If anything first strikes me about the popular phrase, “strong is the new sexy,” it is that this is a rallying cry for women, and one with a feminist slant. Certainly, “strong” and “sexy” have traditionally been synonymous for men in the culture; to be a man has always translated to the need to be powerful, which in turn renders the man more attractive. That the words are now actually set out as an aphorism then clearly refers to women, and in a way gaining impact because of contrast. If men needed to be strong to be attractive, women were encouraged to be soft and compliant to be considered sexy. This, the phrase adamantly declares, is no longer the case. Today’s woman, the phrase overtly says to me, must reverse her own ideas of what being desirable requires because the weak woman is no longer sexy.
This then begs the question: what kind of strong? On one level, modern culture is most certainly encouraging women to be physically strong. The longstanding image of the typically sexy woman has been curvy, soft, and not muscled. Passivity as expressed by the body was the norm for female attraction, and the culture acted on the assumption that this was the natural form most attractive to men, and consequently most reliable for generating mutual attraction. The phrase does not modify the attitude; it turns it around completely, implying that physical strength is now – somehow – what men find sexy in women. There is as well the implication that one kind of strength is based on or influences others. The modern woman unwilling to be physically soft and weak will now, it is promoted, develop the inner strength and confidence to be more assertive in all ways. If compliance was the traditional element of female desirability, it is now aggression that is valued.
The ideology reflected in this statement is, however, troubling, and on more than one level. To begin with, the fact that it encourages strength in women does not lessen the reality that it is still essentially instructing a woman to be a certain type. The psychology is deceptive; strength is associated with independence, yet this endorsement is being directed at women. It is then not substantially different than older cultural imperatives telling women they must be soft and curvy because it is still a cultural injunction based on compliance. No matter the kinds of strength affirmed as necessary today, there remains the core element of the process as serving the same interests all such processes or promotions of types have served: attracting a man. I find it ironic that this encouragement of female power is, in a very real sense, as based on traditional gender roles as those of the past.
Then, if this factor renders the aphorism as demeaning to women, it also ignores some fundamental issues. If a woman’s being strong is asserted as being sexy today, the question arises: sexy to whom, and why? For the statement to be valid at all, there must be a significant change in the perceptions of men, and it must be wondered at how such a difference could occur in such a relatively short span of time. Cultures do indeed evolve, but gender roles are particularly powerful components in themselves, and it is unlikely that men have suddenly and radically revised their thinking in regard to what renders women sexy. This alone deflates any validity to the statement, and to a large degree. In plain terms, “sexy” is never new; it is ingrained deeply in the cultural consciousness, so referring to any different form of it as “new” is highly suspect. Following this reasoning, the idea that being strong now defines sexiness for women is not only demeaning, but irrational. It tells women, not only must they reverse old ideas to cater to what men now perceive as desirable, but that all ideas of attractiveness are subject to profound change. There is also the very real aspect of just what “strong” means to the man, as opposed to what it means for the women, which relates to this point. That is to say, given the unlikelihood of men reversing their ideas of female sexiness, the “strong” being encouraged is probably a “strong” that is safely within traditional parameters of female weakness or compliance.