Body Image

"Strong Is the New Skinny": Do Women Like Their Bodies More?

Research tests whether the “fit ideal” positively impacts women's body image.

Posted Feb 01, 2018

Viktor Hanacek / picjumbo
Source: Viktor Hanacek / picjumbo

At Maastricht University, I have the privilege of teaching my own course on the topic of body image. Each year, 120 undergraduates dive in head-first for an intense four weeks. This is one of my favorite times of year, because I have the opportunity to talk to a lot of young people about everything body image-related.

One of the most fascinating shifts I have seen in recent years is that young women have turned away from the "thin ideal" — reflected by ultra-thin models like Kate Moss — and have instead embraced the so-called "fit ideal," reflected by women who are lean and toned. “Strong is the new skinny,” students tell me.

Shifts in cultural beauty ideals are exciting, because we can investigate whether they have any impact on how people feel about their own bodies. Many people, including my students, think that the fit ideal reflects health and physical fitness and, as such, has a positive impact on women’s body image. But is that really true?

The impact of the fit ideal on women’s body image

Several experiments have tested whether the fit ideal has a positive impact on women’s body image. In a typical experiment, researchers ask participants to view a series of media images. This is called “media exposure.” Immediately before and after the exposure, participants fill out a questionnaire assessing how they feel about their body at that moment. Distractor questions are usually included to help disguise the purpose of the experiment. Importantly, before the start of the experiment, participants are randomly divided into one of two groups. In one group, participants view media images depicting the fit ideal. In another group, participants view “control” images (like a placebo in drug trials) that do not depict the fit ideal, but rather products or scenery.

Collectively, the results of such experiments have shown that women who are exposed to images of the fit ideal, compared to women who are exposed to control images, feel worse about their body after the exposure. Interestingly, researchers have even compared the effects of exposure to the fit ideal to the effects of exposure to the thin ideal. The data show that the effects of exposure to the fit ideal are just as harmful to women’s body image as effects of exposure to the thin ideal. 

Why might this be?

1. The fit ideal is portrayed as healthy and achievable.

As a result, women might let their guard down and be less critical toward the fit ideal. For example, my students are quick to turn up their nose at images of the thin ideal (e.g., “She’s way too thin, that’s not healthy!”), yet criticisms of the fit ideal are less common. Similarly, as the fit ideal is portrayed as healthy and achievable, women might feel guiltier for not having that specific body type. Note: Many people think that the fit ideal is just as unrealistic and unachievable as the thin ideal, if not more (i.e., you not only need to be thin, but also thin and toned) — but this is a topic for another blog post.

2. The fit ideal equates health and physical fitness with one body type.

Though muscular, these models are still very thin and have an hourglass body shape. They are almost always young, able-bodied, and White. In this respect, the fit ideal is like the thin ideal, which also emphasizes a narrow body type. As a result, many women do not see their own body reflected in media imagery and feel like they do not “measure up.”

3. The fit ideal portrayed by the media is still very appearance-focused.

The message is often “look fit to be sexy,” not “be fit to be healthy.” A wealth of research has shown that overemphasizing appearance can lead to harmful consequences, like a negative body image and unhealthy eating behaviors.

4. Research conducted by our own lab has shown that focusing on the functionality of one’s own body can lead to a more positive body image.

Yet, media images of the fit ideal emphasize only a narrow range of body functions (e.g., physical strength) that do not capture the diverse nature of body functionality. As such, young women may develop a narrow view of their own body functionality, preventing them from viewing their body in a more adaptive way.  

Positive examples of portraying physical fitness

To end on a more positive note, I would highlight two examples of physical fitness portrayed in a more positive, inclusive, and beneficial manner: Watch the video clips for the This Girl Can (Part 1 and Part 2; UK) and #jointhemovement (Australia) campaigns. These videos show women of a range of body shapes, sizes, ethnicities, ages, and abilities, all engaging in physical activity and loving it. The women in these videos are not sexualized, and physical activity is portrayed in a realistic manner — with all of the sweatiness and jiggling that comes with it! Interestingly, recent experiments by researchers in Australia have even shown that watching these video clips can help women to feel more positively about their appearance, at least in the short term. For more information on This Girl Can and positive portrayals of physical fitness, be sure to check out “Episode 22: Exercise & Body Image” from the Appearance Matters Podcast.

The take-home message

On the surface, the fit ideal might appear to promote a more positive body image. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, as the fit ideal has an equally harmful impact on women’s body image compared to the thin ideal. This Girl Can and #jointhemovement provide at least two examples of how media imagery can be used to portray physical fitness in a more positive, inclusive, and beneficial manner.

Facebook image: Bojan Milinkov/Shutterstock


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