Women’s Bodies: Powerhouses for Performance Over Aesthetics

Nathalie Rappaport on ‘Challenging Feminine Beauty’…

What sort of images does the word ‘feminine’ evoke for you? It is a subjective term, of course and has recently become a huge talking point for influencers, celebrities and politicians. Due to these conversations, female body ‘ideals’ are a concept that are almost on the brink of being disregarded. As a society, we are becoming more inclusive and accepting of diversity and that’s one of the many positives of our modern world. Thank GOD. However, the discussions and change cannot end here, there is so much more work to be done.

There are damaging and toxic consequences attached to chasing ideas of ‘traditional’ femininity (slim, petite, dainty) which are often branded as being ‘normal’ parts of womanhood (fad diets, fat shaming others, obsessive self-comparison to others) when in fact they are problem behaviours caused by chasing ideals which are unobtainable and biased towards what society deems as acceptable for us to look like. Furthermore, these ideals change so frequently, it is near impossible to follow, let alone obtain! As a result of this, young women often feel like they are constantly battling with dieting and exercise to achieve a ‘perfect body’. Following the “I will be happy when…” mindset that can be so damaging.

Body positivity/neutrality and acceptance are things I can see slowly becoming more popular on the social media platforms that I follow. However, in my opinion this movement has not yet reached the level of mainstream popularity required for widespread change. The way to achieve this is to try and give as much media attention as possible to women of different sizes, shapes, colours and identities. This is something that has been so hugely lacking until recent years and consequently has shaped which bodies we find palatable. Consequently, our own perceived proximity to these palatable, perfect and heavily broadcasted bodies, dictate whether we can be happy in their own skin. The solution: diversify the bodies we see in public media. This is beginning to happen within some companies, for example a few of my favourite body positive Instagram influencers were included in the recent Cosmopolitan – ‘This is Healthy’, cover campaign which showcases women of many different sizes, being active, fit and healthy despite not necessarily ‘fitting’ the traditional diminutive picture of femininity. A positive step for sure, however, this appears on my social media because I have actively made sure my social media is filled with female athletes and body positivity. This active choice was a direct result of being lucky enough to have been exposed to this attitude in real life, through rowing.

At university I joined the rowing team and was suddenly surrounded by young women who celebrated each other for being strong and performing well athletically. University rowing can take you up to a very high level of rowing fairly quickly and it is extremely common for athletes to start as a novice in their 1st year, and be trialling for GB by their 3rd year (2nd if you’re really committed). The training is intense and often athletes are expected to train twice a day, most days. The training is a mixture of indoor rowing (ergo), strength and conditioning, Pilates (for mobility) and on the water training. This is an extremely demanding schedule, especially at university when you have both a degree to study for and a social life too! This makes rowing a pretty niche sport in terms of lifestyle change. The abundance of training sessions can be extremely daunting at the start, however, although they are exhausting, you nearly always train with your team which allows the quick development of strong bonds between the athletes which are rare to come by.

Body shape was merely a by-product of training frequently, together as a team – to be strong enough to win our next race. The main focus of training was how effective your body was at achieving a fast boat speed, low splits on the ergo and how many weights you could lift. This was an environment in which girls could openly talk about their weight without the common ‘lighter is better’ mindset we are brought up to aspire to. Unless you are competing in a lightweight category (another kettle of fish altogether), weight is rarely the focus for mainstream, heavyweight rowing. It is commitment, strength and resilience. 

I have been a member of 5 different rowing clubs, both university and city clubs and I have found that each of these rowing teams have provided a family like support system of like-minded athletes, who are still some of my best friends to this day and will be for life due to the common experiences that we shared. Although the training at the city clubs I have been members of has not been as intense as university club training, the attitude remains the same. The attitudes amongst the teams were always centred around encouraging each other to be the best we could be and most importantly we were taught by our coaches that we must respect and listen to our bodies. The health of our bodies being the main contributor to successful training and consequently winning meant that we were encouraged to respond to our bodies. When we were injured, we had to rest, when we were unwell, we had to rest, when we were fatigued we needed to look at how much we were sleeping and eating and re-adjust to give our bodies what they needed in order to be able to perform once again. Whilst at university, this body centric attitude was far from the usual student mindset of pesto pasta, partying and very little sleep. However, it has set me up for life, with the ability to listen to my body and respect it as a tool, rather than an aesthetic.

For me, this was a real turning point in my mindset towards my body. I had never before seen by body as a tool for athleticism. I had always seen my body as an enemy, to be constantly fought with, needing adjusting and shrinking to fit into the smallest clothing sizes. This shift from seeing my body as an aesthetic to a useful powerhouse was due to having the opportunity to train with such supportive groups of women, with great coaches. These groups taught me to respect my body and be thankful for my height, stocky build and strong thighs, and not to fight against them. Rowing was something that shaped me as a human being and gave me a sense of belonging to a group who I knew would support me through all shapes of life.

