Why strong is not the new skinny

You’ve probably heard already, but great news ladies…strong is the new skinny! Finally, women can step away from unrealistic aspirations for an unhealthily small frame and move towards a far more attainable, strong, and powerful body image.

Being strong sounds like an achievable and desirable alternative to skinny when skinny involves connotations of restriction and food obsession. The word itself, ‘strong’, evokes thoughts of power and independence – and what woman doesn’t want that? Sadly, in the new context in which it’s emerged, the term ‘strong’ has been coined by the media to promote just another unattainable beauty ideal, one that chooses muscle tone over prominent bones, but is just as dangerous.

Why so? Well, this idea of ‘strong’ we are now seeing on social media looks something like this:

Photo credit to Issac Hinds, liftstudios.com

It’s hardly your average, everyday gal is it? In fact, this woman is Ana D., a fitness model. Yes, that’s right – she’s a model. You know one of those people who get paid for being exceptionally good looking, and whose job centres on their appearance? Yeah. So don’t try telling me that strong is a huge step away from away from the skinny ideal. Because to me it’s just the same shit, different toilet.

My own journey with health and fitness has been very up and down. I went from being a really sporty teenager to a rather lazy sixth-former, and somewhere during my first year of university I discovered my uni gym and rekindled my love of exercise. What started as a hobby turned into a fixation with getting to the gym as often as I could, and quickly I lost weight (having never been overweight to start with) and became caught up with the idea of losing even more. This, combined with a slight medical complication, which was probably very linked to some unhealthy disordered eating habits I had formed, resulted in me having an unhealthy approach to food and fitness.

After comments from friends and family about having lost too much weight, I realised I had to make a conscious effort to change my thought processes around food and exercise. Years later I’m still aware of my diet and exercise often, but my eating habits have changed completely and I feel far happier in myself.

Instead of long, drawn-out cardio workouts in the name of calorie burning, I took to focusing on strength and fitness through CrossFitting, weight-lifting and strength training. With all the weight I can now happily squat, lift and press I definitely qualify as ‘strong’, and I suppose I look it too. But when I’m checking out my Instagram and see it bombarded by women (and men) with zero percent body fat, scantily clad in their latest gym wear, uploading ‘motivational’ posts hash-tagging #fitfam #gohardorgohome #gymismyboyfriend (yes, really), I get a little annoyed.

If ‘strong is the new skinny’ means looking like I spend as much time in the gym as these Instagrammers, save me now. Isn’t my kick-arse back squat enough?

Yes! Because that is a measure of actual strength. Strong has nothing to do with pictures of sexy fitness models showing off their perfectly sculpted bottoms. Here’s some information for you – you have a six-pack. Before you go looking for it, I should probably mention that we all have one. Just so happens that unless you’re hitting the gym hard and following a ‘healthy’ (what the world healthy actually means is another article in itself) diet, that 6-pack is covered by fat.

The average female’s body is anywhere between 16 – 30% body fat, and that’s just fine. A body fat percentage range of 8-15% is considered ‘athletic’. Models such as our dear Ana D are in a ‘super-athletic’ category, as to have the world see your rippling muscles, you really need to be at about 7% body fat. Not a whole lotta fat going on with that fit.

So you can see how  ‘strong is the new skinny’  doesn’t actually change very much in regards to pressures on women to look a certain way. Black coffee and carrot sticks might get replaced with protein shakes and boiled chicken breasts, but the end message is the same. Fat is no good, but now instead of bones you’ve got to build big-arse muscles on top.

But don’t despair my beauties, because it isn’t all bad! Certain women are fighting back and showing you don’t have to be thin or built like Arnie to be fit and fantastic. And, oh my goodness, some of these girls are even…overweight. 

Photo credit: Women’s Running Magazine

This is Erica Schenk, the plus-size model who graced the covers of the August edition of Women’s Running. For the first time, the fitness industry is showing something completely different – how a ‘body that exercises regularly is generally a healthy body, whether that body is fat or thin’…or at least says Glenn Gaesser, professor of exercise and wellness and the author of Big Fat Lies: The Truth About Your Weight and Your Health. Is this to say you can be fit, strong and healthy without being slim?

Yes! Just check out this BuzzFeed article on how yoga bodies come in all shapes and sizes. Trending hashtags #curvyyoga, #curvyyogi, #curvygirlyoga, #curvyyogis are demonstrating how you don’t have to be stick thin or muscular to be an absolute boss at yoga. These girls are showing us that how we look doesn’t necessarily correlate with our pre-conceived ideas about what fitness looks like, an idea backed by the American cardiologist Carl Lavie.

Lavie has stated that ‘a fit person carrying 20lb to 40lb of excess weight is going to do better in long-term health outcomes – including their risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer – than a thin person with little muscle tone who has spent their lives dieting but is chronically unfit’. So where does this leave us?

Check out Jessamyn Stanley, Instagram @mynameisjessamyn

I think that this new trend for seeing women of all shapes, not just skinny, slim or majorly muscular, showing their physical prowess and strength is excellent. We need to shake this pre-conceived idea that fitness goes hand in hand with a svelte physique, which sadly is only getting reaffirmed with the supposed ‘positive’ messages of ‘strong is the new skinny’, where skinny has only turned into slim and built like a rock.

If I had to make my own phrase to replace the wretched ‘strong is the new skinny’, it would be this:

‘Fitness is important, but how you look is not. Run, walk, climb trees, lift weights, do whatever the fuck you want to make the most out of your body, because you’ve only got one and may as well have it operating up-to-scratch‘.

Way less catchy right? I’ll work on it, but you get the idea.


3 thoughts on “Why strong is not the new skinny

  1. I love this post. I’m so happy some one decided to shed the light on this subject because I struggled for a very long time on what my body frame should be like. Simply because I thought being supper skinny is whats in, when its totally not the case. I love those ads that show “real” women working out and striving to be better in there own skin. Thanks for this post so much. 🙂


  2. If women want to be <12%BF, let them. If they want to be morbidly obese, let them. If they want to lift heavy weights, let them.

    I happen to like one of those categories, but that's just what I like. Random people shouldn't care what I like. Nor should people spout off about what they think random women – or men – should try to attain.


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