Fit vs. Skinny

This post is the first of a two-part mini series and is targeted toward female athletes. Check back in next week for Jace's counterpart post for male athletes, Strong vs. Jacked!

But is that a good thing?

But is that a good thing?

You've seen the t-shirts, right? "Strong is the new Skinny!" "Healthy is the new Skinny!" "Fit is the new Skinny!" At first glance, this seems like a really great trend. Emphasizing the function of your body over its appearance? I am ALL ABOUT that! Positivity trumping negativity? That’s my MIDDLE NAME! But on second thought, this “_____ is the new Skinny!” deal may not be the best thing for us, after all. In fact, I believe that this Fit vs. Skinny dichotomy is borderline harmful—especially to female athletes.


The Skinny on Women's Bodies

This was the gold standard of beauty in 1615. 

This was the gold standard of beauty in 1615. 

While Fit vs. Skinny seems at first to stand for a shift in cultural beauty standards, it simultaneously places girls in the same polarized, black-and-white paradigm of the very standards it professes to thwart. Women's bodies have long been a site of cultural appropriation (my old lit professors would be so proud of that sentence!). What I mean by that is that the media, changing societal standards of beauty, and (sorry, dudes) patriarchal attitudes towards women's roles in society have taken over women's own ideas about our bodies. Magazines and makeover shows tell us how to "fix" our flawed appearances. Beauty "trends" dictate which traits are desirable when it comes to women's external appearances—from the Rubenesque look of the Renaissance era to the starved-pixie-waif of the 1990's. And somehow, in a world that has only relatively recently given women the right to vote and own property, being "feminine" was associated with being soft, curvy, and un-muscled from lack of hard labor. All of these reasons influence how women today view our own bodies.

We have been conditioned to believe that we should not be satisfied with our bodies unless they fit the current standard of attractiveness—the standard of acceptability. "But Christye," you might say, "Things are changing! Gone are the days when thinness was the ultimate measure of beauty. Fit is the new skinny!" Which is very true: being strong and fit and athletic and healthy is now the current "trend" in female attractiveness. But instead of upsetting the paradigm of beauty standards, "fit" has simply replaced what has come before it. Which is why this trend is so problematic. 

Instead of coveting visible ribs on a woman's figure, we now covet lean muscles. Instead of desiring sharp collarbones, we want toned deltoids. "Fit," "healthy," and "strong" have, when it comes to describing women's bodies, indeed become the new "skinny." Used in this phrase, the word “fit” does not stand for the overall health of a woman’s body—it stands for “fit-looking,” a new aesthetic ideal.

It's not apples to oranges—it's apples to friggin’ apples. Just a different iteration of the same damn thing. 

You might be checking this URL right now to make sure you didn't accidentally stumble upon a research thesis from my women's studies course—but here's how this stuff has to do with athletics. Girls have been told—sometimes silently and subconsciously, sometimes out loud—that it is how our bodies LOOK and not how they PERFORM that dictates our worth. And this goes against everything athletics stand for. 

Athletics vs. Aesthetics

When you are a girl and an athlete, there is another layer to sport performance—and it is psychological. There is physical training, and there is psychological training that must be done. Ladies, raise your hand if you've ever thought, "I WOULD work on my 5RM bench press, but I don't want to get bulky." I have a feeling that, if my eyes could penetrate cyberspace, I would see a lot of raised hands. Aesthetics often trumps athletics—and that is something Volt is working to change.  

These women are different shapes and sizes, but all are professional athletes at the peak of their careers.  See more of this photo project here.

These women are different shapes and sizes, but all are professional athletes at the peak of their careers. See more of this photo project here.

Sport-specific strength and conditioning is meant to improve your athletic performance. Period. Will you gain some muscle? Yes. Will you lose some body-fat? Probably. But these are not the main goals of a periodized training program. Any aesthetic changes that result from a strength and conditioning program are purely secondary: the primary goal is to make you a better athlete at your sport. Distance athletes are generally thinner than sprinters, and football linemen are generally bigger than tennis players. Different sports demand different physical responses, and that's that. Recruiters and coaches don't care how you look, as long as your body can perform the tasks it needs to excel at your chosen sport. If they cared how you look, they'd make you into bodybuilders. But bodybuilders can't play sports.  

You're an athlete. You practice skills, you train hard in the gym, you fuel your body and get enough sleep in order to be your best—but do you look in the mirror with the same commitment? 


YOU Are the New _______

This is the central difference in the dichotomy of Fit vs. Skinny: “fit” is the sum of all your parts, working together as one to accomplish your goals, whatever they may be—“skinny” is a two-dimensional sketch of a singular aspect of you. “Fit” stands for health, and vivaciousness, and running, and jumping, and carrying groceries for your grandma, and helping your neighbors move. “Skinny” stands for looking in the mirror and feeling unsatisfied.

I want to be clear: I am NOT trying to elevate one body type above another. I am trying to unpack the words “fit” and “skinny” as they appear in this popular cultural aphorism. We are being told that now, instead of attaining thinness, we should want to attain a fit “look”—which, ironically, goes against everything the word “fit” represents in the first place.

We want you to lift weights not because it will help you be “fit” instead of “skinny,” but because it will make you a better field hockey player. We want you to condition your body aerobically not because it will help you lose body-fat, but because it will make you a faster swimmer. When you look in the mirror, instead of seeing individual body parts you want to change, we want you to see an athlete: a whole, beautiful, harmonious body.

Remember: “fit” may be the new skinny right now—but someday soon there will be a new “fit.” Trends, especially trends in feminine beauty, are short-lived. They flame out almost as soon as they ignite. But taking care of your body, treating it like the beautiful athletic machine that it is, striving for fitness and balance in your life, will never go out of style. Training your body out of love, instead of hate, is a never-ending bonfire that will always give off light. YOU are the new skinny, the new fit, the new strong, the new whatever you want to be. YOU define the space. YOU fill in the blank. It’s the season of YOU, and it starts now!

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Christye Estes, CSCS, ACSM-CPT, is one of the regular contributors to the Volt blog. She is a CSCS-certified strength coach, a certified personal trainer through the ACSM, and a Sports Performance Specialist at Volt.
Learn more about Christye and read her other posts | @CoachChristye