Strong is Not the New Skinny: Challenging the Fit Ideal

You may have heard the latest uproar on social media owing to a certain media outlet publishing an article heralding the return of Heroin Chic. This was immediately used for content by a rake of influencers. Some virtue-signalling, some actually trying to make a fair point. Swings and roundabouts. However, it got me thinking about what we replaced thinspiration with – fitsporation. And, it turns out they aren’t all that different.

Beauty is in the Eye of… Western Society

Beauty is a socially-fluid construct that is ever-evolving. In Western society, female beauty is hallmarked by achieving a certain body shape and size. This has had horrific implications for women globally, with both Western and non-Western women reporting their appearance/body image concerns interfered with their everyday life and activities [1]. Hate that for us.

We are deemed beautiful, only if we meet the beauty ideal. The only problem is, the beauty ideal is in a constant state of change. In recent times, a thin female body was celebrated as the ideal. We’re talking Kate Moss nothing-tastes-as-good-as-skinny-feels, early 00s VS models, and basically anyone who can pull off low-rise jeans without having an anxiety attack. Achieve this body and you will be rewarded with more romantic, social, employment and economic success [2].

Sounds great, right? If only it wasn’t incredibly difficult for the average woman to achieve.

An internalised belief in the thin ideal places women at high-risk for developing an eating disorder [3]. Relentlessly pursuing an “ideal” body can lead to body dissatisfaction, which can drive women to engage in disordered eating behaviours like under-eating and overexercising [4]. Not really all that ideal, is it?

The Fit Ideal

However, the thin ideal has a new, equally problematic sister – the fit ideal. The fit ideal is simultaneously lean and toned, and more recently, we have seen women elect for the fit ideal as their “ideal” body shape [5,6].

This rise in popularity of the fit ideal is in large part due to social-media bombarding us with “fitspo” content and imagery. And this, dear reader, is where the sh*t hits the fan. Even though social media is widely unregulated and platforms only lean, muscular bodies as this pinnacle of fitness, we believe social media to be a reliable source of health and fitness information [7].

Is the Fit Ideal Problematic?

This is for those with no concept of critical thinking, who will accuse me of trying to say fitness should be cancelled. I am not trying to dispute the litany of positive physical and mental health benefits from exercise at all. Please, I beg you, read that again.

If achieving a certain level of fitness benefits health – isn’t having a fit ideal a good thing?

Not necessarily.

Fitness models have similar body fat percentages to traditional catwalk models, but have more musculature [8]. Achieving a similar physique to these individuals requires adherence to strict dietary practices, exercise regimes and even potentially the use of anabolic steroids [9]. In many ways, this can be considered more challenging for the average woman to achieve than the thin ideal.

The Skinny on the Fit Ideal

At least the thin ideal has the good grace to be openly problematic. The fit ideal is arguably more sinister. The fit ideal masquerades as being all about building up female strength and empowerment, when in reality fitsporation content largely only promotes exercise for an appearance-benefit.

In 2016, Boepple et al. conducted an analysis of fitsporation content, and the results are equal parts disheartening and soul-destroying. They found that:

  • 92% of fitspo websites contain female images
  • 97% used “thin” female images
  • 33% objectified women in some capacity
  • 92% contained appearance-related messages about exercise [10]

These websites/content stigmatise excess weight, and have very little focus on strength as it relates to performance at all. Love that for us. Fitspo images are often overlaid with nauseating quotes like “strong beats skinny every time”, that do little more than offer virtue-signallers the opportunity to pretend to empower females without having to do any of the work.

Why Strong is the New Skinny Doesn’t Help Women At All

Have we learned absolutely nothing?! Have we not watched countless women fall victim to disordered eating from pedestalising leanness? Why on EARTH would we want to create a concept that is openly as detrimental as the “skinny” pandemic of the early 00s?! Also, are we neglecting those who are naturally thin? Are they suddenly fundamentally flawed because their genetics make it a challenge for them to gain muscle?

Take a look at the #strongisthenewskinny hashtag on Instagram. It’s mostly filled with heavily edited physique shots, “motivational” quotes and… literally no photos/videos of anyone lifting weights for performance.

