Strong is the new skinny and fit is the new thin for women, according to a growing trend on social media.
Go on Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and you’re sure to see plenty of women showing off their muscles with pride.
Toronto's Fit Chicks boot camp owner Laura Jackson says it’s a shift in ideals that’s happening offline as well.
"Clients used to come to lose weight and get skinny," she says. "Now they come and say they want to get stronger."
But experts are asking whether strong is just the new culprit in the body-image battle women and girls have always faced.
"I think we’re treading a fine line here," says Tara-Leigh McHugh, a body image expert in the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation. "Are we just shifting the ideal from a thin body to a muscular body? Are we just setting people, women in particular, up for more challenges?"
Dr. Robyn Legge, who leads the Eating Disorders Program at SickKids Hospital in Toronto, has the same fears.
"On the surface it looks like it’s maybe a healthier message," she says. "The risk is that we’re still having a narrow idea of how everybody should be striving to look."
Pride in performance
But women who do intense exercise regimes say that there is an element that makes being strong different than being skinny.
Sue Yen is a recent convert to CrossFit, an exercise regime marketed as the sport of fitness, and says she’s noticed a huge change in how she sees her body since embracing the "strong girls" mantra. It doesn’t have to do with appearance.
'We have girls here that can lift way more than the guys can and we respect that so much. We don’t look at each other’s bodies or talk about that.'—CrossFit participant Sue Yen
"Physique becomes a side effect of performance goals," she says. "It allows for a range of healthy bodies because if you can lift this much, then you’re achieving the goal. And it’s a realistic one, as compared to getting someone’s stomach."
Yen trains at a co-ed gym in Toronto’s Liberty Village that is dedicated to CrossFit, but the daily workout session on Wednesday night and filled with women who weren’t afraid to lift heavy and break a sweat.
"We have girls here that can lift way more than the guys can and we respect that so much," says Yen. "We don’t look at each other’s bodies or talk about that. It’s always about the milestones that we hit in the sport."
But Yen and her training partners Melika Hope and Nina Jung say women often approach them about their appearance, asking how they get their arms or how they get in shape.
Appearance goals inherent
McHugh says she thinks that image is inherent in ideals, especially as online images lead the shift to valuing strong.
"If the focus was more on performance goals — the strength aspect and what your body is able to do — I think that’s potentially a positive thing. But if we’re still focused on appearance, I don’t know if we’re moving to any better of a situation."
Legge says we’re not.
"Similarly to an obsession with a thin body, you’re having to act on your body to fit a certain ideal," she says. "So people over-exercise or eat in a certain way to achieve that body ideal, and that’s where we have people getting into trouble."
Jackson says as a fitness professional, she is aware of that and is concerned with replacing one unattainable ideal with another.
"People are obsessive," she says. "It takes a lot of work to look like that and not everyone’s body works or develops the same way. "
"You need to be accountable for your own health and not just listen to the information and images that pop culture feeds you," she says. "Sharing is great as long as it stays inspirational and not idealistic."
Hope says she has a healthy relationship with her workout routine at CrossFit but hopes girls and women don’t set unrealistic goals as a result of the strong-is-the-new-skinny message, especially if it leads them to overwork their bodies or take supplements to achieve a certain look.
Her advice is that people try to embrace their body type.
"Rather than strong is the new skinny, what about healthy is the new skinny?"