The concept of what a woman “should” look like is something that’s been on my mind for a long time. That’s part of why I’m here, why I write and “do” fitness and choose to share a lot of stuff in a public-ish space (“ish” because it’s public but there are like maybe 12 people out there who read these, so you know). There is so much that can be said about the beauty standards for women: how they have evolved over the years, how the pressure to conform to those standards can be brutal, how soul-crushing it can be to not fit those standards, and how freeing it can be to say “fuck it” and embrace taking care of what the good Lord gave ya – whatever that may look like. I could write a book about all of it, and my own experiences in this area that have been traced through that universal tapestry of sisterhood and humanity. Maybe I will someday.
But today I want to chat with yall about why it’s ok to look like a woman.
In our appearance-obsessed culture, and especially within the fitness industry, there’s been a trend in recent years towards a very lean, very athletic aesthetic. And while that can be attractive and sexy in it’s own way, it’s often portrayed as the only way. Yes, the rail thin aesthetic of the 90s and early 2000s may be fading out, but the uber-fit, lean physiques are the new look that define the pinnacle of beauty in 2018. And while the latest trend may be “thicc” girls (Why is it always spelled with two C’s? Someone please tell me, I’m too old to know why these things happen.), it’s always within very specific, socially-acceptable parameters. In other words, being “thicc” is good, but only if you have the proportions of a Kardashian. To be athletic without being shredded, or to be curvy without being a perfect hourglass, is to fall short of the standard society sets for you.
It doesn’t help when these standards for beauty and “fitness” and the worth of women are reinforced even by people who claim to be “experts” in the fitness industry. I screenshotted this from the instagram account of someone with a fairly hefty following in the online “fitness industry” awhile ago. (I’ve cropped out his handle because that’s irrelevant, and ultimately, so is he.)
This guy was reposting a photo from what looks like twitter, and the original photo/tweet was advertising “sexy swimwear for real women.” (In case you’ve been living under a rock, any type of apparel marketing geared at “real women” just means the items are sized to fit women who are bigger than roughly a US size 4.) If you can’t see it, the caption this guy included in his repost reads:
“Real women? Since when did being overweight/obese make someone a real woman? Are women who don’t look like them not real women?
Well, at least they can pair up with the dad bods and have a litter of honey boo-boos.
It’s disappointing to see someone in this industry promoting the idea that health is only possible within a narrow spectrum of body types. These women are curvier than runway models, that much is obvious. But obese? Unattractive? Emphatically no and no. My first reaction at seeing that photo was, “Damn, those girls are hot!” They’re beautiful, they’re shapely, and they look feminine. If you need more examples of women with feminine, soft, shapely bodies who are healthy and sexy as hell even though there’s nothing lean about them, check out Ashley Graham and Iskra Lawrence. Graham was the first “plus size” model to land a Sports Illustrated cover, and Lawrence is a spokesmodel for Aerie and a huge champion of companies not airbrushing/editing their models’ bodies. Of course, this guy has his own preferences for what he likes in women and that’s fine. But the idea that those opinions are fact (not to mention the disparaging tone and disrespectful towards women who are outside his personal preferences)? Frankly, fuck that.
Of course, saying that beauty standards are unrealistic is nothing new. This ain’t groundbreaking news. But here’s the thing: For centuries – literally, centuries – female beauty has captivated people the world over. One look through great works of art will assure you of that. And for nearly all of that time, women were celebrated for being women – for their femininity, for their grace, for their strength, for their softness, for their fertility, for the things that made them different from men.
They were celebrated for the things that made them distinctly and beautifully women.
And that’s a good thing. Women are wonderful, and the world is a better place for us being in it.
So ladies, I’m calling you out here – we are women. We are different from men – physically and psychologically – and that’s not just a fact, that’s something worth celebrating. One of the most obvious things that sets us apart from our male counterparts is our ability to create and nurture life. We can grow a baby inside us and then give birth. We can then feed those little bambinos and keep them alive with our own bodies. (Ok, and frankly, having boobs is just fun in general. They’re great.)
And for our bodies to be capable of doing all that amazing stuff, we were made differently than men. We have different reproductive organs, yes, but we also have a different hormonal cocktail inside us, we carry less muscle mass and more body fat, and we store said body fat in different places. Those things make us physically softer than men in a lot of senses. A certain level of softness (body fat) is required for female fertility, and the female body fat pattern (lower abdomen, hips, butt, thighs) actually promotes fertility and healthy pregnancy. And in case you missed it the first time – that is something to be celebrated.
