Let’s get something out of the way: I do happen to think strong is sexy. Super sexy.
I just don’t think it’s the new sexy. Or that you are required to be strong in order to be sexy. Or that sexy is the point of strong.
“Sure, at times strong can be sexy — but isn’t that the byproduct of strength? The confidence? The empowerment? The pride?” writes fitness blogger MizFit on the topic. “For me, strong is enough. Strong just is.“ (Check out her full post on the topic here; also, fellow #FitFluential ambassador Amanda Brooks also wrote about it here.)
I get the thrust of what those who coined both “Strong is the New Skinny” and “Strong is the New Sexy” were trying to do: They were trying to create a new dynamic in which thinness wasn’t the be-all and end-all of beauty.
And I do think they succeeded in creating a paradigm shift — even considering the popularity of such aesthetic goals as the thigh gap (read my response piece here), there is powerful momentum behind the muscle movement, with the exploding popularity of weights-oriented fitness methodologies such as CrossFit and the advent of online communities such as Girls Gone Strong.
When the “Strong is the New Skinny” anthem first started making the rounds on social media several years ago, I was all in. I plastered memes all over my Twitter and Facebook pages, snagged a tshirt and sported it proudly.
That is…until I started getting hip to the underlying exclusion of those who are not physically strong. Essentially, I realized that what we’d effectively done is create a new cool-kids clique — one filled with lean, well-muscled individuals, pointing and laughing at those who lacked our brawn.
I promptly ditched the tshirt.
Strong, sexy, skinny. These things can exist together in every combination, or completely independently from one another.
There is no one right answer, and we don’t have to disparage one body type to celebrate another. When we recognize and internalize that, we will be free.
Women and Their Weight(s)
I wrote a fitness feature for the December 2013 issue of Women’s Health magazine. I’m very proud of it. It busts myths about lifting weights, encouraging women to heft substantial poundage; it describes how to do so safely; it lists some lesser-known perks of pumping iron, such as balanced hormones and a clearer head.
It sings the praises of two of my hardest-working clients, two best friends who work out together three times a week and who have seen substantial changes — both physical and mental — since they began lifting weights at the end of April.
I can’t wait for you to see it. In fact, you don’t have to wait to see it — you can pick up a copy on newsstands right now (it’s got Drew Barrymore on the cover).
In addition, I wrote the article longer than there was space for (there was much to say!), so while the whole shebang will be available online at a later date, the bonus copy that wouldn’t fit in the print edition is called “The Beauty of Lifting Heavy Weights,” and it’s available online right here, right now. Dig in!
The Sausage-Making Process
All that said…editors edit. I say this with great affection, considering the decade I spent as a magazine editor myself. I’ve been there literally a thousand times myself. When given the opportunity, we can’t help it — we tinker. Many times, the piece is better for it; a skilled editor can take a piece from good to great, and I got to work with a highly skilled editor on this piece. She only made changes that improved the piece, and she was a joy to work with.
More inside info on the publishing process: The assigning editors, who end up glutes deep in the copy, aren’t usually the ones who write the catchy headlines.
So, while the assigning editor is likely well-versed (or becomes well versed) in the topic at hand, the editor tasked with writing headlines may not be schooled in every single nuance of the topic. He or she writes headlines with an eye toward punch, verve and swagger, evaluating what will draw attention to the page. Specifically, the attention of their readers, who they know inside and out.
Magazines depend on the ability to reel in readers with cover blurbs and headlines in order to be granted the opportunity to serve up the meaty body of the article to its readers. (As my friend and fellow trainer Jill Coleman says, “Sell them what they want, give them what they need.”)
All of this is a long way of saying that the headline for my article was changed to something that doesn’t jibe quite as well with my intended message that “strong is f*cking amazing” (I guess you can’t swear in a headline?).
The headline the print version of the article ran under is “Strong is the New Sexy”…hence this blog post. It ran under that headline even though, in the bonus copy that was published online, I wrote this:
While there’s momentum behind meme-tastic phrases “Skinny Girls Look Good in Clothes; Fit Girls Look Good Naked,” something about them doesn’t quite sit right with many women. Yes, they’re motivating and celebrate strength, but often do so by judging or competing with others. The empowering success each woman builds inside the gym should instead be used to focus on what that strength can do for yourself and others.
