The Problem With ‘Strong Is The New Skinny’

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Declaring that “strong is the new skinny” is simply replacing one unattainable body obsession with another.

There’s a promotional email in my inbox offering a “Get-skinny playlist.” Sigh. This again? There’s an endless scrolling wall of “thinspo”—short for “thinspiration”—on Pinterest, drowning out the foodies and crafters. There’s the story of my friend who, days before she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, was complimented excessively for the 20 pounds she dropped as her body battled cancer. “Thanks?” She would respond, incredulously, “I’m about to pass out, but at least you think I look good!” The message from all sides is loud and clear: You’re obviously trying to be skinnier, and if you’re not, well, you probably should be.

Ah, but there’s a new kid on the body image block and her name is “fitspo.” Encapsulated by the motto, “Strong is the new skinny,” the glossy bikini models are replaced by…other glossy bikini models. These ones happen to pose with dumbbells or stretched wide in a Warrior II, but truth be told, the “new skinny” looks pretty much like the old skinny to me.

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Like most women, the trajectory of my relationship with my body has taken a series of climbs and drops, left turns, and upside down loop-de-loops. Ten years ago, I stopped playing sports and started working in an Italian restaurant where my meals were carbs on carbs on carbs on cheese. I convinced myself that walking my section every night constituted exercise and that if all I ate was a basket full of buttered rolls, well, that couldn’t be too many calories, right? False. Those rolls were 300 empty calories apiece and I needed to buy new black pants to go with my sexy waitress button-down.

Seven years ago, I lived two blocks from my college’s gym and learned to love the elliptical machine. I didn’t drink and became best friends with the grilled chicken station in the dining hall. I lost 30 pounds and my roommate nicknamed me Jenny Craig. I was still what my grandmother would call “heavy,” what men would call “thick” while yelling out a car window, what I preferred to think of as “curvy.” I bought my first bikini and realized that it feels fucking fantastic to lay out in the sun with my belly exposed, even when my belly doesn’t look the way that Self and Shape seem to think I want it to.

Three years ago, I found hot yoga and learned what it meant to really sweat. I loved it, but replacing cardio with my killer flow severely cut into my calorie burn. I gained some weight, but found so much satisfaction in working toward challenging postures and seeing my practice improve, that I didn’t worry about it. 

These days, I do yoga a few times a week, play tennis on the weekends, go for the occasional run, and make a fool of myself every now and then in a cardio dance class for which I’m woefully ill-prepared. This past spring, I hiked the Inca Trail in Peru, with no preparation save for tramping around my office building in hiking boots and a dress. On day two, after hours of climbing uneven Inca steps, breathing shallowly through Andean air, I cleared the top of Dead Woman’s Pass. The picture of me at the top of the ridge, the valley I’d come from spread out behind me, is my favorite photo of myself.

If I cared to scrutinize it, I’d see a muffin top poking over the waistband of my pants. I’d see that little pocket of frustrating fat between my chest and my armpit escaping the strap of my tank top. My arms look soft and round instead of sculpted. There’s no gap between my thighs; in fact, by the end of the trip I had worn clean through the fabric at the inner thighs of my stretch pants and had to throw them away. There are many individual things “wrong” with this picture, but in totality, it is a perfect moment.

Why am I telling you this? Is it a simple self-indulgent trip down memory lane? Perhaps. But it is also to tell you that I’ve been mulling over this “strong is the new skinny” motif, and I think they might be on to something, but they just haven’t gone far enough. They’re thinking small—small waist, narrow thighs, lean muscles—and I want to think big.

Strong does not necessarily mean six pack abs. It doesn’t mean defined triceps, a body-fat percentage in the single digits, or butt you can bounce quarters off of (is that really a thing?). Strong is the process. It’s the journey from self-consciousness to self-awareness. Strong is thinking about what you want out of life, and realizing that your body is the vessel that has to physically carry you there. It is figuring out how exercise and nutrition fit into the puzzle of wellness that keeps you healthy and happy and sane.

Sometimes wellness means skipping a workout to drink wine with people you care about, or to finish a book that you can’t bear to put down, or to invest a few hours in your career. Sometimes it means yoga and tennis because you’re craving the pursuit of sweat-drenched mindfulness but you also want to hit a ball as hard as you can and grunt in an unladylike manner. Strong is pushing yourself to try scary new things, like hiking to Machu Picchu or your first ever jazz square. In the attempt, you will find new depths of humility (I suck at jazz squares) and new pride in knowing that you have accomplished more than you thought you could.

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If you go digging, you will find insurgent movements celebrating the refrain, “Real Women Have Curves” and flaunting chubby tummies and thunder thighs. If, like me, you are the possessor of a tummy that isn’t flat and thighs that are not lean, these sentiments may momentarily thrill you. Your people are speaking up! And they are beautiful, which means that you are beautiful too!

But this is a shortsighted solution to a longstanding problem. The endgame here is not to place a different shape, be it a curvy “real woman” or a taut-bodied fitspo model, on the top of the pyramid and declare a new world order. The endgame is to knock down the pyramid.

You are beautiful, but it’s not because your silhouette has suddenly been declared desirable. That edict can change in an instant, my friends, and someone always loses. Wellness does not have to be a zero sum game, so let’s not throw each other under the bus of passing fads. Take care of what you’ve got. Be well. Be strong.

Role/Reboot regular contributor Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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