The New Power Of Strength

The phrase “Strong is the new skinny” is popping up in gyms across the country, but is it helping or hurting women’s body image?

Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.


“When I first transformed my body into a strong body, those feelings of strength started in my muscles, and they crept into my head and my heart, into the way I saw the world and the way I saw myself.” —Cameron Diaz, The Body Book

Women’s bodies may finally be catching a break. With the exception of the waif-like Barbie who made her debut in this year’s Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, it’s now cool, even desirable, to look strong. Look no further, after all, than Michelle Obama who’s created a fever pitch around biceps training.

And now comes this new mantra, which is popping up everywhere, including Pinterest sites, CrossFit studios and the fronts of T-shirts: Strong is the new skinny.

Sounds like a step in the right direction, yes? Women, after all, have long been encouraged to take up strength training, building stronger muscles in the name of health. Strength training, after all, helps combat age-related muscle loss, builds bone density, and decreases conditions like heart disease and diabetes.

Hollywood A-lister Cameron Diaz, in fact, heralds the muscular strength she achieved after training for the film shoot of “Charlie’s Angels” in her new book The Body Book (HarperWave, 2013), suggesting that muscular strength may translate into so much more. “When I first transformed my body into a strong body, those feelings of strength started in my muscles, and they crept into my head and my heart, into the way I saw the world and the way I saw myself,” she writes. (Diaz, by the way, says that unless she’s purposely taking a day off for rest, she logs a sweat every day, doing a variety of things like running, hiking and lifting weights.) “As my physical abilities increased, my understanding of what I could do — in my training and in my career and in my entire life, for that matter — grew by leaps and bounds.”

Many women, however, still balk at hefting weights, citing the age-old — but inaccurate — myth that strength training will somehow bulk them up. As of last count, in fact, only 4 percent of adults, men and women combined, were meeting muscle-strengthening guidelines set by the government (which recommends strength-training activities for all major muscle groups two or more times a week), according to the 2012 National Health Interview Survey.

No doubt putting a focus on strength is beneficial, especially when it comes to redefining societal norms of women’s bodies. But it doesn’t come without some backlash. Some experts worry this mantra may put additional pressure on women to look a certain way. Strong the new skinny? You be the judge.

A Look at the Skinny Norm

For the past 40 or 50 years, ever since the ultra-thin English model Twiggy emerged on the scene, being thin has been the beauty norm for women. When this shift first happened, though, it created a staggering divide between reality and fantasy. “As women in real life became heavier and curvier, models — and the beauty ideal — became smaller,” says Emily Sandoz, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, and author of Living With Your Body & Other Things You Hate (New Harbinger, 2014).

While that skinny norm hasn’t disappeared, women are finally starting to wise up. “They’re smart enough to know now that models in ads have been airbrushed and look too thin,” says Renee Engeln, Ph.D., senior lecturer at Northwestern University in Illinois.

Yet that doesn’t eradicate the damage these images do, especially considering how much these images pervade society. “Even if you reject the skinny ideal, you’ve already compared yourself to the pictures you see everywhere and you still feel that society is holding you to that ideal,” Engeln says. “It’s unfair to ask women to live in this world where skinny defines beauty and then exempt themselves from that standard.”

Little wonder then that women are still struggling to love their bodies. Consider this: Sixty percent of women entertain negative thoughts about themselves weekly, according to a recent “Today”/AOL survey of more than 2,000 adults. Another survey of 1,200 women found that 62 percent report not liking their body. (A scant 6 percent said they were happy with their body.)

The news, however, isn’t all bad, as Sandoz believes women are experiencing more body love, so to speak, than they did several years ago. “Ten years ago, I would have given women a D or F in terms of body image, but today, I give them a C minus,” she says. “It’s definitely an area that’s improving for women, and I think women are looking for other ways to think about their bodies and beauty.” Hence, the introduction of the “strong” ideal.

