“Strong Is The New Skinny” has been just about everywhere lately—plastered in gym lockers, bolded and bedazzled for Instagram quote posts, even on the cover of Snooki’s book (despite her using “sexy” in favor of “skinny.”) This little slogan, obviously geared toward women, lines up quite nicely with the fitness movement that is currently taking the planet by storm.
The movement actually began quite some time ago; in 1960, only 24 percent of Americans reported that they exercised regularly.¹ By 1987, according to a Gallup poll, that number had increased to 69 percent.² Today, it is clear that fitness continues to become an integral part of more and more Americans’ lives. If you have a brain, your first inclination would be to exclaim: “That’s fantastic!” While it is certainly commendable and significant that more and more people are opting for a healthier lifestyle, the “fitness movement” is not without flaws.
For women who have suffered from eating disorders, low self-esteem, or body image issues, physical fitness and the lifestyle that surrounds it can offer a gateway to a healthier, happier life. Many girls and women find solace and peace when practicing yoga, find their inner Sasha Fierce in the weight room, or clear their worried minds on the track. They may find control over their disordered eating habits—for example, many individuals who practice flexible dieting find that their binging behavior is reduced, or even extinguished altogether. They may come to find the joy in food again, viewing it as fuel for their physical activity rather than an evil, fattening, devilish substance.
For others, though, it may become a new way for their disorder to materialize.
It would be foolish to assume that a fitness-centered lifestyle could not possibly become an unhealthy obsession. Combining the pressures of the media to be the “perfect woman“—thin, but with feminine curves; sexy and alluring, but angelic and innocent—with the newfound criteria of having impressive bicep definition and a glute-ham tie-in…well, it can make a girl go a little crazy. What exactly do they want me to look like? The confusing and extensive list of criteria applies to the average Jane who decided to get fit just as much as with competitors in the bodybuilding world. Obviously, competitors know very well that they are choosing to get up on stage and be judged. What is often forgotten is the fact that the world is always going to be a stage for women, especially with sharing every move we make on social media being so commonplace nowadays. Unfortunately, sharing so much with the public means setting ourselves up to be scrutinized, judged, and even beaten down. By others, of course, and by our absolute harshest critics: ourselves.
Not convinced? Let me spin you a tale.
Jessica is a 23-year-old girl; she just graduated from college, and she’s living at home for a little while—before she starts her “real life.” To ward away boredom (and to shed the extra pounds she came home with), Jessica starts following a workout routine she found online. She was never particularly fit, and she admittedly struggled with low self-esteem throughout college. This time will be different, she tells herself. To hold herself accountable and connect with others young women on the same path, she signs up for an Instagram account. From exploring the zany world of Instafitness, Jessica learns about the IIFYM lifestyle, and begins following bikini competitors and bodybuilders aplenty. She never plans to compete, but she is amazed at what these women can do with their bodies! The transformation Tuesday posts blow her away, but not as much as the fact that these goddesses can stuff their faces with donuts and pizza…and still look like that! Until, of course, competition season rolls around. Jessica notices that so many of her role models—who previously preached balance and bragged about their food intake—seem to be complaining about feeling lethargic, hungry, and deprived. That must just be what it takes, she thinks. Suddenly, she feels inadequate. Should I be getting stage-lean? She wonders. Jessica looks at herself in the mirror each morning, and grows more and more dissatisfied with what she sees. She decides she’s going to “cut” (lose fat), even though she is at a perfectly healthy weight (and has actually lost fat since beginning her program). Because she’s seen and heard about it all over Instagram, she decides to jump right into a 500-calorie deficit, rack up the cardio, and start turning down plans with friends to avoid any obstacles on her path to getting shredded.
You get the gist, no? The pressure to look the part can creep up and bite you in the under-developed glutes, if you’re not careful. Even with a mindful approach to fitness, it is easy to succumb to the pressures of the lifestyle. It seems that those role models in the industry, whether they are powerlifters, bikini competitors, or personal trainers, are always posting “throwbacks” to their leanest physique, praising their achievements and expressing a desire to get back to looking like that. Women with less than 15% body fat are calling themselves fluffy and thick—and please don’t try to convince me that those are not just kinder words for fat. Regardless of the number of food porn posts or the emphasis on strength and power being the ultimate goals, it is pushed and pushed that it is always more desirable to be lean and shredded—and please, don’t try to convince me that those are not just sophisticated words for thin.
The standards for women keep evolving. “Strong is the new Skinny” is both a form of thin-shaming (I’m sorry, but it’s true), and a new way to tell women “You’re not good enough the way you are. Be something else.” The fact of the matter is, fitness can be an empowering, life-changing tool for women, especially those women who have struggled with some form of self-doubt. However, it’s not for everyone. I will certainly not sit here and stomp my feet in defense of sedentary individuals with health problems—”but it’s their choice!”—but I will certainly defend the women who do not feel the desire to make friends with a barbel anytime soon. Sure, you could be generous and apply it to any form of strength, either physical or mental, but I notice words like these being thrown around far more often in weight rooms than I do in yoga studios.
I propose a new slogan—not just for fit women, but for all women. For women who do yoga, women who juggle two kids and a spatula, and women who can’t even do a push up. For happy, kind women, who love themselves unconditionally. No fat-shaming, no thin-shaming, no shame at all. How about this:
“Happy is the new Beautiful.”
¹J. D. Reed, et al., ―”America Shapes Up,” Time 118 (2 Nov. 1981): 95.
²Joel Gurin, and T. George Harris, ―”Taking Charge: The Happy Health Confidents,” American Health (March 1987), 53.