Em­pow­er­ment has taken on a new mean­ing when it comes to women’s fit­ness and self­de­fence, writes

VOGUE Australia - - Content - So­phie Ted­man­son.

Em­pow­er­ment has taken on a new mean­ing when it comes to women’s fit­ness and self-de­fence.

When Gigi Ha­did was as­saulted by a prankster who picked her up off her feet as she ex­ited the fash­ion shows in Mi­lan last Septem­ber, her re­ac­tion was ex­tra­or­di­nary: a su­per­model all arms and legs akimbo de­fend­ing her­self like a cham­pion UFC fighter in the ring. Then, when she was at­tacked again on so­cial me­dia for her ag­gres­sive re­sponse, Ha­did had had enough. “I don’t con­done vi­o­lence, but highly en­cour­age de­fend­ing your­self against a would-be at­tacker,” she wrote on Lena Dun­ham’s Lenny Let­ter.

“Hon­estly, I felt I was in dan­ger, and I had ev­ery right to re­act the way I did. If any­thing, I want girls to see the video and know that they have the right to fight back, too, if put in a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion. Prac­tis­ing self-de­fence is im­por­tant so that when you’re in the mo­ment, re­act­ing from mus­cle mem­ory comes more nat­u­rally to you than freez­ing up. Con­fi­dence in your own abil­ity to de­fend your­self comes with ed­u­cat­ing your­self about it, and is a mas­sive ad­van­tage when in an un­safe sit­u­a­tion. I just want to use what hap­pened to me to show that it’s ev­ery­one’s right, and it can be em­pow­er­ing, to be able to de­fend your­self.”

Her words went vi­ral and sent a slim right hook to any naysayer. They also un­leashed a new army of young women march­ing to the gym want­ing to strengthen up, to turn into lean, clean, fight­ing ma­chines. Think Michelle Obama arms and the pow­er­ful mus­cu­lar looks of the 80s su­per­mod­els – Cindy, Naomi and our own Body Elle – who are all still fierce, fit and fab­u­lous in their mid­dle age. Women want to be cat­walk-ready and street smart – it’s where bold re­ally is the new beau­ti­ful.

Em­pow­er­ment is not just about shout­ing for rights and equal­ity, it’s about feel­ing strong and look­ing after your­self both emo­tion­ally and phys­i­cally. Mod­ern mod­els, led by Kar­lie Kloss and her #Fit­nessFri­day posts, are for­ever In­sta­gram­ming their fit­ness rou­tines, which are in­creas­ingly lit­tered with images of box­ing and weights. While fe­male de­sign­ers are also pro­ject­ing strength on the run­way: Maria Grazia Chi­uri’s mes­sage was clearly chan­nelled in her de­but fenc­ing-themed col­lec­tion for Dior, where mod­els strut­ted in T-shirts bear­ing the slo­gan “We should all be fem­i­nists” to the beat of Bey­oncé.

Soon after the Mi­lan in­ci­dent it was an­nounced that Ha­did had re­placed UFC cham­pion Ronda Rousey as the face of Ree­bok’s #Per­fec­tNever cam­paign, which en­cour­ages women to cel­e­brate their im­per­fec­tions and pro­motes a wider ac­cep­tance of all body shapes. Rousey, in turn, was named the global am­bas­sador for Pan­tene, fronting its “strong is beau­ti­ful” cam­paign. In De­cem­ber, Ha­did took it a step fur­ther and led a group self-de­fence kick­box­ing class dur­ing a Ree­bok fe­male em­pow­er­ment panel dis­cus­sion with Lena Dun­ham in New York. Dun­ham told the au­di­ence: “The bravest thing you can do is choose to pro­tect your­self.”

Women are tak­ing note. On a re­cent run through my lo­cal park in Sydney on a Mon­day morn­ing, I no­ticed women out­num­bered the men by five to one in a box­ing ses­sion. Box­ing re­ally is the new black, and strong re­ally is the new skinny.

Nike trainer and well­ness coach Bec Wil­cock is a tough, mo­ti­vat­ing pocket rocket of a wo­man who en­cour­ages strength through fit­ness. She has no­ticed a marked in­crease in women chang­ing their men­tal­ity when it comes to train­ing.