Those of you who have been with me for a while are savvy enough to notice the disconnect between my message and this headline, so I wanted to address it and open up some thoughtful discussion surrounding this phrase and others like it.
Unpacking the Underlying Meaning
Below, I’ve tapped two women well-versed on the topic of fitness, gender and sexuality to delve further into how these “fitspirational” phrases may not serve us best. Without further ado, let’s crack open the convo with Caitlin Constantine, founder of Fit and Feminist, and Chichi Kix, founder of Fit Villains.
Jen: What is problematic about the phrases “Strong is the New Skinny” and “Strong is the New Sexy”?
Chichi: I remember a time when “Strong is the New Skinny” made me want to throw up a fist pump. As a girl who’s always been muscular, it was refreshing. “Yes!” I thought. “Finally, biceps and thunderquads have a place on the beauty podium, too!” So, instead of idolizing super-thin women with long legs, visible collar bones and hip bones, I started filling my world with images of lean, cut, muscular women. It felt inspiring. They were “healthy,” right? This was decidedly better.
I threw out my scale, but then I started measuring “success” by body-fat percentage and whether my six-pack was visible. I spent the same amount of time in the mirror and felt guilty if I had to miss a workout. All the energy I had invested in looking skinny now went into looking cut. I had the same disordered relationship with food, only this time it was about fueling my body and trying to make it leaner.
I was leaner, but no happier. I was just as distracted and insecure as before.
On days I felt lean I felt better about myself, but on days when I’d gained a pound or two (or was bloated) I felt awful. Still, I fist pumped to “Strong is the New Skinny,” thinking that my current circumstances were better and healthier than before.
But the truth was, nothing had really changed: I’d just replaced one beauty ideal with another and was constantly fighting my body to achieve a look I believed would make me more worthy. I was just as preoccupied with my body as before: Despite feeling badass and strong, I still didn’t look like the women in the images I collected. I was still focused on minimizing flaws and fitting into a beauty box. Only this box had muscles.
Also, a lean, muscled body isn’t necessarily a healthy one. Health is about how your body works on the inside, and there are plenty of fitness models and lean women who are decidedly unhealthy in terms of how their bodies are working (and perhaps their minds, too).
There are also plenty of amazing, hella-fit women whose bodies don’t look like the covers of fitness magazines; who have cellulite, muffin tops, and jiggly bits…but they can bench press bears. For some women, getting very lean is quite unhealthy or requires a diligence and a focus that might be unhealthy to maintain, mentally and emotionally. But that’s not something these mantras mention.
When we say “Strong Is The New Skinny” and “Strong Is The New Sexy,” what we’re actually saying is “Here’s some new ways to get hot, ladies. Obsess over this way to be instead.” And, based on fitness memes, the “strong” we’re looking at is a very specific aesthetic: lean, visible abs, big boobs, often headless, sweaty and glistening. We’re not promoting strength or fitness — those are actions based on what our bodies can do. What these messages promote is an aesthetic that’s every bit as messed up as the ones before.
Some might argue that working towards a strength aesthetic is somehow better than working towards a very thin one. Maybe they’re right. To me, it’s about getting rid of the aesthetic completely. Empowerment, to me, is about unleashing beasts, removing barriers and allowing people to maximize their potential as they see fit. Not telling them how to be, how to look or how to act.
The problem with “Strong is the New Skinny” and “Strong is the New Sexy” is that they are simply extensions of a larger issue: that a woman’s value lies in her appearance and her ability to adhere to the standards imposed on her. The problem was never that skinny was the standard. The problem was that there was a standard to begin with.
Caitlin: I get that the coiners of the phrases “Strong is the new Sexy/Skinny” are trying to talk about a new beauty ideal for women who prioritize strength and health over skinniness and frailty. There’s part of me that really wants to love it.
