Last month, Australian fitness celebrity Kayla Itsines launched a new workout regimen, Bikini Body Guide “Stronger,” which promises to help women build muscle for a “new and better you.” In the three years since Itsines entered the health and fitness scene, she’s created a fitness empire and amassed thousands of loyal followers who call themselves “Kayla’s army.” They flock to football stadiums for her sold-out boot camp sessions, yoga mats in hand, to do burpees alongside thousands of others while she guides them using a headset—and they’re the reason she has an estimated net worth of $46 million.

Itsines is tanned and has hipbones that perfectly frame her subtle six-pack, and legs that look as if they were custom-made for a runway. It could be argued that she’s exactly what many women today aspire to look like. The premise of “Stronger,” which is similar to that of her original twelve-week Bikini Body Guide, is that we would be happier if our bodies were different. Daily photos on her Instagram account document smiling women and their transformations—each one appears to be sculpted and free from tummy rolls or flabby arms. In one post, a blond Australian writes that she was “miserable” before joining the Itsines army.

Last year, Time named Itsines as one of the thirty most influential people on the internet, and her brand’s ethos makes her a recognizable face in the current fitness-as-femininity trend—a movement that puts a new form of physical perfection ahead of losing pounds and has produced the catchphrase “strong is the new skinny.”

When “strong is the new skinny” first surfaced, online stores were quick to capitalize on it, offering water bottles and T-shirts plastered with the slogan (most Canadian retailers are currently out of stock). What it means to look healthy started hinging on a series of Instagram photos featuring pink exercise accessories and colourful salads. Hashtags such as “fitspiration” and “strong not skinny” have been tagged over 40 million times on social media, while Canadian gyms have started offering classes with names like “buns of steel” and “fit and firm.”

Researchers have spent decades promoting the idea that being thin isn’t a healthy goal, so on the surface, a message such as “strong is the new skinny” may seem to represent a positive change in mindset—different from traditional goals of unachievable perfection. But to a veteran dieter and cautious exerciser such as myself, it doesn’t seem like much of an improvement. Instead, it feeds into a much older ploy, one that marketers have long used to remind us that we’re broken, wrong, or ugly, that we could be better with a little investment. There’s money to be made off of people’s insecurities, and that’s always been the case: the difference here is that what’s being promoted is essentially a form of sanctioned anorexia—one no less damaging than any other eating disorder. Mary Louise Adams, a sociology professor at Queen’s University whose research focuses on fitness and culture, says that capitalism often uses feminism as leverage. “Marketing, advertising, and promotion produce needs and wants that we didn’t know we had,” she says. “Products that are telling women what to do with their bodies are not feminism.”

The health and fitness industry generates an estimated $80 billion in revenue globally each year through classes, products, dietary aids, and workout wear. Its inception dates back to the industrial revolution, when women started frequenting department stores instead of having dresses custom-made by seamstresses, and clothing became standardized using small, medium, and large labels. As people began comparing their respective sizes, the market potential for diets and exercise grew. In 1924, the first successful weight-loss book was published. Written by an Irish man named Frederick Arthur, it shamed round bellies and prescribed a series of exercises inspired by native dances—the first of many “solutions” that would emerge in the following decades.

Even if certain habits—such as exercise and a carefully controlled diet—seem appropriate, they can become problematic for the same reasons that people develop eating disorders. Following his own struggles with eating, American physician Steven Bratman coined the term “orthorexia nervosa” (derived from the Greek term ortho, meaning “correct”) in 1997 to describe the growing fixation with health and fitness. For two years, Bratman had worked as a manager at an organic produce farm. He refused to eat any vegetable that had been pulled from the ground more than fifteen minutes earlier, chewed each bite exactly fifty times, ate in solitude, and left his stomach half empty after every meal. Eventually, he said, “the poetry of my life diminished.” All he thought about was food.

Unlike anorexia or bulimia, conditions in which the harm sufferers impose on their bodies is more evident, orthorexia disguises itself as a series of good choices. Because orthorexia superficially reflects a lifestyle many of us would like to adopt, it allows a disorder to parade in plain sight. Food becomes a carefully calculated math equation: eating schedules are followed as if they were laws, and good days are determined by serving sizes.

While orthorexia is not medically recognized as an eating disorder, many of its characteristics—the anxiety and the need for complete control—overlap with symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Bratman argues that orthorexics often find themselves in a juggling act involving different eating disorders, or “symptom switching”—replacing maladaptive behaviour with equally maladaptive behaviour. “Devouring a single raisin,” he writes, can drive some people into complete despair.

Conversations with my own friends and acquaintances about such mantras as “strong is the new skinny” elicited a common conclusion: On good days, fitness can be a tool of empowerment, capable of making a person feel stronger and healthier. But for some, myself included, it can also bring bad days marked by feelings of guilt, self-pity, and uncontainable sadness. I can recall weeks during which I meticulously tracked every gram of sugar, every carb, and every ounce of fat I ate, often measuring salad toppings with a tablespoon or counting out raw almonds one by one to meet the recommended serving. Eight-kilometre jogs were fuelled by small portions of bland vegetables. Everything in my life was regulated by strict guidelines, and breaking them was synonymous with failure.

I spoke with a former actress (now a holistic nutritionist) who dealt with eating disorders for the majority of her adolescent and young-adult life. What started as a long tug-of-war with anorexia eventually morphed into orthorexia. “It became a thing that absolutely tormented me,” she says. “I denied up and down that it was orthorexia, but then I realized it was just my eating disorder under a new set of rules.”

She recalls showing up at Christmas meals with stacks of Tupperware containing perfectly portioned-out meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. She often missed social outings. During her first session with her therapist, she sat buried under a pile of knitted blankets on a white leather sofa and sobbed into a chocolate-chip muffin, unable to will herself to take a bite, because it was a food she considered “off limits.”

Kathleen Martin Ginis, a professor at the University of British Columbia who researches psychosocial influences on physical activity, says that most women are more interested in looking fit than they are in actually being fit. “We see our bodies in parts,” she says. “It all comes down to not thinking about how strong your butt looks, but how strong your butt is—not how great your arms look, but how strong they are.”

Perhaps the biggest flaw—and defining power—of such tag lines as “strong is the new skinny” is that they still put the focus on appearance as opposed to achievement. Research suggests that women are no more satisfied with their bodies today than they were in past decades; meanwhile, a fixation on fitness driven by unachievable standards keeps women trapped in their own dissatisfaction, robbing them of time and energy.

The idea that women are “weak” or “fragile” is deeply rooted in sexism, and while notable feminist writers argue that we should challenge these notions, Martin Ginis says it’s also important to challenge the idea that we’re all supposed to be one thing: some people are fit, some are thin, some are fat—and that’s okay, because strong is not the new skinny. Strength can’t be built by posting an Instagram selfie or by parading around in a T-shirt with a catchy motto.

“There’s a lot of work to be done,” says Martin Ginis. “It takes an entirely different way of thinking about your body, and it can only happen when women stop thinking about their body as a bunch of different parts and start seeing it as a whole.”

Nicole Schmidt
Nicole Schmidt is a freelance writer, editor, and fact checker based in Berlin. She was previously an associate editor at The Walrus.