Unapologetically Strong

Unapologetically Strong

Still huffing and puffing, my training partner, Jennifer Blake, said to me, “Aaaah, you beat me!”

It was our first sprint session together, and we had just charged up a hill right around the corner from the gym.

“Don’t feel bad,” I responded. “I’m really fast!”

She laughed so hard that it took the rest of the breath she had left, and she doubled over, howling.

She repeated my words back to me several times over the course of the workout.

I didn’t apologize, but I did clarify: I was a national-team rugby player for a decade, retiring in 2009, and during that time, I played a position that required a good deal of speed, strength and agility. And, because I still train it, I’ve still got it. (At least most of it, anyway.)

What was so unusual about my response was that, as women, we are expected to downplay our strengths, whether they’re literal or figurative.

I can’t recall what internet angel sent me the sketch above [update: it was Victor Rivera], but at your next opportunity, eavesdrop on any conversation occurring among a group of women, and specifically listen for the downplaying of any compliment given to one another. Once you know what to look for, you will hear it, over and over again.

Instead of just saying “Thank you,” we will say, “Oh no, this old thing/you’re just being nice/it’s just luck/etc./etc./etc.-motherscratching-etera.”

It’s part of the social script we are given at an early age, and you know what? It’s total bullshit. (It’s also included in the manual distributed to us that we are to compliment lavishly, but that part is lovely.)

I understand that it flies in the face of societal norms, but what if we suddenly, completely stopped following the script? Will that really make us jerks in the other person’s eyes, or would everyone involved feel better? Because here’s the thing: We are super smart, we are great at solving problems, we did kill that presentation, we do have great hair, and this skirt does make our legs look fantastic, so…thank you. Just thank you.

One of the perks of being a trainer and a fitness writer is — far more than reshaping bodies — getting to help reshape the conversation, especially when it comes to physical abilities. And, of course, once that sort of positivity is set in motion, it tends to bleed into all areas of life. Strength is so contagious that way.

One of my clients has been on my mind a lot lately, because she’s smack in the middle of her transition from the full-on deflection of every compliment to a great big, “Thank you, that felt great!” Rather than shaking her head at me and saying, “Oh, I don’t think I can lift that,” she is saying, more and more often, “That felt light. I think I could do a little more.”

She is acting less and less sheepish about her strength with every rep, and it is a marvel to behold. My goal for her — which she doesn’t know — is for her to become unapologetically strong. And it’s happening.

It is what we all deserve to be, in whichever way suits us best. Own your abilities, and toss out the script. Be unapologetically strong, and just say thank you.

UPDATE: There is now a shirt. You can wear it…unapologetically. Hit the Thrive Shop for racerback tanks, tees and sweatshirts.








[photo credit at top: Jalbus Photo]


Author:Jen Sinkler

Fitness writer and editor, workout connoisseur, meditator, proponent of spandex, former rugby player; never, ever without lip gloss.
Comments: 83

83 Responses to “Unapologetically Strong”

  1. Lizzy

    I desperately want an unapologetically strong tank, but they aren’t on the website. Please, please, please tell me you are bringing them back! I NEEEEEEEDDDDDD one.

  2. Just found you via Nia Shanks’ podcast…LOVE this!

  3. Megan

    I know this blog post is from quite some time ago, but I’ve just shared it with a few of my fellow lifting friends (from either Crossfit or other forms of fitness) as I’d recently noticed a trend of shutting down compliments whenever either one of us girls is giving it or even one of the guys in our class who’s saying something positive. Yesterday I was setting up my bar for some heavy lifting and one of the guys said that I was looking “amazing and strong” and I responded with “Oh no, I’m still really struggling with ________” and listed off a bunch of things I am having a tough time with. He just looked at me and said “No, Megan, that’s not the correct answer. You’re looking great and have come a long way and I am giving you a compliment so you say ‘thank you’ and accept it!” He was right!! And this post 100% covers it. I think the ladies I’ve sent it around to will appreciate your honesty as well. Thank you for teaching women to be “unapologetically strong!”

