What makes a strong woman, and is it a quality to aspire to? Absolutely, says Hannah Ebelthite. It’s time to celebrate female strength – both physical and emotional
When I asked friends and family what female strength meant to them, the responses varied. A few cited prominent politicians such as Hillary Clinton or Margaret Thatcher. Others looked to top athletes like Victoria Pendleton. Some saw it in women who’d battled adversity, such as military widows, while others described motherhood as the ultimate test of, and testament to, strength. There used to be a sense that, to be a strong woman, you had to act ‘like a man’ toughing it out and being emotionally cold. ‘Increasingly, though, strength is being seen as a positive attribute for a woman,’ says psychotherapist Gael Lindenfield, author of The Emotional Healing Strategy (Michael Joseph, £10.99). ‘It means coping well with setbacks, standing up for what you believe in and, importantly, being yourself. And it’s something women are good at.’ As for physical strength, few women have ever aimed to look powerful muscles tend to be seen as unfeminine and undesirable. But with the approach of London 2012, we’ll soon witness some awe-inspiring displays of female strength and not just in the weightlifting (although Team GB’s Zoe Smith is one to watch). Competing at that level requires physical, mental and emotional strength, qualities we can all learn from our athletes. Here, Healthy takes a positive look at what it means to be a strong woman today.
Let’s get physical
In times of recession, it’s the taller, more athletic female body shapes that become fashionable – think Amazonian supermodels rather than fragile waifs. And while we can’t all look like Cindy Crawford circa 1990, her strong, lean look is one we can aspire to through exercise. You can put aside worries of a beefy, bulky physique, as it’s a shape women don’t naturally acquire. ‘You don’t have the testosterone,’ explains personal trainer Nick Mitchell (www.upfitness.co.uk), who works with top female models, focusing on strength-training to sculpt their shape. ‘A lot of women choose cardio aerobics classes, using the cross trainer or treadmill at the gym to stay in shape. But you should work with weights, too it’s the fastest route to a great body.’
And what many women don’t realise is if you focus on strength, you’ll naturally become slimmer and lose weight. ‘The more muscle you have, the faster your metabolism will be,’ says strength and conditioning coach and triathlete, Karen Weir (www.runwithkaren.com). ‘So the faster you’ll burn fat, even at rest. Then there’s the fact that muscle is more space efficient it might weigh more than fat, but it takes up less room.’ So the stronger you are, the better you’ll fit those skinny jeans.
Strength of mind
Emotional strength may not always be obvious on the surface. ‘There’s a distinction between processing your emotions and toughing it out,’ says Lindenfield. ‘Just because someone appears to be coping well, it doesn’t mean they are.’ In fact, an ability to acknowledge your vulnerabilities tends to mean you are a lot more resilient than someone who pushes on through with a stiff upper lip. Nor does ‘strong’ have to mean shouting the loudest and getting your own way. Persistence and gentle assertiveness can be more powerful.
‘Women are better than men at processing their emotions,’ Lindefield explains. ‘We’re more likely to allow ourselves to heal and go through the process to avoid a backlog of sadness and resentment that can hold us back. We seek comfort by talking to friends. We don’t mind being seen to be sad or angry, and then we can move on. A strong woman is able to go through this process and emerge stronger.’ Another word for strength is resilience. ‘It’s a bit of a buzzword in psychology circles,’ says Lindenfield. ‘Resilience is something we all have to varying degrees.’ It doesn’t mean you don’t get down about things; it means you experience your feelings fully, do what you need to do to cope (without relying on unhealthy mechanisms such as drinking to excess), and come out the other side.