Strong is the new sexy? Fitness Philosophies (Part 1)

Sandwiched between pop culture quizzes and cat videos, fitspirational images litter the internet. These fitspirational images combine pictures of fit-looking white women clad only in short spandex shorts, sports bra, tank top, and long pony-tail with short “just do it”-type taglines to purportedly provide fitness motivation while ushering in a new era for women and their bodies.

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Fitspirational images appeared shortly after and in response to thinspirational images featuring thin white women such as supermodels Kate Moss and Gisele Bundchen. These thinspirational images purportedly served motivational purposes for women to achieve thin body ideals. This shift in focus from thinness to fitness is presumed to be simultaneously critical of women’s body ideals in U.S. culture and more healthy for individual women.

Shari Dworkin & Faye Wachs have written extensively about the conflation of fitness with health. They argue that a fit-looking body is presumed to be healthy. But, what exactly is a fit-looking body? And how is that tied to issues of race, class, and gender? Further, how does U.S. culture shape our understandings of what bodies could and should look like? And, what are the implications of locating the markers of health on the surface of the body?

Fitspirational images and catchphrases are quite ubiquitous, circulating on social media and online platforms such as facebook, twitter, instagram, and pinterest. However, none have garnered as much cache as “strong is the new sexy.”

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The emphasis on sexiness belies the purported focus on health, and reveals the problematic nature of relying on visual cues to mark health. These visual cues are always already wrapped up in issues of gender, race, class, and sexuality. The types of bodies which “look healthy” have changed over time and across cultures, just as the types of bodies which are considered beautiful and sexy have. When thinking about what counts as healthy and sexy, then, we must also consider how discourses of gender, race, class, and sexuality change (or don’t). Not coincidentally, it is often relatively thin, white, female bodies which are considered both the most healthy and sexy.

But what does weight training have to do with it?

When thinking about what counts as healthy and sexy, we must also consider who gets access to what kinds of spaces and bodily practices. Building muscle requires regularly challenging one’s body. In today’s world, this often means accessing a gym. Gym spaces themselves as well as the cultures created within those spaces privilege and promote masculinity and have been (officially and unofficially) off-limits to women and people of other genders.

To be sure, “strong is the new sexy” and the crossfit boxes from which many fitspirational memes emerged have promoted weight training, specifically barbell training, across a diversity of bodies and abilities. However, bodies read as female participating in practices coded as masculine encounter any number of issues including accusations of doping, lesbianism, or not actually being female. Because male and female sexual difference is understood as dichotomous, with male physical ability superior to female physical ability, women who are “too big,” “too strong,” or any of the other “toos” become suspect.

Institutionally, sexed and gendered boundaries have been shored up by rule changes in women’s bodybuilding competitions. As Precilla Choi argues, gains in muscularity women bodybuilders had made were undercut by federations which closed competitive categories judged on muscle size, development, and symmetry. New fitness competitions were developed which demanded choreographed routines and penalties for too large muscles or inappropriately signified femininity (i.e. hair, make-up, and painted nails).

Sexiness is in the eye of the beholder (but he is always white, male, and heterosexual)

Like the debates surrounding women athletes posing nude for Maxim or Playboy, “strong is the new sexy” embodies the challenges women in sport & exercise cultures face. Like weight lifting and bodybuilding, sport more generally remains a masculine preserve. Therefore, women who participate in sport must negotiate the varying expectations of masculinity, musculature, and femininity. “Strong is the new sexy” could be read as a radical and subversive statement, with women staking claim to that which has so often been off-limits (strength & muscles) and redefining what counts as sexy. And yet, this redefined sexiness still exists within a world where women’s bodies are objectified, sexualized, and sold to the highest bidder.

Strong here is not actually about being strong at all, but is a means to achieving a sexy body. Working out is not desirable for the activity itself, but rather for the embodied results it promises. And these promised bodies are overwhelmingly white and thin with some muscle definition — bodies remarkably similar to the ideal thin yet toned body ideal they purportedly challenge.

             

The ideal female body cannot approach bodybuilding proportions without losing its perceived femininity. Without femininity that exists in opposition to masculinity, sexiness breaks down. Therefore, the sexy bodies promised to aspiring weight lifters are those which have already been deemed sexy by our culture, and “strong is the new sexy” does not provide the rhetorical framework to understand strength or sexiness outside of the heterosexual male gaze.

Fitness trends come and go; recycling training philosophies, equipment preferences, and workout programming. Yet, body aesthetics have remained at the core of the fitness industry as these trends rise and fall. As long as the fit-looking body is conflated with sexiness and healthiness, we will continue to see fitspirational messages that tell us we must change our bodies aesthetically to achieve health, wellness, and overall satisfaction.

In my next post, I’ll explore the history of body positive fitness philosophies to continue exploring the cultural implications of “strong is the new sexy”

Cathryn Lucas is a grad student and personal trainer who is interested in pushing back against impossible cultural ideals in writing and in practice. Cathryn just joined twitter (@cathryn_lucas) and doesn’t quite understand yet how to tweet.

12 thoughts on “Strong is the new sexy? Fitness Philosophies (Part 1)

  1. My personal objective when creating my physique in the 80’s was strictly about creating the aesthetic characteristics of high Renaissance art, that of Michelangelo…Every body has a sculpture within . I was just trying to find mine.

