Updated: September 22nd, 2012

The female Olympians send a clear message that strong and fit, in whatever form it may take, is beautiful, and that a healthy body is not something that should be shameful, but should be celebrated.

Olympians come in all shapes and sizes—from tiny gymnasts less than five feet tall to sprinters and hurdlers with striking height and muscle definition. In a world where the typical runway model is nearly half of a foot taller than a typical American women, with a waist size of 22 inches (as opposed to the average 28-30 inch measurement for American women) many women are faced with a huge pressure to change their bodies to fit into rigid ideals of beauty set forth by the fashion industry. So many of us have been sold on the idea that a woman must be as tall and thin as possible, regardless of health implications, to be beautiful.

American sprinter Sanya Richards-Ross, just after learning that she won the gold in the 400m race.

American sprinter Sanya Richards-Ross, just after learning that she won the gold in the 400m race.

With this unending emphasis on being thin at any cost, it’s easy to fall into a trap of risky behavior to achieve this ideal. According to a 2011 study, the US weight loss industry brought in $60.9 billion dollars in 2010. We are all barraged with new diet aids (which are unregulated by the FDA), trendy diets, and exercise programs that make it seem all-too-easy to achieve ultra-thin ideals, regardless of body type.
The common standard of beauty in western society is unattainable for many, and unhealthy for the majority.

From the Boxing Ring to Cover Girl

Marlen Esparza came home with the bronze medal, and teammate Claressa Shields won the gold.

Marlen Esparza came home with the bronze medal, and teammate Claressa Shields won the gold.

As the 2012 Olympics come to a close, many of us have spent the summer soaking up images of athletes of all shapes and sizes.

While these athletes are certainly different from the average woman, they represent a strong counterpoint to the unending quest of thinness—standing as models of health, fitness, and body confidence through their various forms and shapes. This year, three Olympians, Mary Spencer (Canadian Women’s Boxing), Marlen Esparza (US Women’s Boxing) and Jennifer Kessy (US Women’s Beach Volleyball) were featured in Cover Girl ads, a space typically reserved for the top models of the day.

Marlen Esparza displays strength and confidence in her recent Cover Girl ads.

Marlen Esparza displays strength and confidence in her recent Cover Girl ads.

The ads don’t shy away from their strength, highlighting not just their looks, but their athletic abilities as well. Esparza’s ad depicts her hands taped in preparation for a bout, and another shot of her in the ring with her boxing gloves. The images don’t attempt to hide her athletic build, highlighting her strong arms and fit legs. Making the ad even more striking is Esparza’s sport of choice, as women’s boxing was only made an Olympic sport this year.

Olympians in the Pages of Vogue Magazine

The June cover of Vogue magazine made waves in the fashion world this summer.

The June cover of Vogue magazine made waves in the fashion world this summer.

In June, Vogue featured soccer gold medalist Hope Solo and tennis gold medalist Serena Williams accompanied by swimmer Ryan Lochte.

Vogue, a magazine which is constantly under fire for glorifying extreme thinness, could have easily chosen any Olympian for their cover. In choosing Solo and Williams, they made a statement that a fit body isn’t something to be ashamed of. Both women have the body type that we would expect of Olympians: strong arms, muscled legs, and chiseled stomachs. Vogue highlights their strength as well as their beauty.

The top four runners in the women’s 200m final battling in the final meters of the race.

The top four runners in the women’s 200m final battling in the final meters of the race.

Compared to other recent cover models (Charlize Theron, Emma Stone, and Marion Cotillard) Solo and Williams provide a major departure from the magazine’s typical aesthetic and send a forthright message: strong and fit is beautiful too. Unlike the sultry poses of prior cover starlets, Solo and Williams look excited and healthy while running on a beach.

Aly Raisman’s gold medal winning floor routine displayed not only grace, but tremendous strength and athleticism.

Aly Raisman’s gold medal winning floor routine displayed not only grace, but tremendous strength and athleticism.

Inside, readers see even more images of strong women–from a photo of gymnast Aly Raisman floating in the air, sprinter Carmelita Jeter racing a train, and swimmer Missy Franklin posing against a blue sky. While each of these women have very different body types, they are portrayed as beautiful, strong, and happy. For a magazine often regarded as the arbiter of taste, style, and beauty, these choices are a major step toward a healthier portrayal of women in the media.

Serena Williams has long been open about her athletic body type.

Serena Williams has long been open about her athletic body type.

Fighting Back Against Criticism

On the other end of spectrum, British weightlifter Zoe Smith recently made waves in response to criticism she received on Twitter, claiming that she wasn’t attractive and was too “manly” and muscular.

Zoe Smith broke records during the Olympics, despite criticism about her appearance.

Zoe Smith broke records during the Olympics, despite criticism about her appearance.

Smith took to her blog (http://zoepablosmith.wordpress.com/), and in a post titled “Thanks (but no thanks),” she says:

“[W]e don’t lift weights in order to look hot, especially for the likes of men like that. What makes them think that we even WANT them to find us attractive? If you do, thanks very much, we’re flattered. But if you don’t, why do you really need to voice this opinion in the first place, and what makes you think we actually give a toss that you, personally, do not find us attractive? What do you want us to do? Shall we stop weightlifting, amend our diet in order to completely get rid of our ‘manly’ muscles, and become housewives in the sheer hope that one day you will look more favourably upon us and we might actually have a shot with you?! Cause you are clearly the kindest, most attractive type of man to grace the earth with your presence.”

Her words send a clear message—not just to those in the weightlifting world, but to us all. She is a strong, beautiful woman, and loves herself not just because of how she looks, but because of who she is and makes no apologies for her sport of choice. Her body may not fit into the conventional ideas about beauty, but she’s strong, healthy, and at the age of eighteen, has broken the British clean and jerk record just one week after posting the rebuttal above. She’s incredibly proud of her body, and we could all learn from her desire to focus not on how her body looks, but how she feels.

Embrace functional, healty, winning bodies

While the issue of weight, health, and beauty perceptions is far from resolved, the move toward a celebration of strength and fitness is a huge step toward helping women reset their own goals to focus more on health than on attaining a particular size. Instead of trying to force ourselves to fit into one particular image, embracing our bodies while celebrating what we are capable of could set a whole new precedent for striving for health and accepting different body types, rather than an unhealthy body image that encourages disordered eating and one idea of beauty. Ultimately, confidence can only come from within, but building a culture of acceptance, health, and strength could benefit us all.

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