These experiences of empowerment have been the catalyst towards my own body confidence and the desire to promote this for other women. I realise that I am extremely privileged to have been part of this supportive group and that not everyone has this opportunity. However, there are so many pages on social media who have created a similar supportive space for women in sport/an active lifestyle. Therefore, at the end of this post I have suggested some accounts to follow so that you can start to build your own Instagram support system too!

Before starting rowing I used to believe that in order to be feminine and attractive, I must adhere to the beauty standards of the time – in a nutshell these were/are being petite, skinny, have clear/non-dimpled skin and a toned (but not too muscly) body. This comes as no surprise as the models and celebrities in the media were constantly praised for shedding excess pounds and shamed for putting them on. They were promoting new diets to obtain the ‘perfect body’ and were rarely pictured as being strong or athletic (or with any other diversity within the definition of female). Although I was never under the illusion that I was overweight, back then I firmly believed that my body was unconventional and unattractive because I did not perceive myself as matching these popular beauty standards. This caused deep-rooted insecurities about myself. I know now that I was not alone in feeling this way either. I’ve spoken to a lot of women about this issue – it is not uncommon but that does not mean that it is okay. How can young people thrive in a world where they are fed from the media that their worth lies in the aesthetics of their bodies?

In reality, to be ‘feminine’, should be whatever the hell you want it to be. Whether that’s being muscly, being skinny, being fat or being trans; those are choices you should have autonomy over and it is absolutely no one else’s place to judge you as not being ‘feminine’ if that is what you choose to identify as. Perception of femininity is so subjective and merely reflection of our own standards and should not be projected onto others. The word feminine needs to move away from the 1950s definition of women and be changed to an umbrella term, opening it up to be inclusive of more diverse qualities.

We need to do something about this narrow lens currently used to portray femininity. We need to make femininity more of an open topic on all our platforms. Our feminist lens needs to broaden to also include women in marginalized groups such as disabled women and women of colour. Amidst the fight for BLM, members of marginalised communities reported that not seeing themselves up on billboards, as the rich hero in films or as powerful role models in the media, has a detrimental effect on their perceptions of themselves and what society believes of them. We. Must. Change. We must broaden the lens of our feminism to cater for so many other identities. This change has already begun with companies such as Calvin Klein using Jari Jones as their model, who is a plus size trans women of colour. As positive as this is, however, it is not enough to stop here.

There has been a recent social media shift away from unrealistic body ideals, towards accepting your body how it is and empowering other women to do the same. In the past, my Instagram feed was filled with ‘how to get abs in 30 days’ and ‘exercises to get rid of thigh fat’ posts. These are both toxic and absolute fake news! No one can obtain those results that fast, or achieve targeted fat loss, as that is actually scientifically impossible! I have purged my Instagram of the accounts that made me feel inadequate and replaced them with accounts that celebrate female athletes, body positivity and confidence. At the end of this post I have recommended the Instagram accounts to follow who promote a body positive message within women’s sport and active lifestyle.

Being involved in a sport like rowing has changed my life in a way I could have never predicted. What started off as simply trying out a new sport at university, has ended up providing me with the skills to grow a body positive mindset and a much better attitude towards food and fuelling my body. For anyone looking to make like-minded friends for life, help themselves see their body in a different light and also learn a new sport, I would encourage anyone to involve themselves in rowing in whatever way they can, when they can (COVID depending). The best way to get into rowing if you are at university it to search your Student Union society list for Rowing Club or Boat Club. If not at university, the best way is to use British Rowing’s ‘Find a Club’ search tool on their website to find a club near you, contact the club and ask to enrol in their next ‘Learn To Row’ course. Clubs are always looking for new beginners to help expand their members, so don’t be discouraged!

Below are some accounts that I recommend for you to follow on Instagram to help shape your social media space into an inspiring body positive haven:

Accounts to follow to start building yourself a supportive, body positive instagram space:

@lizzobeeating

@alexlight_ldn

@mikzazon

@munroebergdorf

@bodyposipanda

@megan_rose_lane

@_nelly_london

@ellessechar

@em_clarkson

@danaemercer

@i_weigh

@Jameelajamilofficial

@florencegiven

@victoriagarrick

@thehiddenopponent

@jaimmykoroma

@hayleymadiganfitness

@lucymountain

Inspiring athlete/active lifestyle accounts:

@natashahastings
@chloekim
@hilaryknight
@onherturf
@naomiosaka
@simonebiles
@alexmorgan13
@lindseyvonn
@allysonfelix
@zanavandijk
@jenniferwestofficial
@worldrowingofficial
@jessicaennishill
@britishrowing
@heathermstanning
@henleywregatta
@allmarkone
@werow_life

This article was written by Nathalie Rappaport. Nathalie is a Bristol and Exeter graduate who currently works for HBS as a Project Management Assistant for the FIFA 2022 Qatar World Cup.

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