‘Why saying ‘strong is the new skinny’ still really irks me’

Mary Madigan is fed up with the diet culture taking the positive language we used to love and weaponising it against ourselves. 

Social media is always saturated with trends that women are being pushed to emulate. Remember when we all needed big lips? Or when we definitely had to own a Gucci bag? Well, now we all need to be strong and how are we going to get strong? We need to follow the rules of diet culture.

Basically, if you want to be 2022’s version of strong, you need to eat a very specific diet and work out heaps and that is the recipe for becoming strong – definitely don’t add salt.

I think the reason I find this so upsetting is because in theory ‘strong’ sounds good. Sure, let diet culture have #fitspo and #bodygoals but can it not take strong? Because who doesn’t want to be strong? Strong is meant to equal healthy and powerful and in a world where being a woman can often make you feel powerless, the idea of gaining more strength is a bloody tempting offer. Who doesn’t want to feel sturdier as you try and rally against the patriarchy?

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It’s also troubling because the word strong is exactly the kind of language we often use to inspire women. Who hasn’t heard phrases like, ‘let’s raise strong girls?’ Or “you are a strong independent woman.” It’s also the word that comes to mind when I think of my own feminist heroes like Anna Wintour, Clementine Ford, Penny Wong, and Nina Funnell – all strong women, and I don’t use the word strong to describe them physically. But recently it’s become pretty clear that the word has been taken away from women as a way of empowering each other and instead been co-opted by diet culture, think less – you can do it girlfriend, and more – don’t eat potatoes.

The sad truth is that now strong on social media strong means skinny. You only have to scroll on Instagram to come across #strong and it’s often used in posts where everyone from influencers to everyday women discuss their plans on how to shrink themselves or show off their process. The posts discuss calorie counting, body goals and workout routines created around the idea of losing weight. If you don’t believe me just type the #strong into the gram – be careful though you may be blinded by the trend of fluorescent activewear.

This trend is also finding life on TikTok, type in #strong and you’ll be met with women sharing their days on a plate, exercising obsessively, and sharing progress shots – spoiler no one is ever heavier in their ‘after’ photo. It’s interesting that somehow women are equating their smallness with strength particularly when diets can often make us weaker.

Clinical counsellor and psychotherapist, Amber Rules is painfully aware that strong has been repackaged by diet culture, she explains, ”In my opinion, the word ‘strong’ is used as a diversion from what’s really going on, which is that a lot of people are afraid to be fat, because our society hates fat people. Anti-diet culture ideas are slowly being accepted, but unfortunately there are some people who have entirely missed the point. I don’t blame individuals – we’re all operating under the conditions of diet culture and many of us don’t realise it. But any diversion from what’s really going on is completely counter productive. ’Strong,’ ‘healthy,’ ‘fit,’ ‘in good shape’ are all the same thing, just in different packaging.”

Basically, diet culture has latched onto strong and co-opted its meaning. Why? Because diets are honestly a little bit out of fashion. It is no longer trendy or cool to say you’re trying the caveman diet, but it is socially acceptable to say you are trying to become stronger. This is why you’ll see influencers shift away from promoting dieting and shredding and move into the wellness and strength space. Just think about it. Celebrities no longer share their crazy fad diets, but they will happily tell you they spend hours in the gym daily, Adele anyone? Of course, this makes the messaging really confusing and lots of women enter into crazy diets or unnecessarily rigorous workout routines under the guise of being healthier and stronger.

However, Rules explains that this can also be quite dangerous, “’Clean eating and exercise preoccupation is called, ‘orthorexia,’ and it’s just as dangerous as other eating disorders.”

Basically, strong has been stolen from women and we really didn’t need this word stolen from us. Strong used to be one of my favourite words. It was a word I used proudly to describe my lawyer sister, or my incredibly kind and intelligent mother or any woman that tries to disturb the status quo. It was a word I felt described so many women in my life and now it’s being used as a tool to try and get women to shrink themselves. Here’s one thing I know for sure. Stealing strong to promote the diet industry is wrong. The size of your jeans will never reflect anyone’s physical, mental or emotional strength.

Mary Madigan is a freelance writer, a lover of complicated coffee orders and expensive clothes and a hater of pubs that don’t have a happy hour. You can follow her on Instagram to hear more @Maryrosem

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