Celebrating strong, but at the expense of what?

In the past, I’ve talked (a lot) about my thoughts on the whole “strong is the new skinny” idea. This morning, as I was swimming before the sun rose, I let my mind wander. Watching all the swimmers come in and out of the pool, I noticed how different their bodies are then those that I’m used to seeing at CrossFit.

Because I’ve been in the CrossFit world and the realm of barbells for a few years now, I don’t think twice when I see a woman with big biceps and even bigger traps. Hell, I’ll even celebrate them for being willing to go against the idea that women should be small.

But I started to think about the way that we celebrate strong women but seem to pick on small men. All the talk of “gainz” (best spelt with a “z”) and the jokes about skipping leg day, for instance, directed at men who don’t make muscle their priority are actually kind of hurting us all.

People love that I am a strong woman. Taking up space physically for women is a sort of statement that goes beyond the physical and our bodies. But while the space women have to be strong is certainly demonstrative of the way in which we’ve expanded on the possibilities of gender, we’re not doing such a great job on the flip side. I’m afraid this does more than just keep men in a space that’s too narrowly-defined—it affects the way we look at femininity and women, too.

Consider a man who wants to take up synchronized swimming, knitting, raising a child, or any other traditionally feminine pursuit. We think twice before celebrating him, while we immediately applaud the women who choose bodybuilding, woodworking, or careers over kids for being leaders. What does that say about the way we think about those traditionally feminine pursuits? Traits? About women more generally?

The “Like a girl” ad that was floating around the interwebs last year comes to mind….

I’m afraid that in celebrating the masculine qualities that women can now embody without also working on expanding the possibilities for men worth celebrating, we are reinforcing that what is feminine is somehow inferior, or less than, or not worthy of praise. Consider staying home to raise kids. In my mind, there is nothing more important than taking time to properly raise a family. But also in my mind are all the ideas I have about the freedom I’ve got to have a career and the obligations I feel to do it all with a smile on my face someday.

So to bring it back to that “strong is the new skinny” idea, I think we should at least consider what we’re saying. Beyond the issues that I see with replacing one body ideal with another, both of which are largely unattainable, let’s take a second and consider that even skinny women, or women who choose to do “girly” things, are also of value. Men too.

What do you think?



6 thoughts on “Celebrating strong, but at the expense of what?

  1. I think this is up there with how women who choose to run in say sparkle skirts or otherwise overtly “cute”/feminine clothes get mocked by some other female athletes as “not taking it seriously” or otherwise having their priorities in the wrong place. Basically, characteristics that are traditionally associated with femininity get seen as inferior across the board by athletic types a lot of the time (being small, quiet, wearing make-up/cute clothes, etc.). Really, none of us should be judging ANYONE else in this way–as long as they’re not hurting anyone, people should be able to what they want or need to do in a way that makes them feel comfortable.

    • You are definitely on the same wavelength as I am. There’s so much hating going on, but I always say that I want to be an encourager–and that means encouraging people who might not have the same goals or approach as I do to fitness! Thanks for reading and for commenting.

  2. Great article. I’ve had the honour of raising a son who is all for equality and while he accepts his uber girly sister and tomboy mother he gets frustrated at what he can’t do because he’s a boy – starting with having to give up a sport at 10yo because it was a girls sport but girls in his soccer team could choose if/when they left mixed teams to join girls teams. He now cycles, gets whipped by some of the girls but that makes no difference to the social dynamics.

    • Thanks! I think it would be great to hear more men and boys’ voices on this kind of thing, but unfortunately I think talking about it is one of the things that they aren’t “allowed” to do…

  3. Yep, absolutely. (Aren’t stay-at-home fathers celebrated? Ok, maybe in my slightly biased social circles…) Except…and this is where the except comes in. Stereotypically feminine or masculine behaviour – well, human behaviour – should be a choice, not a default. There are those who will perform their conventional gender roles not out of choice, but because they’re defaults, and try to force others into the same mould. And celebrating strength in women, or other stereotypically feminine qualities in men, is part of challenging those defaults and getting people to really have a good hard think about their actions.

    • I still think we should be strong, and I agree that people should think about what they’re doing and who they’re being in the world. I think there should be an open continuum when it comes to what is “socially acceptable” behavior for women–and men! Thanks for reading/commenting.

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