When it comes to fitness, the prevalence of ‘fat bias’ has meant that for so long, anyone who isn’t thin has been excluded from the sports and fitness dialogue and subjected to negative social stigma.
The '80s was the dawn of the supermodel. By the '90s, when I was going through my awkward teenage years, this aesthetic was well established, and my understanding of what society deemed perfect went from a size 10 to a size 0. I had to make sure that I had that right. Size 0 – zero – as in nothing, as in not even a number, as in make yourself so small that you take up no room, become invisible. Zero, as in an ellipse, the centre of which is entirely empty.
Around this time, the carb restricting Atkins Diet, first developed in the 60s by cardiologist Robert Atkins, was seeing a renaissance and ‘skinny’ went from being a derogatory term to a compliment, a goal, even. Size zero translates to a UK size 4 in women’s clothing, giving a waist measurement of 23 inches. This is equivalent to the waist size of an 8-year-old girl. Not only is this aesthetic unrealistic and unattainable for the vast majority of the population, it can also be extremely harmful.
In 2017 The Guardian reported that fashion houses LVMH and Kering enforced a ban on the use of size-zero models. The inclusivity and representation of real bodies in their variety of shapes and sizes has, for me, been the trajectory of this positive shift. The push-back on fashion-culture and decades of homogeneous beauty standards that lauds unrealistic ideals of what it means to be beautiful or strong is forcing society, media as well as the health and fitness arenas, to reassess the centring of slim/thin builds when talking about aspects such as ‘strength’. When Grammy-winning artist Lizzo posted her workout video on TikTok with a message to body-shamers, it went viral: “Hey. So I’ve been working out consistently for the last five years, and it may come as a surprise to some of y’all that I’m not working out to have your ideal body type. I’m working out to have my ideal body type. And you know what that is? None of your fucking business…Because I am beautiful. I am strong. I do my job, and I stay on my job.”
It is understandable that hashtags such as ‘strong not skinny’ and its sibling ‘fat not thin’ have emerged over the years, in resistance against these negative biases. A quick scroll of the hashtag ‘strong not skinny’ throws up images of mostly women in gym gear posting messages of motivation and empowerment, and I am here for that. What I don’t understand is why we can’t celebrate what women are without telling them what they can’t or shouldn’t be?
In a world where we are told how we ought to look, any message that tells me my body is not the correct build to be perceived as ‘strong’ because it is slim mirrors the same sort of oppressive thinking that aims to distance itself from. The word ‘not’ in these hashtags does just that. It negates the existence of smaller builds within the space of strength. The binary comparison presented in something like, 'strong not skinny' compares abstract concepts of ‘strength’ and ‘fitness’, with a concrete aesthetic ‘skinny/thin’, making the assertion that one cannot be strong if they are skinny. That being thin means, by definition, that one is not fit. Whilst the intent of these phrases may be to promote exercise and fitness goals over appearance, they end up vilifying certain body types, in this case, smaller ones. Celebrating physical attributes cannot truly be empowering if they exclude anybody’s shape or build.
At the beginning of lockdown, I had skinny ‘twiggy arms’ as my son puts it. My weekly workout routine includes kettlebells and free weights. The weights have increased. I can do full press-ups and hold my entire body weight on my hands in advanced yoga balances for impressive lengths of time. I feel the strongest I have ever been and guess what? After a year of increased strength and consistent workouts, my arms are still skinny. And I’m ok with that, because body positivity centres around what your body can do and how it makes you feel, not on the way it looks.
Very Well Mind explains that body positivity “…is not just about challenging how society views people based upon their physical size and shape, however. It also recognizes that judgments are often made based on race, gender, sexuality, and disability.” They also go on to say that whilst body positivity is about addressing unrealistic body standards, other goals include “helping people build confidence and acceptance of their own bodies,” and “promoting the acceptance of all bodies”.
Speaking with Ruth Kamala, qualified personal trainer and yoga and pilates instructor, she reiterates the value that, “exercise and food shouldn’t be about how you look in the mirror or how other people see you. It is about learning to love the body we have. We are genetically all different shapes and sizes. Exercise and diet is all about looking after the temple we are in.”
Written by Yasmina Floyer