By now I’m sure most of you are familiar with the saying “Strong is the new skinny.” It shows up fairly regularly on fitspo images and in fitness circles as a way of promoting a new standard of female beauty, one that is focused on strength and physical power instead of weight loss and restriction. The words are often accompanied by photos of women showing off glistening muscles while they pose with weights or perform feats of bodyweight strength. If you have spent any time at all in the fit-o-sphere, you’ve seen what I’m talking about.
Now, I support the general idea behind the phrase. I would prefer that women – and men, really – work to cultivate their bodies’ abilities rather than fight against them in an attempt to meet our culture’s incredibly fickle beauty standards. But I also have some issues with the execution, which, as I and many other fitness writers have argued, merely exchanges one unattainable physical ideal for another one. I mean, I might have a shot at attaining a visible six-pack, while nothing short of a life-threatening wasting disease will give me a thigh gap, but the effort required for me to get visible abs is so tremendous that I might as well not even consider it a possibility. Plus, it elevates one body type (muscles) at the expense of another (skinny), which is not exactly my definition of body-positivity.
Another issue is that when I think of “strong,” I think of it as an adjective that describes a person’s abilities. I consider myself strong because I can climb a pole or put my husband on my shoulders while we are in the water at the beach. When I see my muscles, I don’t necessarily look at them and go “wow, I’m strong.” Rather, I go, “wow, check out my muscles.” “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.
But recently I’ve come to realize that there’s another problem here as well. The expectation behind “strong is the new skinny” is that women who take it to heart will allow the pursuit of strength to supplant the pursuit of skinniness when it comes to their physical goals. But what is actually happening for a lot of women is that they are not abandoning “skinny” in favor of “strong.” Instead, strength has become yet another physical ideal to be piled on top of all of the other physical ideals they are already trying their damnedest to attain.
I had this realization while scanning one of the more popular healthy living blogs, in which the blogger wrote about squatting one-and-a-half times her bodyweight. Her announcement was greeted with comments from young women who wanted to know how she could lift so heavy while still maintaining such thin legs. It took everything I had to keep from head-desking myself into unconsciousness when I read that. For the vast majority of us, this is not possible. If we want to lift weights, we have to have muscle. If we have muscle, our legs will be bigger. Our thighs will be bigger. They might actually touch.
Now, I am willing to grant that it is entirely possible for a person to be capable of doing things like a 1.5xBW squat while still having almost no visible muscle on their thighs, but I think it’s also important to note that the person who is capable of doing this is not the norm. (And please know that I am not trying to turn this into a “ew skinny people are gross and weak” argument either.)
For most of us, this is just not possible. It is not possible for us to train hard without eating a considerable amount of food to support our bodies. (As a triathlete, swimmer and distance runner who lifts weights, I find I have to eat more than 2,500 calories a day just to keep my body from cannibalizing my muscles.) It is not possible for us to build muscle without eating enough food because our bodies need something to build that muscle out of. And it is not really possible for us to eat and train in such a way that we gain nothing but pure muscle. There is a reason why bodybuilders cycle between phases when they build up muscle and ones where they lean out.
Yet there seems to be a whole cadre of women out there who refuse to accept this, despite the fact that it flies in the face of everything that is known about exercise science, nutrition, sports training and biology. So many women believe even though it is flat-out illogical. And then they immerse themselves in self-loathing when they cannot attain this ideal of being strong AND skinny at the same time, feeling as though the fault lies with them for not eating clean enough or training hard enough, instead of recognizing that the ideal itself is what’s wrong.
As much as I want to just blow this off as magical thinking, I also recognize that to a certain extent, this kind of reaction is actually perfectly logical. I mean, maybe it’s not if you tend to be the kind of person who approaches things with an understanding of science, but we don’t really live in a society that values science that much (despite all the much-vaunted promotion of STEM careers we keep hearing about these days). But if you take a step back and take a macro view of all of the messages being flung every which way at women and girls (and increasingly at men and boys) and you try to imagine what it would be like to actually believe all of that bullshit…well, let’s just say that it doesn’t seem quite as illogical as it once did.
After all, we live in a society that prizes female bodies that are small and compact while still having bigger breasts (but not too big, because that’s just obscene). Women eat salads, not meat. They adhere to low-calorie diets so they can keep their “girlish” figures. Diet pills, surgery, liposuction, powders you sprinkle on your food, books and segments on daytime television, superfoods, Skinnygirl margaritas and Skinny Bitch diet books…a billion-dollar industry aimed at Fighting Fat. We are taught to believe that the content of our dinner plates dictates the content of our character. We learn that perfection is equated with self-denial and that appetites are sinful, that moral exemplars know how to exercise self-control and willpower, that only gluttons give into their desires for food, and that it is possible to determine if a person is a moral exemplar or a glutton just by looking at them.
And then you have all the lies put forth by so much of the mainstream fitness media. The gurus that promote 800 calories a day for three weeks to “jump start” a diet for adult women. The fitness magazines that lay out five-day-a-week weight training programs accompanied by diet plans that barely top 1600 calories most days. (I still laugh maniacally when I think of one diet plan’s “cheat meal” – a slice of cheese pizza and a can of light beer.) All of the photo spreads featuring figure models that conveniently leave out the fact that those women only look that way for two or three days at the very most. (And you never hear about the models and figure competitors who wrecked their metabolisms by following high-exercise, low-calorie routines.) Every single fucking magazine that promotes drinking lots of water, not as a way to keep yourself properly hydrated, but as a way of feeling full. And of course, all of the fitspo that shows these new standards of female beauty with their flat stomachs and their ripped bodies with body fat percentages in the low teens.
When you look at it like this, it’s really not surprising to see teenage girls and young women wringing their hands in anguish over the fact that they can’t figure out how to deadlift their bodyweight while still keeping their beloved thigh gap intact. The cultural conversation around bodies and fitness and health is so bursting full of internal contradictions that the only way to survive intact is to fight back. (And if you have an eating disorder, you really need to seek psychological help, NOT amateur counseling from bloggers who believe reading a few books on a subject is the same as being an expert.) We have to approach so many of the fitness-related messages we receive with skepticism and critical thought, which I know is so unfair and so tiring, and it sucks that we even have to do it. I wish this wasn’t the case.
We don’t need a new “skinny.” We don’t need a new beauty standard, nor do we need yet another physical ideal hanging over our every thought and move like a little black cloud of doom. What we need to do is change the paradigm so that we value our bodies for all of the amazing things they let us do. We need to expand our standards of beauty to recognize that beauty shows up in all kinds of bodies. And we need to get over this idea that the most important purpose we serve on is to be beautiful for other people. We have a right to have healthy bodies, to take up space, to have appetites, to cultivate our strengths in whatever form that may take. Our time on this planet is precious and we will never, ever get it back, so let’s stop squandering it in pursuit of meaningless ideals we will most likely never attain anyway. We deserve so much better than that.