Why strong, not skinny, is the new sexy

Models Roz Purcell and Madeline Mulqueen in Penney's growing exercise range

The western world’s obsession with thigh gaps, concave stomachs and thinspiration isn’t over yet but there’s a definite more towards exercise and nutrition rather than starvation, writes Suzanne Harrington.

Strong is the new skinny. Strong is healthy, attainable, pleasurable to achieve, rewarding, energising, life-affirming and empowering. Skinny is spending your life fretting, avoiding food, and ignoring your rumbling stomach. Which sounds better to you? Which sounds like more fun?

So confident in strong being the new skinny is Texan personal trainer Marsha Christensen that in 2012 she trademarked the phrase. Blogging about her transformation from chubby to ripped, she writes, “Food is the most misused anxiety drug. Exercise is the most under utilised anti depressant.” Her Facebook page has 118,000 likes.

For some time now, strong has been steadily taking over from skinny. The old skinny – involving diet and exercise, rather than training and nutrition – was all about deprivation, pointless calorie counting, unrealistic expectation, and fluctuating levels of self loathing spurred on by the fashion and beauty industries. It was about aerobics and Slim Fast, treadmills and undressed lettuce. It is how women were brought up around their food, fitness and body image – food was ‘naughty’ or ‘nice’, as though we were five-year-olds at a party, and that strength and muscle was unladylike and strictly for men.

Why strong, not skinny, is the new sexy

Tennis player Serena Williams, perhaps the most splendid strong-not-skinny role model

Particularly since the Sixties, women have been told skinny is the thing to emulate, with a series of unrepresentative individuals - from Twiggy to Kate Moss - presented to us as the ideal. Audrey Hepburn reportedly ate almost nothing, according to Sophia Loren, who went to her place to eat and came home starving. Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels, suggested Moss, prompting another generation to surreptitiously throw up their lunch. But unless you make your living as a runway model, what is the actual point of skinny? If you live on Marlboro and Haribo, or skip dinner, or crash diet, you might look slim on the outside, but are you really doing your mind and body any favours?

In a word, no. Just being slim is not enough. The key word is active. Research from the University of Cambridge – and it was a big study, involving a third of a million people over a 12 year period – shows that inactivity is more of a killer than being overweight. That you can be fat and fit, and that daily exercise does more for your long term health and longevity than being skinny and stationary.

Why strong, not skinny, is the new sexy

Caroline Wozniacki, another role model for ‘strong is the new skinny’ movement.

Perhaps reflecting this new realism, the US magazine Sports Illustrated – which tends to feature men doing sport and women doing very little while looking nice – deigned to include two ‘plus size’ models in their 2015 swimsuit edition, Robyn Lavley and Ashley Graham. For ‘plus-sized’ read ‘normal’.

This swimsuit edition features just women (no men - that would be too gay), 36 of whom are models, and two actual sportswomen – tennis player Caroline Wozniacki and martial artist Ronda Rousey. Why, you’d wonder, would any accomplished athletes think it’s relevant to pose in bikinis for the male gaze? Why, at the elite end of sport, is how a woman looks still deemed as important – if not actually more important – than how she performs?

Why is female athletic achievement so often overlooked? This is where the No More Page Three campaign came from – when female athletes were winning gold at the Olympics, The Sun still chose to represent women only as naked and decorative, rather than strong and high achieving. An ad campaign in the UK, This Girl Can, features women of all sizes and abilities getting sweaty in exercise gear, soundtracked to Missy Elliot’s ‘Get Ur Freak On’. The aim is to encourage all women to get active, rather than just the ones who win gold medals, or look like Kate Moss. Perhaps the most splendid strong-not-skinny role models of all are Venus and Serena Williams. And Michelle Obama, with her fabulous arms, urging America to move.

Away from the television cameras of sponsorship deals of elite sport, ordinary women are indeed getting their freak on. Sports wear has moved far beyond the lycra leotard and into the mainstream; female exercise gone beyond getting sweaty in a step class. Weights, high intensity intervals, and building muscle are no longer the preserve of the male end of the gym, as the ladies trot primly on treadmills; these days it’s all about creating strength through endurance, about nutrition, about working your body like an athlete. It’s about the blissful afterglow, the feeling of connection with yourself, and incremental achievement. We are speaking a new language of PBs and training sessions, free weights and dead lifts, protein shakes and cool-downs.

One positive aspect of the New Narcissism - where every detail of our daily lives is deemed uploadable and shareworthy - is that we are finally starting to realise that our bodies are temples, rather than landfill.

Food blogging – around nutrition, rather than just nice recipes – is on the increase, as it the uptake of super-healthy plant based diets, particularly amongst women. The Huffington Post recently ran a piece on small easy steps towards veganism; the London Evening Standard featured how vegan got sexy – not worthy, not difficult, but sexy. A decade ago, vegan was synonymous with crank. Today, it’s all about your health.

In terms of role models to combat the redundant and frankly stupid ‘thinspiration’ trend so beloved of previous generations, Irish models Rosanna Davidson and Roz Purcell are glowing examples of strong as the new skinny. Both blog delicious-sounding plant-based recipes – lots of cashew cream, coconut oil, raw cacao, and other rich and tasty vegan delights – and both have completed gruelling Iron Man events. Not a Marlboro or Haribo in sight.

While we may snort a bit at Gwynneth Paltrow blogging about kale smoothies, the reality is that people – by which I mean women – are now awake to the fact that for decades we have been wrong not just about what we eat, but how we eat it. Deprivation (hunger) followed by a treat (sugar) is not the way to go; today, we are more nutritionally literate than ever before. And what we know and learn, we share online.

Enzymes, amino acids, complete proteins – we use these terms the way our mothers used to count calories. We know about refined sugar, about processed foods, about the hideousness of industrialised farming. And we are increasingly saying no thanks, and instead eating vegan, raw, paleo, whatever. We are looking after our bodies, instead of starving them, or pumping them full of laboratory made ‘diet’ foods.

Obviously, especially in the fashion industry, there will always be women who opt for long term hunger because their job supposedly requires it.

Few are as honest as Joanna Lumley, who recently told the Telegraph that she is thin because she simply doesn’t eat anything, other than snacking on lettuce, nuts and crisps. No meals. “I have no idea how to cook because I don’t eat,” she said.

Other skinnies, such as Victoria Beckham, profess to eating what they like; we can assume that they simply don’t like very much, although this seems improbable. Or perhaps it’s a generational thing, with younger women wised up to fitness and nutrition instead of willowy deprivation. “I’ve always loved food too much to be a model,” actor Jennifer Lawrence told an interviewer. Instead, she eats potatoes and works out.

Being unnaturally skinny is tedious and unhealthy, just as is being unnaturally fat; yet one is revered while the other reviled. Those who revere skinny – the fashion and beauty industries – continue to dominate images of women in the media. Being strong, on the other hand, requires fitness and fuel, and a different kind of commitment to yourself – that is, a positive and loving one. Good quality pure fuel, to sustain and revitalise, as opposed to meal-skipping and fainting in between caffeine hits.

And when running for a bus, going for a bike ride, working a long day, or fending off an attacker, which would you be – strong or skinny?

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