  4. Deb

    Jen, do you have any seminars upcoming here in the Midwest? Thanks!

    • Deb, great question! I was just talking about this with my husband, and we decided to set one for this summer at The Movement Minneapolis. I’ll keep you posted! Thank you for asking!

      • Deb

        Thank you! We look forward to hearing about it!

  5. Tara

    Love love love this post. This is a lesson I learned about ten years ago.
    Just accept a compliment. That’s all.
    Great post. Hilarious skit. You’re awesome!!

    You’re welcome 😉

  6. Annette

    Another thing to remember- when you deflect a compliment it’s kind of an insult to the giver of the compliment. Don’t argue with her when she admires your strength/dress/food/whatever. Doing so makes it sound like your questioning her judgement. Just smile and say “Thank You”.

  7. Nikki

    The tank is AWESOME! I will be very happy to walk around unapologetically strong. I have learned to say thank you when someone passes me a compliment, whether about my abs, arms or something internal. Simply a thank you. Ordered me one today (and a men’s lift weights faster T for my sweetheart).

  8. Erika

    I’m in love with this post and the tank! With that said, I am going to order a tank but unsure of sizing. What size are you wearing? 🙂

    • Hey girl, THANK YOU! So glad to hear it resonated.

      As for sizing, the tank is a size medium Bella tri-blend. Here’s how I’ve been describing the fit — worth noting that it’s definitely form-fitting, but that the fabric is really soft and forgiving:
      “‘Sexy’ is the word people keep using to describe the cut of this tank, so don’t expect modesty to be the name of the game here. This tank pairs beautifully with confidence. The material is a soft, tri-blend fabric consisting of 50 percent polyester, 25 percent algodon and 25 percent rayon.”

      Hope that helps!

  9. david


    Actually what you’re referring to is the Dunning-Kruger effect, except that you have it backwards. Dunning and Kruger discovered that unskilled peopled tend to overestimate their competence. Interestingly, skilled people tend to /underestimate/ their competence.

    In any case, your comment is based around the idea that humility somehow has something to do with the compliment giver. This post isn’t encouraging or even about giving undeserved compliments. It’s about gracefully accepting a compliment when it is given, without deflection or unneeded self-effacement.

  10. A F

    Got to say that I disagree. Humility is a great thing that allows compliments to be given without responding like an arse. Maybe false compliments are something you should try to put to rights. There is a theory that states tgat the better you are at something, the more accurate your perception of your own abilities are. By telling someone that they are good at something then them accepting this statement as true, you are simply building them for a fall. This article seems based mostly on opinion and personal experience rather than solid info or any sort of research.

    But in summation; only give a compliment when you genuinely mean it. It catches people off guard and they know you mean it. Whether they respond with modesty or genuine thanks is up to them. I just think modesty is a nice trait.

    • You are correct, this is my opinion and personal experience. Not, errmmm…scientific research.

      And, I think you’re mistaking deflection/denial for modesty. I don’t think it’s immodest to simply say “Thank you.”

  11. love it! Unapologetically strong for sure and proud of it! 🙂

  12. Wendy

    Totally true. Every word. And possibly something of a cultural thing for Americans, male and female:

  13. Today someone told me that they were intimidated by my traps. I just smiled and said “Thank you”. I’ve worked hard for these bad boys!

    • That is exactly the right response in a situation like that. I like your style (and I love big traps!).:)

  14. janjamm

    Thanks for your work and for the dialog.

  15. janjamm

    Humility in a world awash with insincerity and the exaggerated spectacle is still a lovely thing. Strength is a mental, as well as a physical virtue. Quiet pride rocks the world. We do not need to defend our strength. We do need to enjoy it.

    • Watching the responses to this post has been interesting. We agree that humility is a lovely trait. And, I don’t think saying “thank you” is at odds with it.

