STRONG IS THE NEW SKINNY
Empowerment has taken on a new meaning when it comes to women’s fitness and selfdefence, writes
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.