Shirts and stickers abound with the slogan “Strong is the New Pretty,” but pretty should never have been the ideal measure of a woman’s value. Replacing one faulty label with another is not the way to embrace the diversity of femininity. International Women’s Day gives us reason to examine the mantras women have been expected to internalize, and work toward a healthier dialogue about female identity and worth.
When I was in middle school I shot up to my current height of five foot nine, but this dramatic growth spurt didn’t bring about any curves. I learned quickly that since my chest was flat and my legs were tall and scrawny I was not considered pretty. Other girls I knew had waistlines larger than those in magazines, and so they also believed the lie that they were not pretty and therefore not enough. By the time I entered high school, I was well aware of the unspoken rule that women are expected to attain a certain ideal of attractiveness, and everything else we are should bow before this measure of our worth.
Almost all magazine covers are still photoshopped in ridiculous ways. Models and actresses already revered for their appearance in film and television have their waists snipped, breasts enlarged, skin airbrushed and legs shaped and stretched for the newsstand. For many women, consuming all these unrealistic images can lead to low self-esteem, eating disorders, unnecessary surgery and worse.
But the times are changing. My daughter will grow up in an era when she can pick up magazines or watch commercials which not only don’t photoshop away a woman’s real beauty, but celebrate diverse body types, skin colors, abilities and disabilities. My daughter will grow up in an era when she hears the repeated mantra: “Strong is the new pretty.”
At first glance, this is an admirable change of course. A woman doesn’t need Barbie doll dimensions or perfect makeup to be strong, and strength denotes an attitude of self-sufficiency and confidence.
However, when a girl hears that strong is the new pretty, she hears she must be labeled, period. Reducing femininity to one word still legitimizes a lie. When a woman hears strong is the new pretty her soul internalizes the idea that culture had the right to say her worth depended on being pretty, and society still has the power to define what she should be now instead. When a woman hears strong is the new pretty, she must make a choice to either have her selfhood reduced to a label or move beyond convention and embrace the full spectrum of herself and what she has to offer.
Strength is a beautiful thing. It encourages young women to nurture strong bodies instead of striving to be rail-thin and dependent. It is empowering to embrace how strength can be embodied in many ways, through many body types and activities. Strength refers not only to muscles and ability, but also to fortitude of heart and soul. Here lies the problem though: Saying strong is the new pretty promotes the fallacy that women should be defined by one word in society. It reduces them to a word that cannot possibly describe all that they are.
It is strong to be vulnerable, emotionally honest and humble. However, when these words are removed from conversations about femininity, it risks strong becoming as much of a caricature as pretty has been. All women are beautiful. Their bodies are designed by a skillful Creator, and their souls are made in His image. The word “pretty” cannot hold all the nuances and richness of a woman’s beauty, and is instead a placeholder for the prejudice that says women must look a certain way in order to be valued. Saying strong is the new pretty risks perpetuating this same type of destructive myth.
If girls and women do not hear descriptors such as sensitive, intuitive, caring, empathetic, honest and emotive alongside strong, they can feel forced into a box that says they are judged by their emotional stoicism, outward confidence or the size of their muscles. Just like the quest for the “perfect cup size,” this restricts the extensive array of attributes that women bring to the table. If a girl learns she is not enough unless she conveys an idealized image of strength, she will feel she must keep her emotions stuffed deep inside, and work just as hard now to portray physical strength as previous generations did to pick out the perfect lipstick color.
As a woman living with disability, I have no other option but to go beyond the label of strong. Navigating life in a wheelchair, I am not a picture of physical strength, and I have to be brave enough to ask for help when I need it instead of portraying a façade of complete self-sufficiency. I know my heart and mind have grown stronger as I deal with these physical challenges, but I have also learned how important it is to be honest about my struggles and allow space for grief and lament. These are all arenas where culture could call me weak, but I see a courage and beauty that go beyond the words strong or pretty. I know my worth is not dependent on my physical strength, and I never want my daughter to feel distanced from her own heart in order to appear emotionally strong.
Women need to be embraced as all that they are. Girls should be able to explore the many facets of themselves so they can share their souls, passions and giftings with the world. If we allow one faulty label to be exchanged for another, we do ourselves and future generations a disservice. Women are beautiful, but that has little to do with our culture’s definition of pretty. Women are strong, but when we agree “strong is the new pretty” we perpetuate the labeling and limiting of women, and we run the risk of disregarding all that women have to offer this world.
So instead of establishing a new pretty, let’s ask women who they are. Let’s encourage them to tell us what they hold inside and were made to contribute. Let’s see beauty in a variety of shapes, sizes, hues and functionalities. Let’s understand that strength, courage and resiliency go hand in hand with vulnerability, emotiveness and connection. No one is a static, flat image. Femininity cannot be chained to one word.
Let’s not allow strong to be the new pretty, because the confines of pretty never should have existed. Women are who we are, and that is something far beyond any adjective.
Sharon is a writer, photographer and educator, living in Southern California. You can find more of her work on Instagram @sharonmckeeman and at www.sharonmckeeman.com.