But the problem is that the phrasing ends up being exclusionary toward women who are not physically strong, for whatever reason. Instead of being inclusive and saying, “Hey, physical strength is sexy, too!” it just changes the standard to something else.
Jen: I hear you. I loved those phrases at first, too! Even now, they don’t feel evil. Just a little misdirected. And divisive.
Caitlin: Yes, that’s exactly it. Misdirected and divisive. Because there are women out there who have a hard time building muscle, and there are women out there who maybe don’t want to build muscle, and there are women out there who can’t because of illness or disability or whatever. Are they suddenly no longer sexually appealing?
This brings me to another issue I have with it, which is that sex appeal is often put out there as this main driving force behind the decisions we make.
From an evolutionary perspective, I get it: Our genes are driven to propagate themselves and all of that, but I have to say, as a young woman in modern U.S. society, I am so tired of everything I do having to be filtered through the “sexy” lens. Particularly because “sexy” is often defined a very specific way that holds very little appeal for me, personally.
I want to feel strong and healthy and capable, and anything else is just sort of like a bonus. So those are my two main issues with the “Strong is the New Sexy” statement: that it just sets up a different and yet still exclusive definition of sexiness and that it continues to push the idea that women must be sexy above all things.
Jen: You’re saying that sexy is not the point of strong.
Caitlin: Exactly. When I took up strength training, the idea that I was going to be sexy was not present anywhere in my mind. It wasn’t the point of what I was doing. I have a lot of other motivations when I run or lift or do any of the other things I do, and I think a lot of other people are the same way.
I will acknowledge that I like feeling as though I look attractive, but it wasn’t and is still not the primary goal in my pursuit of fitness. I might admire my muscles, but it’s not because I’m thinking that I’m looking totally boneable.
Jen: How might these sorts of mantras divide women?
Chichi: These mantras imply that you can get that body and that it’s your fault if you don’t. Most women have to work hard for lean, muscled bods, and if we can’t attain or maintain that body, we feel lazy. Guilty. Like failures. Ashamed. Frustrated. Stressed.
For women who do achieve this look, it’s OK to be proud, it’s OK to post photos — of course it is! But all too often, the underlying message is, “If I can do it, you can do it, too…and if you don’t, you’re not working hard enough!” For women who can’t attain that body (or for whom the effort required would indeed be too high), it can make them feel like dirt. We all feel the pressure, and messages like this don’t alleviate any of it: It just reinforces the idea that we have to look a certain way.
To truly help all women, we need to stop comparing and reinforcing that there’s a right way to have a body. The truth is, some women can get there with little effort. Some with a ton of effort. Some with unhealthy methods that can’t be maintained. And some will never get there. We’re all different, we have lives and we have different priorities.
All bodies means all bodies. There are thin women. Large women. Muscled women. Tall women. Short women. Women with crazy curves. Women who might consider themselves curveless. And everything in between. There’s nothing wrong with having a skinny body. Or a strong one. Or a fat one. Or a weird one (however you define that). There is no “better.” Messages like these turn it into a comparison and pit us against each other. “Strong vs. Skinny,” “Thin vs. Fat,” “Tall vs. short.”
Don’t we have better things to do?
Caitlin: Exactly. Ultra-leanness may come easily to some women, but it doesn’t for a lot of women, and so it has the effect of creating this new beauty standard that is on its surface more realistic, but when you drill down to the reality of trying to attain a body like that, it’s just as challenging for a lot of women.
I can’t remember where I read this, but someone else has made the point that you never see these things illustrated with, like, photos of Olympic weightlifter Sarah Robles or powerlifter Jill Mills. Show me a photo of Jill Mills deadlifting a car and maybe my opinion would be different.
Instead we get women in bikinis with oiled bodies, and because they have visible muscles, that is considered shorthand for “strength.” It’s cool if you want to do that, but can we have more options, please? My issue isn’t with the choice itself but with the fact that the choices presented are often quite limited.
Jen: Can we alter mantras like these to be more inclusive?
Caitlin: I’m more into expanding our ideas of what sexy can be to encompass a wider range of bodies and appearances, instead of just saying “Okay, THIS is the sexy body type! No other bodies are sexy!”