I know that the world does not encourage softness. We are told to be hard, to be strong, to have chiseled abs and “buns of steel,” to hold back tears and to “grind” every day, to show off our sexiness and hide our softness. The general message thrown at us is that we must prove ourselves – in the classroom, in the board room, in the bedroom. This is empowering, we are told. Any sign of weakness, of softness, is seen as a potential embarrassment to our gender.
But let me just ask you – what the hell is empowering about that?
You know what is empowering? Embracing who you are, as an individual and as a woman.
So in case you haven’t been told yet, it’s ok to be soft. You don’t need my permission or anyone else’s to embrace your womanly shape, but sometimes it helps to be reminded.
To any of the women out there who are hating themselves for the softness in their figure, please know this: It is ok to be soft.
You can be healthy without being shredded.
You can be healthy without having a visible abs.
You can be healthy and have feminine curves and softness and – to quote Bridget Jones’ Diary – “wobbly bits.”
You can have substance to your frame.
You can take up space.
You can be strong.
You can be soft.
You can be a woman.
And you should celebrate that.
I realize this may not resonate with some of you. If that’s the case, I hope it means that you have never felt like you were unworthy or ugly or undesirable because you were not “shredded” or “ripped” or didn’t otherwise meet the aesthetic ideal of today’s day and age.
But maybe you’re like me. Maybe once upon a time, you made a habit of standing in front of mirrors and picking apart ever soft part of your body, of hating every hint of shapeliness or “womanly” figure, of wishing you could be made of stone instead of flesh. Maybe you still do that, and my God, if it is, I hope this hits you like a 2×4 to the head today, and I mean that in the most loving way. I wasted roughly a decade of my life trying to hate, starve, and sweat away any sign of softness in myself – physically and mentally. While I’m mostly free of those demons now, I can remember that time like it was just this morning. And there are girls and women in my life right now who are currently walking through those struggles, and it breaks my heart to know that there are so many women out there who hate themselves for being women, for having female bodies, for having that beautiful and feminine and wonderful quality of softness – whatever that may look like.
Beauty is subjective, and ultimately, it’s unimportant – gravity will win eventually, and there are hundreds of characteristics more important than physical attractiveness. At the same time, I know that for most women, for better or worse, feeling beautiful is something important. It’s not necessarily about looking a very specific way (even if sometimes it is), but more about our ability to love ourselves and to receive love from others, to recognize that the essence of who we are is captivating to others and that we are deserving of being loved and cherished. And that kind of beauty does not depend on the size of your jeans or the length or your legs or the width of your hips. That comes from who you are, made uniquely as an individual and a woman.
So embrace that.
Take care of yourself, mentally as well as physically.
Challenge yourself in the gym, to get stronger and faster.
Challenge yourself as a person, to learn more and be kinder and achieve the things you set out to do.
Enjoy where you are in life are while finding ways to continually grow.
Push back against the influences who tell you that being fit requires you to be locked in battle with your female body.
Reject the lie that your worth comes from your beauty.
Notice the uniquely feminine qualities about you and embrace them.
Strength and softness are not mutually exclusive. They can coexist in the same person quite beautifully.
That person is a woman.
PS: Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not down with the “fat acceptance” movement that promotes the idea that you can be healthy while being obese – that’s just factually inaccurate. (Some people may enjoy long lives in spite of being obese, but that does not mean that it is a healthy state for the body.) You also won’t catch me promoting the idea that you can be healthy at a severely low body fat percentage, and it’s for that reason that I think that bodybuilding/bikini competitions are particularly unhealthy for women, just as much physically as mentally. It’s important to take care of yourself, by practicing healthy dietary and exercise habits as well as practicing compassion and respect for yourself and whatever shape your body may take when it is healthy and well-cared for.
PPS: I would hope it’s obvious, but the internet can really bring out the stupid in folks, so let me clarify right here – I’m not saying that someone who is naturally built like the shredded “fitspo” ideal is unhealthy or unattractive or doing something wrong. The only way that becomes unhealthy is when you are starving/restricting/overtraining your body into submission. The only way that becomes unattractive is if you are asking someone who prefers a different look – because beauty is subjective. (Plenty of people find the shredded look attractive, and plenty of people don’t. Same way not everyone finds a big ass or big tits attractive.) The only way you’d be doing something wrong is if you engage in unhealthy eating/training practices or believe that looking a certain way makes you better than other people. Again, take care of yourself. Also, no matter what your body looks like, don’t be a dick.