Changing the Conversation on What it Means to be a Strong Woman

Changing the Conversation on What it Means to be a Strong Woman

This past week was all about women for me. 

It was the first ever week-long Women's Strength Summit, curated by Stephanie Gaudreau, which I was lucky enough to be a speaker in.

It also, by pure coincidence, fell on the same week as International Women's Day, which my talk happened to coincide with! It truly felt like the week was dedicated to celebrating womanhood, uplifting women, and changing the conversation on what it means to "be a lady"- all topics and causes I'm wildly passionate about. Although the conversation has radically shifted over the past few years around feminism and women's strength, it's still a budding shift in our social conventions and expectations of both genders. Recently, strong women and entrepreneurs are being praised more than ever for being ambitious and not afraid to pursue what they want, but it wasn't long ago that women were resigned to secretarial roles, second-best opportunities, and being labeled as "bossy" or "bitchy" for, well, being a boss instead of just an employee.

There has definitely been a large shift towards praising strong women, but as with any new change in the way we as a culture operate, there's still lapses in judgement and definition from time-to-time. One of the largest topics of the Women's Strength Summit was not being afraid to be physically strong as a woman, and what that actually looks like. Stephanie Gaudreau herself is an Olympic weightlifter who has been fighting for strength to be praised for what it is, not what it supposedly implies. 

You may have heard phrases floating around such as "strong is the new sexy" or "strong is the new skinny", which imply that strength is only desirable because it fulfills the expectations women have been expected to meet for decades: be physically attractive, be appealing, be pleasing to look at. While on the surface this message can appear motivational, even supportive of the women's strength movement, what it's saying is much more than "don't be afraid to be strong, it'll make you sexy". What it's doing is replacement one mode of limitations on what a woman "should" look or be like with another- it's changing the language of the judgement, but it's still putting women in a box.

Something I want to see change is how we value strength in women. I want women to be praised for simply being strong- physically, mentally, spiritually. We've spent a long time expecting women not to be strong, while still trying to convince the world of the truth that women are people, and are just as capable as their male counterparts. Judging women purely on their capabilities is still lacking in many fields, not giving women the chance to prove their ability on a non-gender-specific basis. It was only in January of 2016 that Defense Secretary Ash Carter finalized the decision that women will be allowed to hold any job in the armed services, so long as they meet gender-neutral performance standards. That's less than a year. That's less than half a year.

Recently Dallas Hartwig, a writer on health, nutrition, and social wellness, shared a photograph with two women featured in it. On side was a woman with very thin legs, a visible space between her thighs, and an overall emaciated appearance- an image often associated with the ridiculously evil "pro-anorexia" movement, a group of disordered men and women who promote anorexia as a means to achieving a certain body type. On the other was a fuller woman, with obvious muscle tone and a higher body fat percentage. An arrow pointing to the fuller woman read "THIS", and an arrow pointing to the thinner woman read "NOT THIS". Above the image was a headline that read, "DEFINE BEAUTY, FIT AND HEALTHY > THIGH GAP".

On the surface, the message appears positive. Unhealthy, pro-anorexia picture is worse than one promoting what appears to be a healthier body shape? Who can't get behind that? But, as Hartwig pointed out, the message is far more insidious. This image isn't only suggesting we shift away from the "skinnier is better" mentality, but it is also suggesting that we place yet another highly-specific standard on how women should appear. It's suggesting that a strong woman only comes in the form of toned legs, a perky butt, and and curvaceous hips. It's implying a strong woman must look a certain way in order for her strength to be appropriate or desirable for her strength to be validated. It's dangling another carrot in front of women to chase after, neglecting their own personal needs for their health and wellbeing.

The fact that this image even exists, however, is to me a positive sign. It's a sign that the conversation around strength is even beginning to be held, even if it is not yet perfect. But until we can shift the conversation around what it means to be strong away from appearance altogether, we won't start praising women for what is important: their abilities.

When I was beginning my recovery, I sought out positive influences everywhere I could. When you're struggling to find the motivation to overcome something as terrifying as a mental illness, it can be extremely helpful to find pro-recovery blogs, websites, and groups to help reassure you that you're headed in the right direction. But out there exists images such as this one that continue to support the idea that a woman's worth is solely based upon her external appearance- regardless of her health. Time and time again, I saw and continue to see the suggestion that one of the biggest reasons to recover is that being a visibly emaciated and struggling anorexic is just plain unattractive. To which I have to say:

Stop telling anorexic women to recover because "men aren't dogs, they don't like bones." Stop telling anorexic women to recover because "men don't notice if a woman has a thigh gap or not." Stop telling anorexic women that the only reason they should recover is because it will make them more desirable in the eyes of men.

Being more conventionally attractive is not a reason to recover.

Living, breathing, achieving, and accomplishing are reasons to recover.

Being able to go for a hike with my mother on the weekends without risking heart failure is a reason to recover. Being able to practice yoga without worrying I'll pass out during the flow is a reason to recover. Being able to know I can protect myself in the case of an emergency is a reason to recover. Being able to run, jump, and play without worry is a reason to recover. Being able to use my body for more than the bare minimums of exertion is a reason to recover.

Having a nice ass is not a reason to recover.

I'm completely exhausted by the fact that women still feel compelled to make decisions based on what will make them most cohesive to traditional standards of femininity. I'm exhausted by women who think that training for strength will make them look "manly". I'm exhausted by women who are afraid to be ambitious in their careers for fear of emasculating their male partner. I'm exhausted by women who act as though eating- the simple act of nourishing and caring for our bodies- is an apology.

It's become so engrained in our culture that we hardly even notice it, but women are constantly apologizing for eating. They apologize for eating dessert, they apologize for taking seconds, they apologize for eating anything that looks fatty or carby or caloric. If they eat pizza, they apologize for being "naughty". If they eat a salad, they apologize for being "boring". No one even has a moment to comment on what's on their plate before they feel compelled to justify what it is their eating.

But the fact is, there is no one they need to justify their personal decisions to. How they fuel and nourish their body is no one's- not their best friend's, not their boss's, not their boyfriend's- concern or decision. How we care for our bodies is our personal right as a human being, and it looks different for everyone. When I see magazines or commercials or radio ads that promote the idea that a "one-size-fits-all" diet exists that will make you beautiful and desirable and happy, I'm saddened by the fact that there are women made so insecure by our society that they are willing to exchange their health and independence to fulfill a certain physical standard.

As women, we are so much more than we appear on the surface. We are so much more than how well we adhere to expectations of feminine appearance. We are so much more than how pretty we look sitting still and doing nothing.

We are capable of doing whatever it is we want to do, and how we look doing so is no one's business but our own. A strong woman can have big shoulders and powerful thighs and no makeup on. A strong woman can also be slender with slim hips and high heels on. A strong woman has no appearance she must adhere to- she presents herself as she feels most comfortable and confident, regardless of what anyone says.

To me, feminism isn't about making women more powerful than men. It's leveling the playing field. Although I would never argue that men do not face sexism (I could write endlessly about that topic as well), it's true that men don't face the same amount scrutiny over their appearance in the context of their worth. Women are expected to be pretty first, and strong second. Men are expected to be strong first, and pretty as a nice addition on top of it all.

Here's how we can change the conversation: stop apologizing. 

Stop apologizing for how your body looks. Stop apologizing for the way you eat. Stop apologizing for the way you exercise. Live for yourself first, to better the lives of others second, and to appease people's tastes dead last.