Life lessons from weightlifting: “strong women” are used to justify inequality

Today’s young women are absolutely tough enough to tolerate any amount of misogynist bullshit – they just don’t want to and they shouldn’t have to.

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It is finally happening: I am becoming a strong woman. Not in every sense of the word – I’m still a squishy-hearted millennial snowflake marinated in political correctness. But these days I also go to the gym and chuck big bits of metal around.

Apparently I’m way behind the curve on this one. Trend watchers, and yes that is a real job, have been telling us for months that strength-training is the new craze among young and youngish women. For months, a great deal of presumably vital reporting has been done on how “strong is the new sexy”, with predictably patronising questions about what this really means for the moral and physical health of young women and thereby the nation: are these girls taking things too far? Do men really find muscular women attractive? Is this really empowering?

The answers, respectively, are: probably, nobody cares, and if one more person uses the word “empowering” in my presence, so help me, I will debate them rigorously in the marketplace of ideas. “Empowering” is a word and a concept almost exclusively applied to women, especially by advertisers, who are trying to flog us products and services to distract us from the real material iniquities of our lives.

“Empowered” is how well-meaning men think women want to feel, because we still seem to think that gender oppression can be fought by changing how women feel, especially how they feel about how they look. Personally, I lift weights partly out of vanity, partly so I can glare at men who hog the hack squat machine, but mostly because I needed to get fitter to have a chance of survival after the coming collapse of civilisation.

I love yoga as much as the next spiritually etiolated urban white lady, but the chanting wasn’t cutting it for the post-Brexit hunger games. You’d be surprised how many weedy, progressive millennials I know have started working out in the secret hope we will someday be able to outrun our neighbours, and possibly our parents.

I’ve been doing strength-training for a good six months now, which is longer than most of my relationships, all of which also involved a great deal of pointless heavy lifting but without the added bonus of one day, theoretically, being able to murder a man with my abs alone.

So I started going to the sort of classes where angry women in Lycra and men with terrifying facial topiary shout at you until you can’t feel your legs any more. On one recent occasion, I was casually showing off about how many push-ups I can do with perfect form (12, let’s not get carried away) when the instructor, correctly identifying a teacher’s pet, told me that I was quite strong.

I realised that nobody had ever said that to me before and meant it literally. When someone calls you a “strong woman”, what they usually mean is that they’re grateful to you for putting up with their nonsense and they really hope you’re not going to make a scene. Or they’ve noticed that you have faced abuse and they’d rather “empower” you to tolerate that abuse than help you stop it from happening.

In the past few months of global outcry against sexual violence and harassment, what we have heard more and more – from both men and women of a certain generation – is that the young women of today aren’t “strong” enough. Back in the day, apparently, young ladies were “strong enough” to deal with being constantly demeaned and taken for granted; they were tough enough to cope with being relentlessly grabbed and groped and worse, so we should be, too – otherwise we’re just, well, weak.

Telling women to be “strong” is too often a polite way of demanding us to shut up and stop whining. It’s not always meant unkindly – praising someone who is suffering injustice for their “strength” can help you feel more comfortable about the everyday violence of the world – but it also shames people out of trying to change it. Maybe it was never fair that women were expected to be “strong” enough to cope with sexism.

Today’s young women are absolutely tough enough to tolerate any amount of misogynist bullshit – they just don’t want to and they shouldn’t have to. They are not “weak”. They do not want to be “empowered”. They are angry and they are right to be; and they want more power and they deserve it. They are sick of being shamed for refusing to carry the burdens that their mothers and grandmothers were forced to. If that’s what strength is, I am happy to be puny. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 26 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How women took power