Strength is beauty: The Olympics and changing body ideals

During my childhood, it was very clear I was not destined to become a gifted athlete. My little brother, often described by friends and family as a spidermonkey, could climb anything – trees, playgrounds, big rocks – with absolute ease. I was much more of an indoor child. I’ve cultivated an appreciation for physical activity now, but it took me until my 20s to do so. Even then, I am not motivated by physical excellence or feats of strength. I do it to help my mental health and connect with my body. All of this is to convey to you, reader, the simple fact that I am not, and never have been, a typical Olympics fanatic.

I spent the last few weeks at home with my parents, and ended up watching some of the Olympic events with my dad. I found myself incredibly moved by the stories and performances of the athletes, in a way I never have before. The reason for this, I’m sure, is that I’ve spent the last three months in psychiatric treatment for food and body image issues, and my perception of bodies has shifted. Where before, I would idealise female bodies which fit societal norms (ie. thin and eurocentric) I am now starting to become much more fascinated by female bodies which are healthy and strong. 

The first time I was forced to reassess the toxic ideals I’d inherited from the world was in 2017. My family made the incredibly uncharacteristic decision to go on an all-inclusive Yoga retreat in Ibiza. This was exactly as middle class as it sounds. I was confronted with a range of body types, sizes, shapes, and colours, all of which only had one thing in common: physical and mental strength. It was revolutionary for me. For the first time, I was surrounded by women who, rather than starve in order to be as small as possible, actively fed and nurtured their bodies, and allowed themselves to be big. There was a teacher there who was so muscular she could have taken on any of the male instructors and wrestled them to the ground. It was, in the traditional meaning of the word, awesome.

I had the same feeling again, four years later, watching these Olympic events. It’s such a stark reminder of how narrow-minded the beauty and diet industry wants us to be. Bodies, of any sex, have so much potential, and yet we’re relentlessly told they have to adhere to one strict set of guidelines. For women, those guidelines are depressingly simple: the smaller you are, the better. It’s boring to live your life in such a limited way, and watching the athletes of 2021 perform reminded me of this fact. 

Don’t get me wrong- I won’t be going off to become a gold medalist any time soon. Fitness obsession can be as unhealthy as anorexia, and in an ideal world, the way someone’s body looks wouldn’t have any impact on how they are treated by others. However, the Olympics gave me hope for a younger generation who won’t just daydream about being skinny, and who will push themselves to be strong, capable, and assertive. I hope they will know it takes courage to take up space in the world, however they may choose to do so, and that they have potential beyond whatever the beauty industry tries to sell them.

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Maja Anushka

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May 2022
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