These motivational quotes often promote extreme attitudes to exercisecrawling is acceptable, crying is acceptable, puking is acceptable but quitting is unacceptable. Thank God puking is acceptable, because that just might be the worst thing I’ve ever read. Promoting extreme exercise attitudes is not conducive to health, and is actually associated with higher rates of compulsive exercising [11]. This “guilt-related messaging” whereby individuals feel shame for missing exercise sessions, or not trainng “hard” enough is also remarkably similar to thinspiration messaging [11]. And we all know how that ended didn’t we?

I am tired.

I am tired of stupid subliminal messages about how women’s bodies should look. That the second we achieve some arbitrary measurement or body fat percentage, the goalposts immediately shift in another direction. The fit ideal does not empower women, it objectifies us. If I can only be perceived as healthy/fit if you can see my abs, and I lose my menstrual cycle starving myself to get there, is that really ideal? Is it ideal that if I don’t get to the gym five days a week, it sends me down a shame-spiral?

Why don’t I get to decide what I want my body to look like?

Strong is the new skinny is total bullshit. Strong is the new skinny is thinspiration in a different font. Society doesn’t give a shit that I can pull 200kg from the floor (this is most certainly a metaphor, I definitely cannot do that) if I’m not doing it in UK size 8 leggings.

There are so many more ways we can empower women, all fucking kinds of women, without resorting to commodifying our bodies as fuckable or not.  Let me be clear also, I don’t think the majority of gals who post their #strongisthenewskinny content have malintent. I think they generally aim to encourage women to train for strength, and not only aesthetic purposes. However, as the great Tyra Banks said, take responsibility for yourself. And think twice before you platform it.

References

  1. Bakhshi S (2011) Women’s body image and the role of culture: A review of the literature. Eur J Psychol 7(2), pp. 374-394.
  2. Engeln-Maddox R (2006) Buying a Beauty Standard or Dreaming of a New Life? Expectations Associated with Media Ideals. Psychol Wom Quart 30(3).
  3. Keel PK, Forney KJ (2013) Psychosocial risk factors for eating disorders. Int J Eat Disord 46(5), pp. 433-439.
  4. Donovan CL, Uhlmann LR, Loxton NJ (2020) Strong is the New Skinny, but is it Ideal?: A Test of the Tripartite Influence Model using a new Measure of Fit-Ideal Internalisation. Body Image 35, pp. 171-180.
  5. Bozsik F, Whisenhunt BL, Hudson DL et al. (2018) Thin is in? Think again: The rising importance of muscularity in the thin ideal female body. Sex Roles 79, pp. 609-615.
  6. Bell HS, Donovan CL, Ramme R (2016) Is athletic really ideal? An examination of the mediating role of body dissatisfaction in predicting disordered eating and compulsive exercise. Eat Behav 21, pp. 24-29.
  7. Raggatt M, Wright CJ, Carrotte E et al. (2018) “I aspire to look and feel healthy like the posts convey”: Engagement with fitness inspiration on social media and perceptions of its influence on health and wellbeing. BMC Pub Health 18, p. 1002.
  8. Tiggemann M, Zaccardo M (2016) ‘Strong is the new skinny’: A content analysis of #fitspiration images on Instagram. J Health Psychol 23, pp. 1003-1011.
  9. Uhlmann LR, Donovan CL, Zimmer-Gembeck MJ (2019) Beyond the thin ideal: Development and validation of the Fit Ideal Internalization Test (FIIT) for women. Psychol Ass 32, pp. 140-153.
  10.  Boepple L, Ata RN, Rum R et al. (2016) Strong is the new skinny: A content analysis of fitspiration websites. Body Image 17, pp. 132-135.
  11. Holland G, Tiggemann M (2016) “Strong beats skinny every time”: Disordered eating and compulsive exercise in women who post fitspiration on Instagram. Int J Eat Disord 50(1), pp. 76-79.

Published by Michelle Carroll

I am an online coach (MSc Sports & Exercise Nutrition, EQF Level 4 Personal Trainer, PN Level 1) and radiographer (BSc). I believe in empowering others to make better choices for their health through education. I think that the fitness industry has created a disconnect between best practices and “evidence-based” practices. I hope by chronicling my experience as a healthcare professional and my education as a fitness professional I can assist others on the path to bettering themselves.

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