It’s likely that, at some point in your wellness journey, you’ve heard the mantra, “strong is the new skinny.” This ostensibly body-positive phrase is meant to eschew the “skinny is beautiful” mentality—one that encourages young women to exercise and diet to maintain a thin physique—in favor of a lifestyle that promotes strength and fitness. Over the past few years, we’ve seen this trend grow and multiply. Social media has given rise to a proliferation of “selfies” displaying women donning sports bras and tight shorts, flexing their biceps or sculpted backs. Often, these photos are juxtaposed with “before” shots to proudly display their muscle gains or toned abs. Women’s fitness magazines have become nothing but a collage of young women in gym garb who proudly proclaim that they work out to be strong, not skinny. (It’s worth mentioning that men also face tremendous pressure to possess large muscles in a phenomenon known as bigorexia.)
Of course, I understand only too well the siren call of this particular lifestyle. As a woman with a history of disordered eating or body image issues, I experience first hand the appeal of an outlet for pursuing wellness, and in seemingly such a constructive way. At first glance, athleticism and strength seem to transcend a mind obsessed with calories, weight, and clothing sizes. Even women without such histories hope to introduce younger generations of women to the concept of fitness for a healthy, vibrant lifestyle as opposed to one motivated by weight loss.
Ultimately, however, this fitness rhetoric takes on the same negative influence as expressions encouraging weight loss. What happens when your friend can lift 15 pounds more than you? How do you feel when you haven’t achieved your goal of a perfect 6 pack by summer? The idea of strength inevitably connotes a certain body type, and thus promotes a particular physical ideal, even if it isn’t necessarily a thin, emaciated one. As long as we’re still striving for some social standard of physical perfectionism, the idea of body positivity is lost. Whether it’s “too fat” or “too skinny,” or “not enough definition,” there is always some critique that follows this kind of thinking.
Please don’t misunderstand: I am a firm advocate of regular exercise, and I do so 5-6 days a week. I believe we should all strive to condition our bodies to enjoy physical activity, whether that means a morning jog, a bike ride at dusk, or a sweaty kickboxing session. These activities can allow us to embrace exercise for what it is–activity that can alleviate stress, release endorphins, and prevent illness–but it is a fine line to walk.
In my own life, surrounded by lots of fit, health-oriented vegans, I sometimes feel pressure to modify my exercise routine as a means of becoming “stronger.” However, as someone who has had disordered eating and body image issues in the past, I know better than to allow fitness to become a new means by which to channel obsessive and controlling tendencies. Fitness can easily become an unhealthy fixation–something that far dominates any other interest or joy in your life like family, friends, and work, and becomes the standard by which you judge your self-worth. Just replacing one physical ideal with another won’t make you happy, unless you have a balanced outlook on what it means to be healthy and beautiful.
What do you think about the new mantra?
Also by Molly: 5 Creative Uses for Juice Pulp
Orthorexia: Dangers, Stigma and Compassion
Why I Exercise 300+ Days a Year
Related: 7 Hidden Warning Signs of an Eating Disorder