Chichi: When I started dissecting the beauty myth and getting to the root of my own issues with body image, it became harder and harder for me to fist pump to anything that told me how “real women” should be.
Instead, I wanted to experience and wholeheartedly appreciate the fullness and wonder of my body through my own lens. Through fitness, I became awed by what my body was capable of, and realized I hadn’t been listening to it very well. I started thinking of my body as a partner in crime and a best friend. And in doing so, I had to give permission for all women to feel the same about their bodies. No more comparisons. No more rules.
I work from the belief that we’re all beautiful, amazing, worthy — no matter what our bodies look like and no matter how we personally define any of those things. When I look at the women I love best in this world (and who love me for me), I don’t give a hoot about what they lift, whether they have abs, or if they’re working on bench pressing bears. I couldn’t care less; those things aren’t as important as the content of their character, how they inspire me, how they make me laugh and the way they make me feel.
When it comes to these messages, I’m not sure they can be edited to be made more inclusive. They are based in comparison and imposing standards. Personally, I reject any and all messages that imply that my worth is wrapped up in what my body looks like, that my body should be compared to anything, or that it exists purely to be looked at or criticized.
What was “skinny” before? It was the aesthetic ideal women were taught to strive towards to get more desirable, sexy and feel worthy. And it was bullshit. I don’t need a “new” skinny. I didn’t need “skinny” at all. When I speak with women, it’s clear that we all hate that kind of pressure, but we’ve internalized it. No one puts more pressure on women to be perfect than themselves. It wasn’t and isn’t empowering. It makes us feel less than, stressed out, and horrible.
Nowadays, I don’t know what I weigh. I absolutely love to move, love feeling badass and love seeing myself get fitter…but those aren’t things that define me. I realized the life I had to live in order to be as lean as possible wasn’t the life I wanted. So my sacrifice is being a few pounds heavier than what I used to consider ideal, but it means a full life. And I’m good with that. More than good. I’m awesome with that. I don’t need a mantra to make me feel good about myself or to pressure me into molding my body. Especially one that is steeped in bullshizz.
Jen: What is a rallying cry you’d like to see instead?
Caitlin: I’d love it if someone could find a way to frame these ideas without tearing down another group of women in the process. The way we feel and think about our bodies is already fraught with so much emotion, much of it painful and sad.
Anything that is going to change the way we think about our bodies — which is what I think “Strong is the New Sexy/Skinny” is trying to do — has to break out of the old paradigm that says there is only one right way to have a body.
Because a lot of that pain and sadness comes from the belief that one’s body is not right. If we are going to fight against that, we have to change the terms of the conversation to be more inclusive of all kinds of bodies, not just whatever happens to suit our tastes in this cultural moment.
Chichi: Lately, a message I’ve connected with is, “It should feel good.” Whatever changes you make, whatever decisions you make, whatever goals you choose should support your awesome. They should feel good.
Things like guilt, shame, jealousy, comparison and feeling unworthy are signs it doesn’t feel good. They have no place in my badass world. When I find myself in a negative place with my body, I examine my attitude and reprioritize. Nothing worthwhile should make you feel bad about yourself. Nothing.
And on the flip side, I often ask people who are fighting to maintain a certain aesthetic if they would cease to find value in themselves without it. Feeling good about your bod but still being a prisoner to the rules isn’t freedom. You’re always trapped. I’m grateful that as my body changes and I age that I have a strong foundation of lovin’ to fall back on. And I fight for it everyday.
It’s not easy to love and accept your body in a world that’s constantly reminding you about what you should “fix.” It’s work. It’s something I actively participate in. I work hard to make my environment a positive one for me to grow in and to feel good in my own skin. And it’s worth it.
It’s not hard for me to eat my veggies, get my workouts in or engage in healthy habits anymore because that feels good now. I let it. I got rid of the pressure, the stress and the desire to be perfect. And I was left with just me. My likes. My dislikes. My passions. I reconnected with my actual body, not just what I saw in the mirror. I’ve never felt so amazing. It feels right.
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