For as long as I can remember, women have wanted to be skinny. As a six foot woman, I have spent most of my life feeling too big. In 6th grade I was the tallest kid in my elementary school. In high school I joined the varsity swim team and subjected myself to the weekly team weigh-ins. Everyone had to lose weight, so when I weighed in at 140 pounds at 5’10”, my goal was to lose 10 pounds over the season. I got down to 125 one year, mostly by skipping Tuesday’s dinner and Wednesday’s breakfast and lunch so I could be weighed at 2:15 on Wednesday afternoon. Then we had a 3 hour practice. Then I went home to dinner.
My story is not unique. It’s not even as unhealthy as some. But the fact that it’s even close to normal for a teenager then or now is a disturbing cultural phenomenon that has plagued women and girls for years before I was a teenager and every year since. We’ve swept some men up into the insanity as well.
As a reaction, a new slogan has been circulating amongst women, both through the media and at our local gyms. Strong is the new skinny. The idea is that women are replacing the desire to be model thin with a desire to be physically strong. Pictures of lean women with biceps and six-packs are everywhere in motivational posts, throughout social media, and on fitness magazine covers. I asked my own Facebook network if strong was the new skinny and they were resoundingly in favor. Women do want to embrace the idea of strength, of fitness, of the ability to carry their own groceries, or a couch if needed.
But I wonder if women aren’t replacing one unattainablephysical ideal for another, encouraging the world to continue to judge us by our physical selves rather than by our intellect, our leadership, or our character. The women featured in these ads are definitely strong. But they are also incredibly lean, not an ounce of fat in sight, nowhere near what normal, fit women look like. And the ads don’t feature pictures of whole women, but often just their parts. We get to stare at torsos, calves, and backs. For all we know, it’s the same woman, featured piece by piece, photo-shopped and well-lit in thousands of pictures.
My friends beg to differ. They don’t think about being strong as a means to beauty. It’s about taking care of yourself. It’s about improving health, about doing more in life, not just eating less. Those hours spent picking things up and putting them down are a journey, a process of becoming not just stronger, but better, more confident, more centered. And if weight training sometimes leads to being sore or a little bigger, women don’t seem to mind. The alternative is weak and hungry, and the final results say it all. The end of skinny is death. The end of strong is stronger.
Strong is not the new skinny. It is not a means to beauty. It is not about fashion. Lifting weights doesn’t make women prettier, it makes them healthier. Strong is simply what women are and have always been in one way or another. Strong is giving birth, facing a defiant teenager, comforting a suffering parent. It is building a relationship, a family, a home, a career, a meaningful life. Strong is about lifting, a loaded barbell, ourselves, a broken heart, or a sofa. Strong is simply that. Strong.