Why ‘strong not skinny’ is still an impossibly high body standard that most of us can’t reach

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    'Strong not skinny' is just another impossibly high body standard most of us can't reach
    (Picture: Ella Byworth for Metro.co.uk)

    When it comes to women’s fitness, 2017 has been the year of the gun show.

    And the abs show. And the glutes show.

    We’re obsessed with muscles.

    Where once women starved and flogged themselves on treadmills and stepping machines, we now spend our time and money on daily HIIT, boot camps, creatin, and protein shakes.

    A few years ago, the only women doing this amount of exercise and guzzling so many supplements were bikini models. They were few and far between. Now every gym has someone training for a competition.

    I recently went on a fitness retreat and was in the minority of women there who either hadn’t competed in a bikini comp or wasn’t in training for their first one.

    Why?

    Well, because #strongnotskinny is somehow consider the more democratic, healthier approach to fitness than simply striving for being slim – as proven by the 5.5 million posts with the hashtag on Instagram.

    Being dead skinny is only really worth it if you’re 6ft and on your way to being signed by Storm. But being ripped and super fit? Well…we can all get there, theoretically. Any able body can get stronger but not every body can slim down to minute proportions.

    That doesn’t mean that this incessant concentration on strength and muscles isn’t still having an adverse effect on our body standards and self-esteem.

    Getting a six pack is extremely difficult as a woman. Female athletes have up to 20% body fat, non-professionally fit women can have between 21% and 25% and the average woman has up to about 32%. To get a six-pack, you need to be reaching up a maximum of 19% body fat.

    Bikini models can tip the scales with a mere 13% fat – which for women means that they’re eating into their essential fat margins – the fat that keeps us alive.

    Any lower and you’re in a serious red zone.

    And these bikini models are ‘normal’ women. They have everyday jobs. They aren’t people who got spotted at 15 to pursue a life on the track or the runway.

    To get their incredible bodies (I use ‘incredible’ because they’re almost unbelievably lean and muscular), they are doing the most intense daily training while cutting about a third of the daily calorie allowance.

    Imagine smashing a weights and low-cardio twice a day on just 1,250 calories. Most of us would flake out.

    You know, each to their own. For some people, it’s worth the sacrifice, pain and hanger. Many of us wish we had the dedication and concentration.

    But for every bikini model who loves what they do and loves how their body looks and feels, for others, the pressure to perform and stay in shape can be overwhelming.

    We scroll through all these Instagram pictures of #strongnotskinny influencers every day who are supposed to be inspiring us to be fitter and – crucially – healthier, and yet they’ve got the physical composition of actual athletes.

    You can do that when it’s your job. Hell, if I were a PT or fitness blogger with nothing but gym time on my hands, I hope I’d also be able to get into such peak condition and run a sub 3.45 marathon. But that’s just not feasible when fitness is your hobby and you have other things going on.

    Imagine if it was just assumed that we could train ourselves to cycle as fast as Victoria Pendleton or jump as high as Jessica Ennis-Hill or box as hard as Nicola Adams – on top of our day jobs, families and social lives.

    We put our Olympians on pedestals as the superheroes they are. They’re magnificent physical specimens but they aren’t the average woman and no one doubts for a second that what they’ve achieved is doable by everyone and anyone.

    And yet we’ve started striving for the same kind of body.

    The same body that requires hours of intense exercise. That requires living for months on restrictive or very structured diets. That means putting fitness first at all times.

    For many of us, it’s just another impossibly high standard to try – and fail – to meet.

    Encouraging women to be a size zero is awful and dangerous but one has to wonder how much damage we’re doing these days by pushing our bodies too far to get stronger. Lifting too much can lead to things like hernias, torn muscles and *shivers* VAGINAL PROLAPSE.

    'Strong not skinny' is just another impossibly high body standard most of us can't reach

    The only way to avoid these things is by taking it slow – lifting only what you can genuinely support.

    Imagine: You think you’re going to have the body of a bikini model and you end up smashing in the connecting tissue between your vaginal and anal tract. The only place you’re going is A&E, not the stage, my friend.

    We can’t deny that focusing on being strong is healthier than trying to make our bodies disappear but the fact is that much of this concentration on strength still focuses on cutting and making gains at the same time. You need to shred fat in order to see abs and other muscles.

    So actually, although food is crucial when it comes to strengthening and conditioning, there’s still the pressure to be very slim – but with the added element of growing muscle on top.

    That’s a lot to ask of busy women.

    Spending so much time and attention on the way we look, what we eat, which limbs need working on, all adds pressure and anxiety onto our already stressful lives.

    Give your body regular breaks – both from exercise and from the strict healthy eating plans. And ignore the pressure to be #strongnotskinny if it’s making you feel rubbish. Life is too short.

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