If you don’t believe that girls value being skinny over strong, take a walk to the University Recreation Center. You will see dozens of female students sweating away their perceived flaws on the treadmills upstairs. Head down the stairs and you might come across the occasional woman lifting weights while the guys gawk at her like a rare unicorn.
Society’s views toward the female body are backwards and not just because they promote unhealthy eating and exercise habits: They also promote weakness.
Women need to take pride in their own physical strength in spite of a culture that discourages the very notion.
When esteemed feminist Gloria Steinem’s spoke at the University of Idaho last Thursday, she raised countless riveting points, but one idea stuck in my mind above the rest.
“Human bodies are instruments, and not ornaments,” Steinem said.
What a radical concept.
It shocked me how such a simple shift in mindset can change the entire cultural conversation regarding one’s body image.
The definition of an ornament is “something that lends grace or beauty,” and more revealingly, “an embellishing note not belonging to the essential harmony or melody,” according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
Ornaments only have value when they’re being looked at and that value lies solely in the eye of the beholder. They have no internal purpose and exist merely to be judged.
The same dictionary defines an instrument as “a means whereby something is achieved, performed or furthered.”
Instruments have value in their own right. They have a purpose and a means by which to achieve them, regardless of external factors.
By simply switching the view of our bodies from ornamental to instrumental, the conversation changes from ‘look at my body’ to ‘I know what my body can accomplish and I’m blown away by it.’
Steinem’s elegant proposal clarified a topic I’ve been wrestling with since summer, but been unable to put into words.
Watching the London Olympics, I grew frustrated at the way spectators of both genders would talk about the female athletes competing. Too often, the focus was not on the amazing feats they could accomplish with their bodies, but on the way those bodies looked unusually strong, even ‘manly.’
By equating strength with masculinity, the audience normalized a correlation between femininity and weakness, and that a woman cannot be attractive if she values her body’s instrumental purpose over its ornamental one.
The mental value of taking pride in one’s own strength can hardly be understated, but such a mindset carries practical, physical value as well, such as cutting down on cases of violence against women.
In an interview by Marianne Schnall for Feminist.com, Steinem said globally, six million women die every year simply because they were born women. Combined, these instances of sex trafficking, female infanticide, honor crimes, genital mutation and domestic abuse equal “a Holocaust every year,” Steinem said.
I believe societal norms that produce an environment in which these acts are feasible can be reversed through an encouragement of physical strength among women.
This will be effective on two levels.
First, individual women who deliberately strengthen their bodies have a better chance of fighting off their attackers and avoiding potentially fatal situations in their homes.
Second, by refusing to accept imposed physical meekness, females can change the tone of how they are perceived by the world. This general benefit could help those who cannot fight for themselves, such as infants and sex slaves.
Physical strength is a primal, effective show of resilience. It has both mental and physical advantages. But the right to take pride in one’s strength does not exclusively fall under the domain of men.