Monday, November 18, 2013

"Strong is the new skinny" -- sexualization of Female strength athletes?

Several articles have described disappointments with current cultural views towards strong female athletes.  Most notably, articles by Tamara Cohen (on, and   "Strong Is Still Strong, Skinny Is Still Skinny " (, have outlined flaws with slogans like "strong is the new skinny".

What underlies that fuzzy, hard to describe reason that many female strength athletes such as weightlifters and crossfitters irk "strong is the new skinny" is that it sexualizes the female strength athletes physique.

Athletes who compete for the sale of competition, to better themselves, to win, do not have a pimary objective of "looking sexy". In effect, valuing female athletes for their "sexiness" versus their actual athletic accomplishments undermines them as athletes. For example, this would be like watching the New England Patriots at the Superbowl, and only talk about Tom Brady's hairdo.

Analysis- taking a closer look at "strong is the new skinny"
So, let's analyze this a bit further.  The term "strong is the new skinny" implies that strong is replacing a cultural ideal of skinny. Hence, we must look at the premises of "skinny". Looking at American pop culture the last 20 years, skinny was an ideal of "sexiness".  In effect, by equating strong with skinny, whether unintentionally or not, people may infer "strong is sexy".

Further, if you go to the  strong is the new skinny blog, it has many bust shots of women's torso's wearing "strong is the new skinny" tank tops. Many of the photos are simply a women's torso, with a "strong is the new skinny" tank top, tightly fitted around the women's bust. Some photos, actually, show a woman lifting something in the tank top, though the majority are the former.

Although, the "Strong is the new skinny" facebook page proclaims, "strong is the New Skinny isn't all just about fitness models and slogans. It never was and it was never meant to be. It's about REAL WOMEN doing REAL TRAINING. -Adam", the majority of the imagery implies lift weights to be sexy.

Aside from implying sexiness, a second component of "strong is the new skinny" is that you can still be "girly" while doing weights.   It seems to be more about not being afraid to use weigths and losing your feminitiy.  This is best displayed by the profile of the "strong is the new skinny" blog.

In effect, whether it was yhe intent of the creators or not, the slogan often gets tagged to "girly" girls in tight-bust tank tops in some proximity to weights.

Beauty vs sexy vs feminine
We can admire athletes with out sexualizing them.  With female athletes, there is a a tendency to sexualize them as society seems to forget is there is a difference between what is beautiful and what is sexy.

Beauty, sexiness, and femininity are 3 different things. For example,one would describe a waterfall as beautiful, not sexy.  Further, one would not describe--in English at least--a waterfall as being feminine or masculine.
Going back to the Breaking Muscle article, the author does bring up that fitness industry models are often equated with the slogan.  But, can't you have a beautiful physique, with out being sexualized or have your femininity discussed?

If you follow IFBB competitions, the winners of the figure, physique, and bodybuilding competitions are all being judged against a physical ideal of perfection. For example, describes the judging criteria for Figure competitors as, " In all rounds judges should assess the overall athletic appearance of the physique, taking into account symmetrically developed figure, muscle tone and shape with a small amount of body fat, as well as the hair and facial beauty and individual style of presentation, including personal confidence, poise and grace." Studies show that a quality like symmetry is something associated with beauty, such as the symmetry we see throughout nature's beauty - the symmetry of butterfly wings, symmetry of maple leaves, etc. So, isn't the primary goal of fitness/bodybuilding to create physical beauty by sculpting the body?

Perhaps, slapping a "strong is the new skinny" slogan on an IFBB pro's image undermines the beauty of their physique by focusing on the sexual aspects (Certainly,  many women in the fitness industry make money looking sexy in ads).

My personal take

I could careless if someone looks at a photo of me lifting and sees it as skinny, strong, or somehow sexualizes the fact that I'm in a full squat in skin tight spandex with something that weighs a lot more than me overhead.

I'm not lifting to look good.  I do, however, expect that improved body aesthetics are a result of working hard.The amount and tighness of the spandex I wear is proportional to how much more I can lift in it.  Yes, I do pay attention to minor aesthetics like what color weightlifting shoes and singlet I'm wearing--and this is even more about complimenting the Beauty of my lifts. Performance, above all, comes first.

The most poignant advice on this subject, I received from a gay guy friend.  During a discussion on how it would be so much easier to promote Risto Sports on sexiness, even myself . His advice was,  " Gwen everyone sells on sex. Its too easy. Don't sell on sex, because you're so much more than that."  Likewise, you might have noticed how we (Risto Sports) don't feature sexualized women in our ads and we also have sponsored many minority women, posing in a jerk with 110+kg over head. On the other hand, the norm for other sports equipment companies is to  feature women in sports bras and underwear showing off their body, not their athletic feats.

On the subject of sexiness, I'm with Tamara Cohen and Ashton Kutcher, that being sexy is about being confident and thoughtful.   Ever since being married, I get hit on way, way more. Why? cause I'm  not actively looking for a man's approval of what I look like. I don't care. And because I accept myself,  it has an unintentional  reinforceing affect of being attractive to others.

Further, some men think I am really girly, others think I'm borderline androgenous.  Certainly, I am not concerned with being girly. When I was 4, I wanted to be like Flo Jo, muscles and all, and I cringed at bright pink clothes with giant bows, that female relatives wanted me to wear.  I even wore pink weightlifting shoes for 3 years as an inside joke to myself (yeah, no one else got the joke).

So, I am going to be strong for the sake of athleticism and and ideal of physical acheivement. And, if an amazing physique is the end result, cool.  And, when I clean and jerk 110kg, I want people to admire my lift, first, over what I look like.

My advice to you is think about what your goals are in training - are you doing it to acheive a physical ideal of beauty, to achieve an ideal of sexiness, or for to achieve some physical feat.

Ashton Kutcher on definition of sexy: 


Tamara Cohen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tamara Reynolds said...

Love this, of course! I've been thinking about this topic a lot lately, and I realized how much my views have evolved over the past several years. I'm starting to see more photos and messages that supposedly glorify strength or hard work as sexualized.

David said...

Really great strong lifting

Jason Navarro said...

Great post! While we cannot ignore the fact that a lot of female athletes are still viewed sexually. I think that women nowadays are getting more and more involved in sports that used to be dominated by men (MMA, weightlifting etc.). I also believe that the slogan "strong is the new skinny", while being a very sexualized slogan, is a very positive reinforcement for women who still think that starving themselves will attain them beauty.

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