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    • I’d love to hear more about your experiences in the 1980s. It was a really interesting time to be in the fitness world!

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      • I’d be happy to tell you all I experienced , I was right there in the middle of it all, competing in 30 contests starting in 1979 with “Best in the World” and ending in 1983 with “Ms Olympia”.

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  2. Catheryn, if you haven’t found any of the late Al Thomas’ essays on this general subject I think you’d probably find them interesting and thought-provoking. To me, they’re historically–ground-breaking. Al–a longtime professor in the English department of Kutztown State College and an avid weight trainer–began publishing his early ideas almost a half-century ago in Iron Game, a very well-respected “muscle magazine.”

    As the years passed Al expanded his efforts on this subject in more articles, in letters to his friends, and in both privately-published and non-published essays. Some people find the articles somewhat inaccessible, but they always spoke clearly to me. My wife, Jan Todd, reacted to Al’s work in much the same way and she dedicated her dissertation–which traced the history of purposive physical training for women in the US up through the first eighty years or so of the 19th century.

    In any case, it was a fine thing to happen onto your comments, and I wish you the very best as you pursue your interests in this fascinating and, it seems to me, important topic.

    Terry Todd

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  3. Thanks for these insights Dr. Todd. Your & Jan’s work has been so very useful as I’ve started exploring these topics historically. I look forward to reading Al Thomas’ work!

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  4. Ms. Lucas your blog was very well-written. As a young female who strives and desires the “athletic” female body from your article, I agree with many of the points made. I am glad the focus of the ideal body has shifted away from the stick-thin, emaciated figure to a healthier body type. However, as you’ve written, “Strong here is not actually about being strong at all, but is a means to achieving a sexy body”, because unfortunately, all the focus is still focused on thinner, toned, and aesthetically pleasing female figures. The look is still very focused on a small framed body with just the right amount of muscle tone. Too much muscle tone can be taken negatively viewed by the masses. I’ve witnessed this as a member of the military. Females are supposed to be able to hold their own in the military, but if one becomes too athletic in the area of muscle physique and ability, then they are accused of being “butch”. It leads to some interesting examples. I am reminded of the press/media fairly recently accusing female tennis stars, Serena and Venus Williams of being overweight/fat. So, what is the “ideal” body shape? Your article raised the point of the focus still being on thinner, Caucasian females. Do you think there is a different expectation for the body build of non-white females? If an athletic body build is what is professed as the ideal body shape, why has Ronda Rousey, champion female UFC fighter, also been accused of being obese?

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    • These are good questions and points, Erin. I’d imagine that there is a similar norm in the military, as sport and the military are both masculinist spaces (among other similarities). In terms of race, the white, thin, toned body is the universal cultural ideal; so even women of color are expected to attain this ideal despite cultural norms within their own cultures that may be different. There have been movements led by women of color to reclaim different body types. However, the general culture in the US ignores these movements, contributing to the erasure of women of color in the media. The focus on Williams’ weight and the ongoing depiction of her as “lazy” (despite being the winningest woman on the tennis circuit) can only be done through a racialized lens — that she is a black woman is of ultimate importance. To complicate things, black women are presumed to be “naturally more athletic” and more muscular — thus less attractive.

      As for Rousey, I think she resides on the edge of athletic and “too muscular.” Additionally, she has openly discussed her weight, and although she fights at 135, she has said publically her “walk around weight” is about 160 — which in US culture is “fat.” I also think some of those accusations are just plain sexism, one way to diminish a woman’s accomplishments is to call her fat and ugly. So, ultimately sexuality, body shape & size, and race are all important in the way that these things are talked about today. Athletic but not too muscular, thin but not too skinny… one must remain attractive above all else.

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  5. Cathryn,

    I enjoyed your post and I am looking forward to the second half. The “strong is the new sexy” memes we see out on the internet are interesting and still objectifying women’s bodies and placing specific expectations for what we think should be a strong, fit, and sexy body and in my opinion can be both motivational and detrimental. As women we can’t just be healthy, fit, strong and happy with our bodies if we don’t fit the mold of all the fitness models, that like you point out are all white, still thin, but with slender chiseled muscles. Do you think that we will continue to be judged by a set aesthetic moving forward rather then our actual health and happiness? Or will it one day be okay to just be healthy and happy no matter our shape and size.

    There was an article I read about a woman who outward appearances would suggest that she was overweight, but she runs marathons regularly and is in the best shape of her life. She is healthy and happy, but being a black female with a larger build who despite her regular workouts and marathon training doesn’t fit the mold that all the “strong is the new sexy” memes put out. What category does she fall into? Is she not strong and sexy? She chose to just be healthy and happy, but for some because of the expectations that have been set, that might not be enough…

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    • Yes, she’ll make an appearance in my post next week! Many people have negative experiences with sport and physical activity, and our culture promotes a “no fear,” “workout until you puke” philosophy — resulting in shame about not being good at physical activity. We don’t teach people to value their bodies for what they can do.

      And, you are right, in our culture she is NOT strong and sexy, right? Because she doesn’t fit those impossible norms, despite being healthy and super proud of herself and feeling positively about her body. You point out the contradictory nature of these expectations!

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  6. Pingback: Strong is the new…? Body Positivity and Self-Love (Part II) | Sport in American History

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