      • janjamm

        “Unapologetically Strong” is a good mental mantra. Strength is a virtue. But wearing it on a t-shirt feels defensive to me. It would be like wearing a t-shirt that says, “Unapologetically Wise,” or “Unapologetically Thoughtful.” Seriously. Would Martina Navratilova wear such a thing? Nah. She owns her strength. I have no quarrel whatsoever with saying, ‘thank you” to a compliment or discussing lifting with anyone, anytime. My concern is that broadcasting the status of one’s “strength” on a t-shirt, which is what is being considered, reveals a sense of doubt in the face of a critical culture.

        • Ahhh, I see what you’re saying. And, I just see it differently — as a playful, empowering way of embracing a trait that you’ve worked hard to achieve, even in a society that doesn’t necessarily support this as a goal for you. Being wise or thoughtful aren’t in that same category, in my mind. I will not count on you to buy a shirt when they’re out.:) Thank you for sharing your perspective!

  16. I agree completely Jen!!!

    This reminded my of how the other week my close friend and training partner said to me “you made that look so good”. I went one step further than a normal thank you and said “Don’t I always!” Other than the fact that I am quite a stickler when it comes to form, I am confident in my abilities.

    Whether it’s conquering a tough lift with good technique, mastering a tricky dance, or JUMPING up GRACEFULLY to grab hold of the pull up bar at the gym (hey the benches that roll over were all being used AND I’m short ;-), which is actually what I did when she gave me the compliment. Some, if they overheard me say that, may think or say aren’t you cocky or repeat what I said in a mocking tone, but cocky I’m not… unapologetically strong, I AM!! Cool read Jen

  17. Athena

    I will stitch you that shirt! and anyone else who wants one.

    • I’ve ordered the blank shirts, they should be ready soon! But I do thank you kindly for your offer, that sounds awesome and one-of-a-kind.:)

  18. I was very lucky that I had a mom that insisted if somebody complimented you, you said “thank you” and accept it. If not you were basically saying that their tastes/opinions sucked.

  19. This post rules. I second everyone else who says “unapologetically strong” should be on a t-shirt. I would wear the shit out of that shirt.

    Ugh, I just wrote and rewrote a freaking novel because I have so many thoughts on this subject, but let’s just say that I’ve recently learned how to be okay with a) accepting compliments and b) acknowledging when I am good at something, and it has really been transformative. Instead of looking at myself and seeing lack and failure, I started seeing myself as a person of worth. That in turn made it a lot easier to look at others and see THEIR worth and not feeling threatened by it, like their excellence somehow diminished my own. So yeah, not only did having this realization make me happier and more confident, but I’d say it made me a kinder person too.

  20. Pls start clothing line. That’s all.

  21. cameo

    I love that you said that! How fast ARE you?

    I was just having this conversation with my mother the other day. We were wondering what would people’s perception of one another be if were to stop following that narrative of deflection. I think the more often we deflect the less worthy we feel to receive them and the more we can learn to accept the compliment, the more we will begin to believe it and live it.

    • I think you and your mom are really on to something. Thanks for sharing that.

      And…I don’t know! I mean, I’m sure I would be trampled by a true sprinter, but for my age group and interests, I’m hanging in there! 😀

  22. Kristy

    When I began to transform my life (lose weight & build confidence in myself & abilities), I found that I still downplayed my accomplishments. My trainer & the gym owners told me to just say “thank you” and eventually the confidence & mindset would change as well. They were right! Now when someone compliments me, I say, “Thanks, I know!” which usually elicits a laugh because we ARE programmed to downplay ourselves. Thanks for the post 🙂

  23. When a woman downplays my compliment, I respond with, “you’re right, I give terrible compliments, I should just keep quiet.”

