When preparing the previous newsletter article, one thing that often came up, particularly for the women asked, as a reason for getting more into strength sports was the rise of the idea of ‘Strong is the new Skinny,’ which coincided with the banning of size 0 models etc. I felt that this point was too big to confine to one section in an article and needed a whole article to really dig into it.
What I want to get into here is the ‘Average Perception,’ we all have. We never quite feel normal, we could be told that we’re too skinny, too fat, too muscular, too strong, too weak or just plain too much of something. But what are we comparing that to? What is the average? What is normal?
I realise this sounds like it’s bordering on a metaphysical treatise, so I will try to keep it strength and fitness related.
The ‘Average Perception’ is about what it is we are comparing ourselves to, while also looking at how we will either never meet the normal or average, or that they will never meet us. This will include how the average world changes and updates very, very quickly. You only have to look at things like living conditions, athletic world records, music genres and fashion trends to see just how much things change while seemingly staying very similar.
What is the average?
The average is constantly moving along the spectrum. Back in 1954, the average UK male would have been 5ft 7 tall with a bodyweight of just under 72kg. 67 years later our average man would stand at 5ft 9 and weigh closer to 84kg.
Similarly, a 1950s woman was roughly 5ft 2 and 62kg, as opposed to 5ft 3 and 70.6kg.
You can see straight away from looking at these numbers that we are generally bigger these days. When you think about the early to mid 1950s, this makes sense. This was only a few years after the end of World War 2, throughout which our grandparents were surviving on rations, which only ended in 1954. The years of stress and malnutrition will have definitely had an effect upon the health and size of the people at this time.
So this doesn’t mean that the extra 8-12kg you maybe carrying compared to your grandparents is a bad thing - it just means you’ve been well fed.
What about the average athlete?
In the 19th century, sports science wasn’t really a thing. The birth of physical culture with people like George Hackenschmidt and Eugen Sandow led to seeing the body as a medium of function as well as art. The main theories on body types were molded by ideas of philosophy and art - Plato’s theory of forms and Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man in particular.
Racism and misogyny also played a part, as the best athlete, regardless of sport was seen to be the white male of average height, average weight and average build. This means that a man of around 5ft 7 would be seen as equally adept in gymnastics as he would be shot putting.
In the 1990s, two Australian sports scientists (Kevin Norton and Tim Olds) wanted to see how body types had changed per sport in the previous 50 years. They found that by 1995, the elite shot putter was 2.5 inches taller and 130 lbs heavier than the elite international high jumper, as opposed to both being of average height and build.
And this wasn’t just across these two sports, they observed what they referred to as the ‘Big Bang of Body Types,’ where most sports had moved towards targeting people who fit the needs of their sports and weeding out those who weren’t as anthropometrically suited.
An example of this would be how Michael Phelps is 6’4 with 32” legs (I’m 5’9 with 32” legs for perspective), which means his wingspan compared to his height is huge and that makes dragging himself forward through the water even easier.
This study also led to the sports scientists developing a way of measuring the probability of a randomly selected person possessing the physical traits of an elite athlete. 28% of men have the height and weight standards to match that of an elite sprinter, while 9.5% possess those of an elite rugby player.
This goes to show that, athletically, there is no normal, no average. In fact, the average or the normal has very little benefit in this way. Our physical quirks, our limbs that are too long or too short, our big feet or small legs, can all be beneficial to different sports or activities.
What about the fashionable average?
For a long time fashion, and the media’s portrayal of it, have been at the heart of changing trends in our clothes, our diet, our music taste, and, most importantly, our view of ourselves and our bodies.
Unrealistic body standards, for both men and women, have been pushed for by the mass media, clothes designers and, more recently, social media.
You only have to attempt to post a picture on social media to see how easy it is add filters or edit the picture beyond its original portrayal. How a person portrays themselves on their own social media is, of course, their choice, but an awareness around the effect they have on others needs to be developed and normalised.
It is easy to look at an influencer’s social media and believe that their life is always 100% good, and that they always look perfect. A person’s social media can be a form of confirmation bias in the sense that they post the message that they want to convey, without considering that what they’re showing is glossing over reality. It is easy to post the subtly, or not so subtly, filtered pictures where everything looks just right - but a more realistic view would be for these same people to post the not quite perfect posts, and show their real life.
The former editor of Australian Vogue, Kirstie Clements, has spoken at length about how the expectations on models has gone from being slim in the 80s, to being smaller and thinner to the point where they are going without food and eating tissues to feel more full by the early 2000s.
I haven’t included this point for the shock value, rather just to show how the ‘normal’ for a model has changed from relatively healthy to an incredibly unhealthy point within 30 years.
The average perception here is definitely skewered. There is no way we can look at social media, or even mass media, and have a clear and defined view of what is actually expected of us - especially as what we are being shown is not actually a real, attainable ‘thing’.
‘Strong is the new Skinny’ - An alternative.
In the above point, social media was looked on with some scorn. However, to be more balanced (just as I suggested social media should be) I would like to add that social media has allowed for an alternative to ‘feminine ideal,’ and that was the wave of the notion that ‘strong is the new skinny.’ Refreshing for women to hear, right? Eh, kinda.
'Strong is the new skinny' definitely opened up a contradictory option for a lot of women in the 2010s. A lot of women - that I know, have coached, or have responded to my research for the previous article - felt that being stronger, or more muscular, or better athletically was a refreshing and empowering alternative to being as skinny and small as possible as they were conditioned to believe they had to be.
I’m not saying the ‘strong is the new skinny’ movement is or was wrong, in fact, that’s my point. It’s not down to me, or a social media wave, to tell women or people how to feel about, or what to do with, their bodies. This movement was instructing women to be a certain way, in the same way that the years of fashion and mass media had been prior to it.
It is a good thing that an alternative has been offered, however, it is another example of the goal posts being moved - what was once average isn’t anymore and your new normal is now different.
I sit here writing this, 5ft 9 and roughly 82kg, being within the perfectly ‘average’ range of the average UK male. However, I know that I have shorter arms than most, which can help with bench press strength, longer thighs than most which leads me more to a low bar squat position - so it is no surprise that when I tried a few different disciplines of training that I stuck with powerlifting.
What I wanted to achieve here is to show that there is no average, nor is there a perfect. Rather, there is a sliding scale. The cultural views of what is normal changes so quickly that we can’t really be expected to keep up.
If you want to get into a sport but feel you don’t have the right proportions for it, there are still ways around it, especially as you will probably find your body composition changes depending upon your training and lifestyle.
Be average, be perfect, or be none of it. You’ll probably find that the accepted normal has changed before you’ve even noticed anyway. It is completely fine to love your body as it is but also want to make changes, there’s no dichotomy there.