, the emphasis continues to be on what a body looks like over what the body can do.
Isn’t being strong to function in everyday life good enough? Isn’t being able to pick up your children good enough? Isn’t being able to carry your groceries home good enough? Isn’t not having back pain good enough? Strong is not a marketing tag line; strong is a way of life.
I think comedian Stephen Colbert said it best when he quipped “but if girls feel good about themselves, how are we going to sell them things they don’t need?” It is time we stop letting the fitness and weight-loss industries (and every other industry for that matter) tell us what we should look like. Neither skinniness nor muscles should be conflated with health, wellness, or happiness. Additionally, and I think most importantly, it is time that we as women stand up and say “I’m not your pawn anymore!” I am neither able to be everything that the media wants me to be nor do I not want to be everything the media needs me to be. Just as it is unfair for the Girl Effect to place economic and social development solely on the shoulders of women in ‘developing countries’ so too is it unfair to expect Western women to be both strong and skinny. It is unfair to expect women to be strong but not stronger than men. It is ridiculous to ask women to be strong within the existing confines of femininity.
And here is where, I believe, the real danger lies. As ‘girl power’ has supposedly expanded the boundaries of what it means to be a woman, I believe that the boundaries have actually stayed firmly in tact while simply containing more expectations. Women must be full time mothers and workers. Women must be wives, neighbours, and friends. Women must be compassionate yet determined. Women must have long hair and slim waists. And now we have to have toned biceps and abs. The dam of femininity will eventually burst if expectations continue to dictate what we should be rather than expand the boundaries by accepting who we already are.
Counter to all of these female body images we have a notion of masculinity that has remained largely stagnant. If women are now allowed to be strong where does that leave men considering physical strength is the cornerstone of Western masculinity?
Is this mantra of “strong is the new skinny” less detrimental than everyone wanting to be model thin? I suppose, but just as models have eaten tissue to stay skinny so have mere mortals taken steroids to gain muscle. It is all a facade that hides behind a message of ’empowerment’ that continues to set an unrealistic body image that is unattainable by most and unnecessary as far as health is concerned. Enough is enough.