Ornamental Women

I begin this post with an anecdote:

For the past few months I’ve been running a group Pinterest Board, Strength is Beautiful, for my company as part of our social media marketing efforts for Cody.

Here is my description of the board on Pinterest:

This is a group board for all things fitness! Strength is beautiful, ladies. Overly sexual images will be taken down. Email me if you would like to be invited to pin to this board: sophia@codyapp.com

At first the board was going well. There is always some degree  of uncertainty with group boards, because someone could come in and fill it with spam (or porn), but I was hopeful that the board would remain PG and body-positive. For the first few weeks, it was going well. The board was full of stuff like this:

All good stuff. Yay strength is beautiful.

As the board continued to grow, I continued to moderate the content.

There was about 40 Pinners invited to the board when a troll showed up. A male pinner decided to pin over 75 photos of topless & nude women to the board. I had to delete all the pins, and ban him from the board.

When this happened I was like, “Really, dude, really!? What about this board gave you the idea it would be appropriate to plaster boobs all over it?”

While that was a one-time incident, I have noticed an interesting pattern as I continue to moderate pins.

Female pinners “get” this concept of finding beauty in strength, and contribute pins of strong women (and men!) lifting, climbing, yoga-ing, dancing, jumping, and otherwise doing really cool, strong, impressive things.

  

Male pinners seem to struggle with the “beauty of strength” concept, and instead, pin images of buff women posing (often provocatively) in bikinis.

 

Do you see my point emerging here?

Yes, these women are strong and beautiful, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that they don’t belong on Cody’s Strength is Beautiful board. I mean, at least I thought it was pretty obvious.

For women, “strength is beautiful” means “strong women do great things”, while for men, “strength is beautiful” means “strong women look hot”. While the female pinners contribute images of strong women doing athletic things, male pinners contribute images of strong women posing.

I’m not saying all the male pinners post images of women posing rather than doing, I’m just saying that all the images of women posing have come from male pinners.  This is probably because men are socialized to see women as decorative objects – passive ornaments that hold value in how they look rather than what they do.

And herein lies one of the main misconceptions I have seen repeated over and over again in the fitness community & mass media:

Strength is not a look, it’s an ability.

For many people, “strength” is just another “body ideal” that women must “conform” to. These are people who have still not broken away from the concept that the female body is only for looking at. It doesn’t surprise me that this basic misunderstanding between female strength as an ability versus female strength as a sexy body ideal is so common. Why do I say that?

Take a look at these statistics on gender ownership of media outlets:

  • Female and minority ownership is way down in the single digits – under 5% each.
  • Almost all women-owned “stations” are in fact radio stations, not television (the medium with the largest audience).
  • In addition, three-fourths (75%) of women-owned stations are actually owned by both men and women.
  • At more than 50 (13%) of those stations, women hold less than 60% of the vote, and in many cases women’s controlling interest is as low as 50.25% — barely a “woman-owned station.” In fact, many “women-owned” companies appear to be family corporations in which the female owners are greatly outnumbered by the male owners. (source)

What we see is a huge disparity in gender on mass media ownership. When dudes own the majority of media outlets, and are determining what content should run on these outlets, there’s obviously going to be a male bias. And as we have seen, dudes aren’t so great at recognizing women can actually do strong, impressive, difficult physical things. They’re still stuck on the idea that the female body’s value comes from how attractive it looks, rather than how well it functions.

The media shapes how we think (whether you admit it or not, it’s true. Harrumph). When the men who own big media outlets stop portraying women as pretty (useless) ornaments, and start portraying women as strong, capable people, only then will people en masse stop confusing “strength” with “a certain type of hot”.

A belated response to some past criticism:

When I had first written my “strong is the new skinny” post, I didn’t clarify that by “strong” I meant “being physically capable”. Many people got offended, telling me that I was just “promoting another harmful body image”.

I had no idea this “women as ornaments” mentality was so deeply entrenched that the very basic definition of a very basic word, “strong”, became radically misconstrued when applied to the female body. Tables can be strong. Trucks can be strong. Ropes can be strong. But once you apply the word “strong” to the female sex, the definition takes a wild leap from “powerful, physically capable” to “looking a certain way”. Do you see the problem here? 

“Skinny” is a look and a body type. “Curvy” is also a look and a body type. They say nothing about one’s ability to run an obstacle course, or pass the police academy fitness exam.

“Strong” is not  a look, nor a body type. While some people may be naturally thin, or naturally round, there is no such thing as being naturally strong. Strength requires hard work, dedication, sweat, consistency, and hours upon hours of physical training. It doesn’t just magically happen. And that is what’s so beautiful about strength.

Strength is beautiful, and so is recognizing that all women, including strong women, are more than just ornaments for looking at.

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7 thoughts on “Ornamental Women

  1. I agree with everything you’ve written here. When I look at the board, though – while I do find the images mostly gorgeous – I don’t see many examples of women being strong and also being thick. You say that strength is an ability, not a certain way of looking, and I agree – but it would be helpful to see examples of that on the Pinterest page. And then there’s that image saying “inner beauty is for fat people” – that’s problematic for fat people and thin people alike!

    Please don’t take this as a personal attack – and I do understand that a Pinterest board can’t address every aspect of a complex social issue at once. It’s great to see muscular women being appreciated as beautiful and desirable. But I do understand why people would think you’re just promoting another nearly unattainable body type.

  2. I love this post! As a health coach, my primary goal is help develop happy, healthy lifestyles that feel good on the inside, not just look good on the outside.

    I just sent you an e-mail. I would love to contribute to your board!

  3. I have a girl-crush on you, Sophie. Get it, girl!! BTW from your “1200 calories” post (I couldn’t comment), I completely agree and your use of “shmexier” is my new favorite. I shall be borrowing, aka: stealing, it from you. 😉

  4. So yes, I have left critical comments here before, and I appreciate that you took the time to address this issue more deeply! I guess sometimes it is difficult not to get “strong” and “beautiful” confused, because people who are very physically fit do tend to look more attractive, at least according to mainstream beauty standards. I do wonder whether it is limiting in a different way, though, to focus on what bodies can do. I’m just thinking of people who are disabled, or even people of smaller stature or smaller body size or people who can’t build muscle easily. I do think it is much, much better to want a strong and capable body than an ornamental one, but I would rather the body conversation focused more on accepting women/men of all sizes, appearances, dimensions, and capabilities. Otherwise your personal strength just becomes another metric by which to measure your self worth, as weight has been used to define how many women/men feel about themselves.

  5. I’m new here. Emily Schromm posted your 1200 Calorie article on her facebook, and I was hooked. So here I am. I just wanna add that just as important as physically strong is mentally strong. For me, my physical strength came when I worked on my mental strength. I started interval training via bodyrock.tv a year or so ago, and with a regular yoga practice I discovered that I can do anything. The mind wants to give up way before the body does, and being able to harness the power of the mind and intention is an incredible feat in and of itself. Not to mention, when you focus your intention, you can accomplish some amazing things. I mean shit, some days just putting your workout gear on is nothing short of a miracle… 🙂

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