“Strong is the new skinny,” proclaims a new ad campaign for a fitness center. “Strength equals self-sufficiency,” insists a blogger whose post went viral this week (full disclosure: I tweeted it). We’re in the midst of a female fitness revolution that may be challenging the dominance of thin, delicate, and fragile as the ideals of feminine beauty.
I’m torn. On the one hand, being a strong woman is a great ideal, much better than the hollow-eyed, sickly, emaciated waifs that have been glorified as “models” in recent decades. I believe in health and fitness, and even though I’ve hit 40 I still will step into the ring or have a foot race or do a push-up contest with guys half my age. I want my girls to be strong, so we hike and have “tackle fights” and play sports and do all the things I’d do with a son. I want them to feel physically confident enough to take on whatever challenges life throws at them. I want them to revel at the power and potential of their own bodies.
But I don’t want them to think “strong is the new skinny.”
Being obsessed about being (or looking) strong can be just as unhealthy as being obsessed about being skinny because “skinny” is merely the symptom of the larger problem: the obsession with female appearance. I’ve written before about how people can’t seem to stop talking about my girls’ appearance, no matter how ragged they look on a given day. Replacing “skinny” with “strong” does nothing to solve that problem; in fact, it only magnifies the problem by highlighting yet another way that girls fall short of an impossible ideal. The buff, nearly-naked, often faceless bodies now being held up as the new ideal can trigger the same sense of shame, guilt, and self-loathing that the waifs did. My daughters don’t need that.
But perhaps more importantly, I don’t want my girls to equate fitness with morality. I don’t want them to feel superior to other people who may not be as strong or as agile or as quick. When “the bike is the new golf course” — meaning that important deals and networking are done while working out — then who is left out? If “working out signals hard-working” — meaning employers value marathon runners more than blanket knitters — then what should we think of pudgy people? Julius Caesar famously declared, “Let me have men about me that are fat” because he feared the ambition and zeal of the lean and hungry; are we now going to declare, “have people about us that are fit” because we fear the laziness and lassitude of the plump? Glorifying fit people can make it too easy and tempting to make moral judgments about people who are unfit. They must be lazy, undisciplined, weak — people with little character. Who would want to hire them or work with them or even be friends with them? Those are not the kind of judgments I hope my daughters will make.
Yes, it would be great for my girls to be strong and tough and confident — but not superior. Being humble and thoughtful and compassionate is more important.