  24. Jen Sinkler. You are my favorite. Hands down the best fitness writer. You win. (Thank you.)

  25. By the way, I saw that Amy Schumer episode too!!! Totally a good way to illustrate the idea! 🙂

  26. This is not only amazing, but so true! I was guilty of this for so many years. It took me a while to learn to accept the compliment, and now i’ve learned to give compliments and ENSURE that people accept it themselves. If anyone gives me a bad comment about themselves, they MUST give me a positive comment about themselves and sometimes they even have to do more kettlebell swings!!!!! It is all about digging deep and seeing the REAL and AWESOME person inside. It is there in each and everyone of us, but you have to dig deep to find it!!!!

  27. Sara

    Excellent points made! I am also a rugby player and crossfitter (at the ripe young age of 42)…I am very guilty of downplaying people’s remarks about me being out there on the pitch. I am surely not the best player by any stretch, I go out there to have fun and be a part if the community of awesome athletes that makes up the sport. I heard the best thing ever this weekend by a player I have the utmost respect for…it is a win for me to be able to walk out into the pitch. Yes it is…and any accomplishments I make out there are even more of a win.

    I’m definitely in for a shirt!!

    Thank you!!

    • I’m gonna hold you to your shirt order, and you definitely sound like you’re accomplishing a lot.

  28. Nikki

    LOVE IT!!!! Last night, a group of ladies approached me while I was doing my TGUs with a dumbbell, tucked away in the punishment corner of the gym alongside the empty thigh masters and the unused ab rollers (NOT of the wheel variety). Mucho…one lady kept saying and pointing to her middle. Hmmmmm, “ME?” – I reply. “NO…MUCHO…ME”. A kind patron translated “Your abs look GREAT. How do I get mine to look like that. I have too much fat on mine”. I found myself reverting to feeling like I wanted to hide, even apologize and say to her ” no you look great and mine aren’t all that wonderful”, but inside, I wanted to OWN THIS! I have gone through Six damned pregnancies – stretch, release, stretch, release. I have 5 beautiful children. And dammit, my ABS do look better than any other woman I KNOW who has FIVE children…..at my age. I am built like a brick shit house and PROUD. So I owned it. Pink cheeks and all…Thank you, I said. “What do you do”, she asked after her jaw was removed from the gym floor. 🙂 I demonstrated my silly 35lb dumb bell TGU (I totally could have used the 40 lb but here I go not owning it…), then a Caribbean crunch, then a get up sit up, then 1-2 minute plank. Then I smiled. I felt like a queen in charge of the ab region, even for that tiny moment. I know there are many women with much better abs BUT she chose ME and my 44 year old SIX pregnancy / FIVE KIDDO (9-10 lbs babies, THANK YOU) stomach. 🙂 So Thank YOU Jen for this piece!!!!!!!!!!!

  29. Jen, thank you for writing this! I am always saying this to my wife, and will DEFINITELY show this to my daughter when the time is right (17 month old kids don’t read good, and don’t do some other stuff good, too). We humans should all be able to celebrate who we are and what we can do, without feeling like we are subjugating someone else. We should be GRATEFUL for our skills and talents.

    • I would expect that of any 17-month-old-kids, yours probably reads the best.

  30. Catherine

    Actually women drive me crazy with this stuff, which is why I generally gravitate toward the group of men at a party. Their conversation is more interesting and less laced with false modesty. I apparently was not born with the false modesty gene. I remember being in a group of women once and one was saying, “I was worried you didn’t like me because blah, blah,blah,” and the other woman was saying, “Really? because I was worried you didn’t like ME because blah, blah, blah….” I just honestly said, “You know it never even entered my mind that any of you wouldn’t like me. What’s not to like?” Women need to cut that crap out, but I’m not holding my breath!

    • Sometimes it’s just a matter of a perspective shift. What can you do to improve the situation?

