The mantra falls short of real body acceptance and just replaces one body-type obsession with another.
For a while now, fitness bloggers and publications alike (hi!) have put full force behind the "strong is the new skinny" concept. After all, what your body can do should be so much more important than a simple number on the scale. It's also a giant leap away from the skinny obsession that led to the incessant calorie counting and dieting of the past. So yes, we believe the whole "fit is the new skinny" movement is generally a good thing—in theory, at least.
But some people are simply replacing the obsession over being skinny with being strong, says Heather Russo, a certified eating disorder specialist and site director at The Renfrew Center in Los Angeles. So it's not really body acceptance. It's just that rather than only accepting waify-thin bodies, society is now open to muscular curves, Russo says.
Karen R. Koenig, M.Ed., L.C.S.W., a psychotherapist, says "fit" is just the latest in a long list of society's definitions for how a woman is "supposed" to look. In the Marilyn Monroe days, curves were in. With the Kate Moss era of the '90s, everyone was striving (and starving) for ultra-thin frames.
We're all for embracing fitness and for women who have the guts to pick up weights and challenge their bodies to grueling workouts. But that overemphasis on appearance is still lurking beneath the surface. "There's a never-ending stream of what the right body is and what that means for the rest of us," Russo says.
That's the problem. But so many people, even those within the health and fitness world, don't see it that way. Their argument is that working out and getting in shape is a good thing, period. It's true that focusing on strength over skinniness is a healthier approach—but there are limits. "Now we're finding out that, yeah, people can become addicted to exercise," Koenig says. "You can be too fit, and you can hurt your body." And your mental health, too, if exercise gets in the way of your other commitments ("Sorry, Mom, can't come for dinner because I've got to hit the gym") and if not exercising puts you in a bad mood.
A better approach is to find a way for exercise to fit into your life without ruling over it. "Balance is an overused word, but we're looking for balance," Russo says. Think of your life as a pie chart. How do you spend your time? Plot out slivers for work, socializing, dating, working out, and whatever else you do on a regular basis. Then compare the size of each slice with your values, whether they include your relationships, career accomplishments, or personal growth, Russo says. If exercising takes up so much of the pie that you don't have time for the other things you care about, you may want to dial it back and make sure you haven't crossed into obsession territory.
At the end of the day, fit is the new skinny. As in, it's the latest body standard women are held to. But obsessing over curvy butts instead of thigh gaps is problematic. Bottom line: Being in shape is a great thing, so long as you're loving your body instead of holding it to unrealistic standards.
"In an ideal world, we'd really be moving toward body acceptance and body positivity regardless of the body rather than coming up with a new culturally appropriate body," Russo says. "If we continue to judge women on their physical appearance rather than their accomplishments and their values and what they're contributing to our world, we're missing the mark."
That's not to say you should feel bad for wanting to look good and feel confident in a bikini. The real push is to love your body without obsessing over it, no matter what shape it is—curvy, skinny, strong, or whatever definition of the "perfect body" comes next.