Is strong the new skinny? As sports evolve and performance standards rise, the demands on the female body increase, leading to more and more emphasis on force, an element which also lies at the core of Crossfit.
Throughout human history, the female body has been a constant theme illustrated by the various branches of art, enabling us to get a glimpse into what the ideal of women’s beauty looked like at different moments in the past and how it changed over time.
From the robust, large ladies of the Renaissance to the very broad spectrum of female body types that marked the 20th century, certain patterns emerged, which were indirectly imposed on women as they became engrained in the unwritten social norms of those times. The ideal figure was chubby, slim and moderately fit, while the present-day image of ultimate beauty seems to be seeing a return of curvy shapes. However, the time of athletic, muscular bodies has not arrived yet.
THE ATHLETIC PHYSIQUE
As it never matched the widely acknowledged ideals, this type of figure has been continuously stigmatised. Both amateur and world-class athletes frequently experience body-shaming for being too bulky, disproportionate or, most often, ‘masculine’. Could sports in general, and crossfit in particular, finally break the mould and make such a figure the pattern to strive for? Could they at least change social mentality, making people appreciate this type of body, if not also from an aesthetic point of view, then for the outstanding capacities it has developed over time through systematic training?
AN AESTHETIC OF EXCELLENCE
The body of a sportsperson is a testament of the many hours in which it was pushed to its limits, a record of the intense training regime it underwent not for the shallow purpose of looking a certain way, but with the aim of enhancing athletic performance. The impressive image this hard work sometimes results in is just the visual proof of the strength behind those big arms and defined six pack.
When the general audience watch sports on TV, the first impression they get of the athlete about to perform concerns that sportsperson’s appearance. Given that sportswear generally exposes most of an athlete’s body, it is natural for the viewer to unconsciously pass judgement on the way the athlete looks. However, as soon as the actual performance begins, the person watching shifts his or her attention to the competitor’ skills, be they strength, speed, flexibility, precision or a combination of these. The audience start to appreciate the extraordinary efforts made by the athletes’ bodies, and to admire the way in which every muscle contracts to create just the right movement.
At the end of the day, it is not the look that counts, but the level of the performance, and it is not the appearance of the athlete that makes the final, lasting impression on the viewer, but the sometimes superhuman abilities which the competitor demonstrates.
FIGHTING TO COMPETE
Sports are the greatest promoters of the feats that the human body is capable of. In no sport aside from bodybuilding does appearance represent a scoring criterion, and that establishes a level playing field for all athletes. For women in particular, sport provides a means of escaping from the numerous stereotypes and expectations which they have always been subject to. Throughout the 20th century, they obtained their right to compete in numerous sports, some of which, such as weightlifting and boxing, had previously been viewed as only suitable to men. In this way, they showed that the female body is not significantly less capable than the male one, and that great performances could be achieved through training and perseverance, without the fear of being judged for becoming too muscular.
I’m going to address something that has been on my mind a lot lately. It’s a hard subject for me since I struggle with body image issues but here goes nothing. My body does not look like all the other @crossfitgames female athletes with crazy ripped abs and zero body fat on their stomachs. I wish I could look like that, but I’ve come to the realization that this is my body. I work my ass off in training everyday. I eat clean for the most part, but am human and love to indulge in dessert every now and then. I’m in the best shape of my life and still don’t have a six pack. Not even close to a 4 lol. Some of it is genetics and the other part is I could eat less calories to try to look like everyone else. But the bottom line is I need to eat to perform. I can’t worry about trying to look like a “Games” athlete because having a six pack doesn’t always make for the best athlete. So for anyone who thinks they need to look a certain way to be a Regionals or Games competitor, you don’t. Stay on the grind and keep doing you!
The wide variety of competitive disciplines which became available to them in most parts of the world led to more and more women actively engaging in sport, not for the purpose of reaching the ideal skinny figure promoted in recent times, but for staying healthy, making achievements, socialising and enjoying themselves in the process.
This far-reaching involvement of women in sport and Crossfit has been constantly proving that no social expectation concerning the body can stop a young girl or a lady from doing what she enjoys.
With more and more women playing sports, and thus so many cases of ‘rebellion’ against the body type idealised by society, the unspoken obligation of having to conform to a standard is not as powerful as it was at the time when women did not lift or box, for instance. In addition to this, sports affect eating habits and prevent disorders which normally appear as a result of one’s resolution to reach the ideal figure promoted by society. Sportspersons just cannot afford to obsessively restrict their calorie intake in order not to gain fat or muscle mass. Given their intensive training regime and the way their bodies are depleted of energy on a daily basis, a healthy, diverse diet is paramount to sustaining athletic performance.
PUSHING THE LIMITS OF PERFORMANCE
Crossfit is undoubtedly one of the strongest advocates for a type of figure that defies socially imposed templates. Testing the limits of the female body, it enables women to discover their strength, speed and agility like no other sport. Crossfit does not impose any upper limit of performance for its female athletes, as all workouts are aimed at both men and women. Consequently, there are no restrictions concerning the female body, no fear of it becoming ‘masculine’. Furthermore, the numerous levels of training and the spirit of camaraderie makes all women feel welcome and appreciated, regardless of what their bodies look like, while the absence of mirrors emphasises the importance of function over appearance. One does not go to the box to admire their flexing arm muscles or squatting lower body.
Finally, returning to our initial question, there are two keys of interpretation, with two opposing answers. If we think of the two concepts as feminine ideals, then we can all agree that strong is not the new skinny. A powerful, muscular body still isn’t the aesthetic norm in our society, but I believe that the principles it was moulded by, namely the passion for sport and the aim for good health, have certainly become a trend in the global female population. In that sense, yes, strong IS the new skinny, and way more than that.