  31. Confused.com

    Actually… Having seen the clip – I understand. Reminds me of this in Family Guy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=INdljQlAEPc

  32. Confused.com

    I’m confused – so women don’t like being complimented? Or is it compliments that are superficial they don’t like? I’ve always been told women love it – and by women! That it’s nice to compliment a woman because they appreciate you noticed something nice about them.

    Does this article express that as women you shouldn’t have to depend on that to increase esteem?

    Is it bad for me, a man, to pass a compliment onto a woman?

  33. Great article, Jen! My wife and I have been talking about this topic recently. I agree it seems focused mostly on women, but to some extent everyone is expected to be falsely humble.

    I say falsely humble, because being humble shouldn’t mean it’s bad to acknowledge skill, strength or anything we are, in fact, good at.

    Thank you for all your writings, I enjoy hearing your perspective. My wife and I are striving to make sure our daughter is at least somewhat immunized to some of the societal lies you talk about.

  34. Gobsmacked

    To Commonsense above. What a mysogynistically twisted comment. Don’t like empowered women?

  35. Love this! When we start loving who we are and the abilities we have our possibilities are endless.

  36. elaine badejo

    I think that everyone should give more compliments everyday. Make someone’s day, the more they hear it, the more they will believe it and that confidence will grow.

  37. Mary Brown

    Great article!

    I can remember at least 20 examples of this in just the past few days. I usually deflect compliments with “fake it til you make it right – egh? egh?? -{insert nervous chuckle}, or pointing out that I may have a few strong lifts but I can’t do a lot of other things like muscle ups.

    I’ll add this to my “self-improvement” list and try working on my thank yous. And…. complimenting others 🙂

  38. You mean… create and bolster an ego that is manipulated by society; a society that includes parents, ex-boyfriend’s, and jealous girlfriends? You’re just creating FORCED manipulation for bolstering an ego that is, as a woman, biologically and evolutionarily, not made for that. Say what you will, women are not made to dominate social environments. Your denial is simply refusal to back down from your motivational reasoning; “who you are” if you will. I get it. The correct way to foster that attitude is one from tranquility, not flimsy motivational reasoning

    • Whenever someone whips out the “x are not biologically and evolutionarily equipped to do y,” I know I’m in for a steaming pile of bullshit, and you did not disappoint!

      • David

        Oh Caitlin…I’m super duper late to the convo (just found the site), but those are my EVERYDAY thoughts EXACTLY.

        This concept definitely is in the “Always remember this…” list I’m passing on to any kids I may have.

    • Wow, really? If women weren’t “made” a certain way, like you claim, then they wouldn’t exist at all. Jen is an example of a data point that proves you wrong.

    • No. No forcing, no creating, no ego, no attachments. I’m only talking about accepting what is, not hinging your sense of self on what *anyone* says.

  39. Vicki Pike

    “Unapologetically Strong.” I want that on a t-shirt 🙂

    • Your “Unapologetically Strong” shirts are ready! http://www.jensinkler.com/shop/

    • Vicki,
      You may very well get it! I was thinking the same thing after I hit “publish.” 🙂

      • Yes, please shirt! Thank you for this post and for not even batting an eye when you responded to Jenny. If you’re fast, strong, smart, funny, whatever, own it and love it. Don’t downplay it.

        • Word, girl.

          And OK on the shirt — you’d better order one! 😉

          • TC

            Did someone mention an “Unapologetically Strong” t-shirt? I would totally buy that!! I already got the ‘lift weight faster’ one and I love it. This article is great, I’m forwarding to the ladies in my gym.

          • TC: You got it! I ordered the blank shirts today to print, and I’ll be taking preorders by next week! Sooooo…I’m gonna hold you to that.:)

          • Valentina

            I’ll order a shirt like that, too! I totally agree with you that we, as women, have been downplaying our strengths when we should be bolstering ourselves (and each other) up!

            Reminds me of the Marianne Williamson quote, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure…Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. … it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same…”

            Great post, thanks!

      • elaine badejo

        Yes!!! Great shirt words!!

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