The Upside of Strong

Strong is an interesting adjective because it holds numerous interpretations. For some, it might translate into having the strength to do physical tasks like lift a 50-pound dog into the back of a station wagon. Others might take it to mean a woman’s character or persona. Either way, it could be a plus for women.

“We live in a society where for so long, strong was associated with men, and it was hard for women to have power or be recognized as a strength athlete,” says Jennifer Petrosino, CSCS, USAW-SPC, a graduate teaching associate in the department of human sciences at Ohio State University and an EliteFTS-sponsored powerlifter. “Yet ‘strong is the new skinny’ implies it’s cool for women to be strong, either mentally or physically, and if that motivates a woman to lift weights or empowers her to do something like switch careers, then it’s a good thing.”

It also represents a paradigm shift in women’s thinking. Traditionally, the idea was that a thin woman shouldn’t have to “work” at her weight. She should be able to go out with friends and eat at will, indulging in a glass of wine, even a piece of chocolate cake, and not gain an ounce. “Everybody then asks her how she manages to stay so thin, as if it’s some inherent thing that just happens, without praising her for her efforts to get that way,” Sandoz says.

Strong being the new skinny, however, changes that. “It puts an emphasis on what you’re doing to improve your health,” Sandoz says. “If you look strong, people will then assume you’ve worked hard.”

When Strong Goes South

The picture, however, isn’t completely rosy. Attaching another adjective to the beauty ideal women have to live up to may wind up backfiring.

Although strength is beneficial if it refers to being and feeling strong — in other words, what your body can do versus how it looks — it may present an ideal that’s hard to live up to. It would be one thing, after all, if strong were replacing skinny. “Yet it seems like ‘strong and skinny’ is replacing ‘skinny,’” Sandoz says.

Just Google “fitspo” images for proof of this, after all. “You don’t have to be skinny to be strong, but you wouldn’t know that from the average fitspo image,” Engeln says.

“As a result, women are now being told they need to reduce their body fat substantially and increase their muscle tone to have any shot of looking like what our culture views as beautiful,” she says.

And while “strong” might indicate effort, there’s a downside to that. “You’ll then be able to look at a woman’s body and tell how hard she’s working, which could make weight discrimination a bigger issue,” Sandoz says. She points, for instance, to her overweight, even obese, female clients who are putting in the effort to make themselves healthier and stronger but will never be able to achieve the muscle tone of a woman who’s lean and defined. “Certain people might then look at these overweight women and assume that because they don’t have a six-pack, they’re not working out or doing things to make themselves healthier,” she says.

Plus, if a woman becomes so consumed about being strong and that begins to define her, is that any better than a woman who’s consumed by being thin and uses that to define herself? “The woman who’s consumed with being strong may push herself so hard that she injures herself,” Sandoz says.

What You Can Learn From This Debate

Whether for good or bad, this phrase isn’t likely to go away soon. Yet rather than embracing it verbatim, Petrosino suggests modifying it. Her rendition? Strong is the new. “When I hear that, I automatically associate strong with women,” she says, “and that’s a powerful image.” In other words, women have never been lauded for their strength in the past, but when you stop the phrase ‘strong is the new skinny’ and just say ‘strong is the new,’ it takes on a different connotation.

If strong truly is the new, as Petrosino suggests, then the more power to it. Let it inspire you to be the best, healthiest “you,” no matter your shape or size.

Simple Strategies for You

  1. Think of your thoughts as habits, and every time you have a negative body thought, say “stop” and tell yourself you’re going to take care of yourself today. “That can motivate you and prevent negative body talk from making you feel depressed,” says Renee Engeln, Ph.D.
  2. Look at your social circle and determine whether you’re spending lots of time with women who are obsessed with appearance. If so, consider spending less time with them or perhaps even cutting them from your life.
  3. Finally, learn how to be comfortable in your skin. Take five minutes of quiet time a day — do a little deep breathing during this time if you’d like. “If you want to love your body, you have to spend time with it,” says Emily Sandoz, Ph.D. Be open to what your body is telling you, and don’t be afraid if this process dredges up painful or negative emotions.