Reader, I put on weight.
Seeing the number on my housemate’s scales yesterday, I confess: my first thought was of failure. After weeks on the ladder – boxing, going to the gym, eating healthily – I felt like I had unwittingly slipped down a snake that took me right back to the beginning.
But there’s a catch. Unlike the stone I put on over my gap year courtesy of Florence’s finest gelato, this time my weight gain is made up of muscle. For the first time in my life, I feel physically strong. I have biceps. I have – in the most flattering of lighting – abdominals.
So why does the number on the scales still matter to women like me?
Honestly, I think this fixation on numbers is rooted in the yesteryears of female weight loss culture. Women are held back by generations where the focus was on making the female body smaller. We were encouraged to restrict and reduce ourselves – to take up less physical space than our male counterparts – with little regard for our health or strength.
For our grandmas, achieving a good body was synonymous with slimming down, or, as they called it, ‘reducing’. For our mothers, the heroin-chic aesthetic– think waif-like Kate Moss – was the height of fashion.
Up until the early twentieth century, foot-binding was prevalent in Chinese culture, leaving women unable to walk properly for the rest of their lives, while Western women commonly wore corsets to reduce their waist circumference to the a ‘desirable’ 40 centimetres, causing respiratory problems in the process.
Somewhere along the line, I internalised these values. At 5’2 and small framed, my (relatively low) weight was integral to my confidence. I knew I’d never be a long-legged model type, so instead I strived to be light enough for my boyfriend to pick me up; narrow enough to slink to the front of the bar in a nightclub; small enough to select single digit sizes in clothing stores.
Thankfully, the balance is finally shifting. We are embracing the notion of a strong, fit, capable body. The young girls of Generation Z now aspire to Clean Eating Alice, who is 5”1 of pure muscle, post photos of themselves with the caption ‘strong not skinny’, and agonise over which protein powder to buy rather than how many calories they’re consuming. To see how much things have changed, you only have to watch Ed Sheeran’s latest video, Shape of You, portraying a love interest – played Jennie Pegouskie – who just so happens to be a kick ass female boxer.
The message? Our bodies matter, not just as tools to attract the opposite sex, but as vehicles to take us through our everyday lives.
Men, of course, have known this for years. Their body maintenance has long been bound up with being strong, powerful and achieving #gains – qualities that help them not only in the gym, but in their everyday activities – rather than fainting at their desks because all they’ve eaten is a Special K bar.
This new appreciation of the capable female body is reflected in the changing fashions, too. Whereas once we tried to walk – well, limp – in the footsteps of our male counterparts wearing stilettos, Mintel data reveals we now buy more trainers than heels. Similarly, the ‘athleisure’ industry has grown by £204bn in the past seven years, with women embracing clothing that allows them to work out at any time, rather than punishing restrictive garments.
The reframing of women’s bodies as strong, powerful and capable is more than just an aesthetic shift. It’s a leap forward for feminism; an appreciation that if women are to hold the same power as men, they need to have the right bodies to do it with. Meanwhile, I’ll be avoiding my housemate’s scales.