“They don’t want the un­healthily slim look in phys­i­cal ap­pear­ance any­more: they are ac­tively mak­ing fit the new skinny,” she says. “I be­lieve women are tak­ing the time to ed­u­cate them­selves on health and fit­ness to show love for their bod­ies in­stead of hate. They are train­ing smarter, which is phys­i­cally ben­e­fi­cial, but more im­por­tantly it is caus­ing them to be stronger men­tally. I be­lieve that strength in fit­ness for women is very im­por­tant and is highly ben­e­fi­cial to their phys­i­cal and men­tal health.”

Strength train­ing is not just box­ing but in­cludes ag­ile strength, strength en­durance, ex­plo­sive strength, max­i­mum strength, rel­a­tive strength, speed strength and start­ing strength. Ac­cord­ing to Wil­cock, if per­formed reg­u­larly, strength train­ing has added ben­e­fits of pro­tect­ing bone health and mus­cle mass, boost­ing your mood and en­ergy lev­els and in­creas­ing your meta­bolic rate.

But in the cur­rent age of well­ness and the “fit­spo” gen­er­a­tion where more women are out and about ex­er­cis­ing, are we also be­com­ing more vul­ner­a­ble? Are we put­ting our­selves po­ten­tially in harm’s way for fit­ness? Eight out of 10 Aus­tralian women aged 18 to 24 were ha­rassed on the street in 2015, ac­cord­ing to Our Watch, which also states that young women (18–24 years) ex­pe­ri­ence sig­nif­i­cantly higher rates of phys­i­cal and sex­ual vi­o­lence than women in older age groups.

There has also been a re­ported in­crease in at­tacks on women run­ning. A re­cent study by Run­ners World found that 43 per cent of women re­ceived ha­rass­ment at least some­times, com­pared with four per cent of men. The study was of run­ners in America, where three fe­male jog­gers were mur­dered mid-run in sep­a­rate in­ci­dences. While sim­i­lar sta­tis­tics are un­avail­able in Aus­tralia, there is anec­do­tal ev­i­dence.

Run­ner Kim Cayzer re­cently told the ABC she ex­pe­ri­ences “non­stop ha­rass­ment” while ex­er­cis­ing. “I’ve had guys run along­side me to smack my arse. I have had men run be­hind me chant­ing: ‘I see you baby, shak­ing that arse,’” said Cayzer, who has run in Bris­bane, Can­berra and Sydney.

Nike hosts an­nual She Runs the Night run­ning events, which are all about re­claim­ing the streets, en­cour­ag­ing women to feel safe after sun­set. And there is a re­mark­able sense of strength and free­dom in night run­ning, a lib­er­a­tion – but only if you do it prop­erly. I am an avid run­ner and find my strength when my legs hit the ground and carry me long dis­tances. And while dawn is my pre­ferred ex­er­cise time, one re­cent evening I de­cided to go for a run after work and ab­sent­mind­edly took my nor­mal route: a pic­turesque path through the Botanic Gar­den hug­ging Sydney har­bour. At dawn it is mag­i­cal watch­ing the sun rise over the water and streak­ing rays of light through the trees, but once the sun sets it’s a much darker sce­nario and that evening I re­alised I was on my own, run­ning down a pitch-black path into a dark gar­den where I couldn’t see more than a me­tre in front of me. A slight wo­man, dressed all in black, alone and very vul­ner­a­ble.

I sud­denly had a flashback to an old Law & Order: SVU episode about a fe­male jog­ger at­tacked in Cen­tral Park. My in­stincts raised, I took my head­phones out and turned and sprinted one kilo­me­tre back to­wards a busy res­tau­rant strip and took an al­ter­nate path through a brightly lit walkway full of peo­ple. While I jok­ingly brag I could out­run any­one who tried to at­tack me, re­al­ity is a truth full of po­ten­tial dan­ger I am not will­ing to risk.

Now when I run in the evening I ad­here the ad­vice of the ex­perts and al­ways wear a bright top, turn my mu­sic down low (or just have one head­phone in) and run where I know there will be street­lights and peo­ple, and where I can en­joy the free­dom of night run­ning. Thanks to Ha­did I’m more aware of my sur­round­ings and what may lurk around the cor­ner. I take my hat off to her, and may even re­place it with a pair of box­ing gloves.

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