Strong or skinny: What do women want?

When Kristin Rance joined a CrossFit gym in Washington about a year ago, she had one vision: muscle. The 30-year-old mother of two wanted to look in the mirror and see someone “who looks like (she) works out — without flexing,” Rance says. How she didn't want to look? Skinny.

Over the past few years, women like Rance have been embracing the message that “strong is the new skinny” — that a body of muscle is better than a body of bones.

Gyms have entire marketing campaigns built around the motto, with ads featuring rock-solid women pumping iron and classes promoted as muscle-building rather than weight-losing.

Even the phrase itself has a following: Texas personal trainer and blogger Marsha Christensen trademarked it for goods in 2012, and she sells more than 400 different products online. Her “strong is the new skinny” Facebook page has nearly 117,000 “likes.”

Forget craving runway models' stick-thin figures: Women now want Michelle Obama's arms, Jillian Michaels' abs and Lolo Jones' legs. Today, says Nancy Burnham, general manager of the Washington gym Vida Fitness, “having a strong body and a positive body image is cool.”

But women's health experts worry that the trend isn't as positive as it seems because the focus is still on women's appearance, not achievements. Equally discouraging, they say, is evidence that women are no more satisfied with their bodies today than in decades past.

“The female athlete portrays a little bit healthier body image than the Kate Moss, the Twiggy, the super-skinny supermodels,” says Boise State University psychologist Mary Pritchard, who studies eating behaviors and body image. “But at the same time, it's still not realistic. We have jobs, we have kids, we have families. Our job is not to look and be like an Olympic athlete.”

Muscle is only the latest “must-have” for American women. In the 1950s, they admired curves a la Marilyn Monroe, but by the 1970s, thin was in. Large-scale studies of women have shown that muscle has been “creeping in” to that ideal for about the past 30 years, says psychologist Rachel Calogero of the United Kingdom's University of Kent. But it's not pushing thin out.

“What we've seen over the past several decades is something that we haven't seen before: Women are reporting not only dissatisfaction with their weight, but dissatisfaction with the amount of muscle on their body,” she says.

In other words, research suggests that “strong is the new skinny” is only half the truth: Strong and skinny is the new skinny.

Experts say one reason muscle is trending is the increased media attention on female athletes. “Women are arriving on the sports scene big-time,” Calogero says. “We value their achievements and accomplishments, and so the body type associated with that — we're really starting to … incorporate that into our ideals.”

At the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, for example, not only did American female athletes outnumber their male counterparts for the first time, but media coverage of them also reflected that: For the first time, women landed more screen time and on-air mentions than men, according to a study in Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly led by Andrew Billings of the University of Alabama.

Coverage of the 2014 Winter Games reflected a similar change: According to a preliminary analysis also conducted by Billings, 41.4 percent of NBC's prime-time coverage from Sochi, Russia, was of women, 45.4 percent covered men and 13.2 percent went to pairs. That's a big leap from the men's average advantage of 20 percentage points in prime-time Winter Olympic telecasts from 1994 to 2010, the analysis found.

But outside of the Olympics, media coverage of female athletes still lags behind. An analysis last year in the International Review for the Sociology of Sport, for example, found that less than 5 percent of Sports Illustrated covers between 2000 and 2011 featured women.

A report from the University of Southern California's Center for Feminist Research found that during early-evening and late-night sports newscasts in 2009, women's sports received only 1.6 percent of airtime, compared with men's 96.3 percent and down from 6.3 percent in 2004.

And when female athletes do get media attention, they're often celebrated more for their looks than their accomplishments — although that's getting better, the report found.

“Sometimes we think that we're starting to admire strong women, but I would be hesitant to buy that quite yet because we admire strong women who still look feminine in the traditional way,” Calogero says. “We have lots of women who don't look like that and are still extremely strong and talented, and they get dismissed and marginalized.”

Gymgoers and fitness professionals say women's desire for muscle also reflects current exercise trends that require strength. According to a survey of fitness professionals by the American College of Sports Medicine, high-intensity interval training — workouts characterized by short bursts of intense exercise — was named the top fitness trend of 2014. P90X (a home workout), CrossFit and boot camps all fit into this category.

“These are more than dance classes or step aerobics; they are … classes that are challenging in different kinds of ways that involve being strong, being able to do push-ups and pullups and squats and jumping off benches and swinging kettle bells,” says Brian McGee, a personal trainer and owner of FIT 360, a fitness studio in the District of Columbia. “Challenging things that require strength.”

Group-based high-intensity interval workouts, participants say, build camaraderie in addition to muscle. They also allow individuals to continually reach new goals. That's a draw for Rance, who couldn't do a push-up when she first joined CrossFit. Six months later, she had brought her push-up count to more than 10 and had more than doubled the weight of her “power clean,” or hoisting a bar from the ground to her shoulders.

“Seeing girls get excited when they hit a new personal record for a lift is awesome,” says Teresa Harris, a coach at Rance's gym in the District. “It's not how little food did they eat — they get excited about being strong.”

Whether or not strong is the new skinny, most fitness professionals agree it should be. Strength training is particularly critical for women, despite lingering myths that it will make them “bulk up.” Building muscle, they say, helps prevent osteoporosis, boosts metabolism, improves balance and stability, and benefits the immune system.

“Stronger bodies recover faster; stronger bodies don't break as easily, if they break at all,” McGee says. “You significantly reduce the risk of all manner of diseases.”

Research suggests that, among women, "strong and skinny" is the new skinny. But women's health experts worry that the trend isn't as positive as it seems because the focus is still on appearance. Here, clients work out at CrossFit. Washington Post photo
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