This Isn’t Looks Training: Strength is Not Beauty

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Screw you, Nike. Seriously. Your sports bras don’t fit my boobs AND my back.

Strength training is not about your ass. It’s not about your quad size, it’s not about your shoulder width. If I’m training to get stronger, any aesthetic result is a byproduct, not a goal. Many feel differently–there are some perfectly valid arguments against my own. And right now, as I write this, I absolutely do not care. Today, I will rant about the disconnect I see and hear in relation to strength training and idealized physical form. I host enough discord in my own mind on the subject that I can promise you that I am actually sympathetic to the focus on aesthetic improvement of the body through the building of muscle. It’s a tempting mistress, the promise of improved physical beauty through activity. Indeed, this is how many women (and absolutely men, although the advertising language doing the luring is less direct) are drawn into lifting weights. Often, personal trainers looking to generate income are a step above the diet industry in their promises of some sort of body elysium quickly reached by doing strength training a few times a week for a few months. The act of lifting weights up and putting them down again is rapidly becoming part of a new horizon in fitness industry trends targeting women, but like any trend trotted out in advertisement, the good that it might have been based upon is easily diluted by extravagant promises feeding on low self-esteem. Yes, I am glad that it is becoming more and more common for women to incorporate lifting weights into the way they use their bodies. But this development is a young one, and it has a lot of maturing to do.

This maturing is probably going to be rougher than the optimist would be inclined to imagine. Many women are dogged and tormented by their own conceptions of what gives them social value. Not all women, mind you, but enough to make me feel that what I write is not for a niche or minority audience. The idea that an improved butt or a leaner set of legs or deltoid definition could result in a heightened level of physical attractiveness resonates with senses of inadequacy or lack. A glance at the advertising rhetoric of trainers attempting to draw in more female clients makes this clear. I am hesitant to point out specific examples as I think my sentiment here is damning enough, so if you need examples, I encourage you to get onto Facebook or Youtube or Instagram and find those offering to train fledgling female strength enthusiasts. Their advertising is full of words and sentiments emphasizing beauty.

To be honest, it’s difficult to be a woman involved in strength sports and avoid products and slogans that don’t point towards beauty or gender. The former is far more troubling than the latter, but both are problematic emphases. I don’t want to know how many products exist with the basic tagline “Strength is Beauty,”–recall, if you will, the advertising tagline used by Softy and Dri: “strong and beautiful, just like you.” Just what I want out of my deodorant–aesthetic superiority! Imagine, if you will, how Soft and Dri’s advertisement would look if it was forced to drop “beauty” from its rhetorical arsenal. Can you imagine an ad telling women the deodorant proffered to them is just “strong?” Holy shit, I can’t. Upon trying really hard, however, I manage to come up with a mental picture of this seeming impossibly–advertising targeting women prioritizing beauty is the ultimate hipster, as it was so uncool that it’s apparently cool again–and it is freaking fantastic.

Telling women that being strong is great for no other reason than being strong is great is a simple idea. Its message would narrow the chasm between the act of strength training and the act of staring into the mirror trying to decide whether or not one’s hamstrings are the right shape and size. Indeed, the act of truly improving at strength training can sometimes call for actively taking one’s body further from a physical ideal held up by the diet industry, the makeup industry, the deodorant industry and–dare I say it–at times, the strength industry. Strong is not always about beauty. Strong is sometimes about gaining enough mass–to be eating at a surplus, to be carrying more body fat than you grew up thinking was physically appealing or downright reprehensible–to be able to grow the muscle that will do the job that strength training is ultimately about–moving more weight.

A woman engaged in strength training is no different than a man engaged in it. We do the same things. I want a shirt that says “Westside Barbell,” not “Westside Barbell for Women.” Indeed, I have one of the former, and I love it.

Fellow female strength athletes, you are better than Nike’s “strong is the new beautiful.” And if you find a deodorant that is just touted as being “strong,” let me know. Because I’m probably going to sweat a lot when I squat today.