Sure, #strongnotskinny appears in more than 6 million Instagram posts. And, it's true that in a recent study, women rated slim, muscular body types as more attractive than strictly slim figures.
Still, real change takes time. Outdated beliefs that women shouldn't look "too muscular" or should avoid getting "too bulky" persist, and it seems we may still have a way to go before our society as a whole truly embraces female bodies that are thick and athletic — in comparison to bodies that are slim and muscular.
Fortunately, some strong women (and we mean strong in every sense of the word) are helping things along. We talked to talked five Instagram influencers — including a CrossFit champ, an American Ninja Warrior competitor and the founder of Thick Athletics — about their individual journeys to body acceptance, their views on social media and more.
How are They Making an Impact on Instagram?
Lindsey Valenzuela, 30, CrossFit athlete and owner of Autumo CrossFit: "I think that unfortunately social media gives people unrealistic expectations of what they should look like and what they need to be able to do. But then you have the other side — how it inspires people to work hard and not quit, and how it also helps people to relate to one another. That's why I've been so black and white with my journey. I've never Photoshopped anything. I've posted pictures of when I still had 60 pounds to lose [after the birth of my son]. I was raised to be very honest, and I've learned that being vulnerable is OK and it shows that you're brave."
Barclay Stockett, 23, former gymnast and American Ninja Warrior competitor: "I've never really considered myself to be challenging society's standards, but I guess you could say I am. In a society where what one's body looks like reigns supreme, I'd like to challenge others to care more about what feats our bodies can accomplish. Functionality over aesthetic."
Jen Sinkler, 39, trainer and fitness writer: "Social media is super-tricky in terms of body image. I'm constantly assessing my relationship with it and making sure that I feel good after using it, too. Am I celebrating, or am I feeling unworthy in some way?"
Their Journeys to Body Acceptance
Lita Lewis, 35, personal trainer, figure competitor, and founder of Thick Athletics Apparel: "My body has definitely changed over the last five to six years. I once was somewhat depressed and I lost a significant amount of weight. When I found myself down and out, although I had dropped a good amount of weight, I didn't look in the mirror and think I was being my best self. I was not so confident with my body when I was very, very lean. From there, I decided to take control of my life, and I used the gym to channel my energy and focus. I was doing a lot of strength training, so I gained a good amount of muscle. These days, I've taken on a softer look and now I've found a healthy balance between eating well and training based on my schedule."
Neghar Fonooni, 36, fitness and mindset coach: "I don't recall there ever being a time until the last couple of years where I wasn't uncomfortable in my body. I've always had a sort of thicker, more athletic build. Getting into fitness was really about how I felt about my body and trying to hustle toward the standard of being smaller. But even when I accomplished that, I didn't feel better. I actually felt worse.
That was really a turning point for me: I got the thing that I always wanted, the thing that I always thought would make me feel better in my skin, and I felt worse. That caused me to have to explore what I really wanted. Ultimately I think that everybody just wants connection and belonging. Everybody just wants to be loved and understood. When I started to get more real with that, I started to understand that how I looked didn't necessarily have anything to do with being loved."
How Do They Handle Haters?
Barclay Stockett: "Most of my followers are very supportive and encouraging, so, fortunately, I don't deal with very much negativity on social media. Each person has the choice between carrying around negative comments or letting go of them. I typically either debate to educate or delete the comment and move on. It all comes down to knowing one's truth and being confident in it."
Lita Lewis: "Out of 100 comments, I was getting maybe five or six that were very negative or very nasty. I would find myself responding to those people and defending my stance. And then somebody reached out to me and said, 'Why is it that you put energy toward those that are only sharing negative comments when 95 percent of us are showing you only love? It would be nice to hear from you on a positive comment.' And I was like, 'Holy smokes, you're absolutely right.' I live my life basically allowing negativity to bounce right off me, so why would I be any different on social media? These days I address those that are sharing positivity versus addressing the negative comments."
Neghar Fonooni: "It's so interesting because sometimes I'll post stuff and I'll talk about how my body has changed over the years and how I'm comfortable with it, and I get these comments from men that are like, "I think you look better now anyway. I like the softer look." And I'm like, "I wasn't asking you! That's not what this is about. You're missing the point!"
Lindsey Valenzuela: "I think all female CrossFitters deal with some critics on social media. The easiest way to respond to them is to just delete and block their comment. They're just keyboard warriors."
Jen Sinkler: "I've dealt with [negative comments]. Normally with a laugh and a shrug. I say, 'Sexy is a lot of things to a lot of different people. Scram.'"
What Do They See When They Look in the Mirror?
Lindsey Valenzuela: "I'm always happy with the way I look because it's a side-effect of what happens from training. When I look in the mirror today, I'm super proud of myself. I see someone who works really hard every day in the gym, who gave birth to a healthy baby, and who is really determined."
Lita Lewis: "I've learned to 'self-love' my way into a healthy state of mind. These days, I'm very comfortable in my skin. I no longer criticize myself or put myself down. I'm OK with being a little softer, I'm OK with a little cellulite. I find a lot of peace in loving myself for who I am and not necessarily what I look like."
What Does Loving Your Body Mean?
Barclay Stockett: "I've always been muscular — I joke that I came out of the womb flexing. I've gone from lean muscles, to bulky, back to lean, and basically what I've come away with is that I'm the happiest with my body when I'm making decisions strictly for health and not to attain an ideal. When I'm exercising for fun and function, when I'm eating foods that are high in nutrients and protein to fuel what I do, when I'm not concerned about a number on a scale, that is when I would say I love my body the most."
Neghar Fonooni: "I think because self-love and body positivity are so popular now that there's this misunderstanding of it that it's just like, 'Just look in the mirror and say you love yourself.' That's total bullshit—that's not how it works! It took a lot for me to get to the place where I am now. It took a lot of going back and forth, dipping back into bad habits, working through darkness, and having to reaffirm things and redirect my energy. Honestly, it took years."
Jen Sinkler: "In the fitness industry, there was a while where it was like, 'Don't worry about what your body looks like, focus on what it can do!' But then you're dealing with ableist thinking, and the possibility of falling short by a different set of measures—namely, performance. What I keep coming back to is appreciating your body in whatever capacity. It's about engaging with yourself honestly, assessing your real motives for working out. It helps, too, to focus more on process goals — the act of lifting weights — rather than outcome goals. There is no arriving, really. You keep living after the 'after' pics are snapped."
Lita Lewis: "Self-love, at least in my definition, has really nothing to do with our physical selves. The body that we carry is essentially our vessel. I'm really big on first honoring our mental, spiritual, and emotional health, because I think if we can see ourselves as beautiful, we are."
To follow these women on Instagram (and get more of their fitness and body-positivity inspiration), check out Lindsey Valenzuela @liftlikelindsey, Barclay Stockett @sparklyninja, Lita Lewis @followthelita, Neghar Fonooni @negharfonooni, and Jen Sinkler @jensinkler.
About the Author
Amy Rushlow is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles, California. She is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and a former staff editor at SELF, Men's Health, and Prevention. Follow her and her cat on Instagram.
Check out LIVESTRONG's Stronger Women series to get more inspiration and actionable life tips from female leaders and change-makers in wellness, fitness, entertainment, sports and business.