It’s clogging my Pinterest and Twitter feeds, we see it promoted on major sport brands’ campaigns, and it’s embraced by gyms and fitness clubs around the world. Are you also familiar with the fitness mantra, ‘Strong is the new skinny’? I thought so. The hugely popular trend sends a clear message that health is to be found in a strong body – which is a far cry from the old idea that stick-thin figures are a beauty ideal. Gone are the days where gym classes promoted weight loss and consistent aerobic training; most current exercise trends require and advocate strength gain instead.
Think of high-intensity interval training programmes like SWEAT1000, Crossfit, boot camps and the now globally popular Kayla Itsines movement. Kayla’s online ‘bikini body guide’, a workout plan including cardio and circuit training over a 12-week period, is changing women’s bodies, replacing the desire for skinny with the quest for strength. I jumped on the Kayla bandwagon with no aim other than to shake up my fitness routine and try something new that could easily fit in my busy schedule (each resistance circuit takes only 28 minutes).
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Three weeks into the programme and I felt myself becoming stronger, could see my body shape changing and was aware of my mind being stimulated by pushing boundaries. My body image became a side eect of my performance goals: suddenly it was more about breaking my own push-up record rather than fitting into a size two dress (because that happened anyway). Then, however, I started thinking that the possible outcome of pursuing strength could be dissatisfaction with the amount of muscle (or lack thereof) that develops.
Could ‘strong’ be the new culprit in the body-image battle that women are always waging? Promotion of a strong body is certainly a healthier message than advocating a body of skin and bones. From boosting your fitness levels to managing conditions such as migraine – and even making your brain sharper – strength training is an excellent health habit. But is this trend simply another way of imposing a narrow idea of how everyone should look? Let’s rewind the body image clock: in the 1950s, curves and soft shapes à la Marilyn Monroe were considered attractive and feminine; in the 1960s, passive weight loss body machines in ‘Figure Salons’ were big – and no mention was made of muscle gain or body strength as a beauty standard.
In the 1970s and 1980s, aerobic exercise became the rage, as per Jane Fonda’s rigorous routines (‘Feel the burn’) – and thin was defi nitely in. In the 1990s, indoor aerobic fi tness took a break, to be replaced with a ‘back to basics’ approach, with Pilates, correcting posture or balancing courses such as yoga. Now, in the 2000s, the concept of strength has started upstaging the skinny craze. But has thin really been pushed from women’s minds? I do think we’re on an increasingly positive and healthier path, but we still have a way to go to be accepting of our bodies.
I believe that the best approach is to have a healthy relationship with your workout; to set attainable, realistic goals; and to keep exercise in perspective. I found my fi tness match with Kayla’s programme, but I won’t overwork myself, become obsessed, or take supplements to attain a certain look. The ultimate goal of any workout is to feel good in your own skin, to feel empowered and proud of who you are, whether it’s with or without a sixpack and super-toned legs. Celebrate your beauty, whatever form it takes.