The idea that you have to look a certain way in order to be fit is delivered to us by adverts, social media, TV shows.
The only women who get to be strong, healthy and love their bodies are size 6 Instagram models, clad head-to-toe in lycra with intimidating abs and an inexplicable thigh gap.
It teaches us over and over again that this is the ideal female form. And anything that doesn’t fit the mould is wrong.
Women of all ages, sizes, races and abilities can be strong, fit and unbelievably inspirational. But we never get to see them.
A huge study by Sport England found that 75% of women say fear of judgement puts them off being active. And 40% of women over the age of 16 aren’t meeting the recommended levels of weekly fitness.
So it’s more important than ever for women to reclaim the narrative and celebrate their inner strength. Regardless of what they look like.
This series aims to redefine what it means to be a strong woman. We will meet some of the incredible ladies who are challenging accepted norms every single day.
Andrea Newson is an autistic mum of two. Like many people with autism she struggles with the social elements of sport, but she refuses to let that stop her getting stuck in.
Tell us about your relationship with fitness
Fitness and myself have a love-hate relationship. I love being fit and healthy but I also hate some of the restrictions that come with it – especially on the food front.
I love food and a lot of healthy things just bore me to tears. Which means I’m not always as fit as I could be with more effort.
But I am getting better because I find with age, I have to pay a lot more attention to these things – exercise alone isn’t as effective as it was in my 20s.
I got to the point I am now after some good, old fashioned hard work.
After my third baby I was over the 130kg mark and was wondering how I could get back to the person and shape I was before I had any kids. Which is what so many women’s dream about after children.
I just started by riding my bike to and from work, this led to a rekindled obsession with mountain biking. Now, 12 years later, I feel fitter than I ever did before. I don’t regularly drink alcohol, definitely no drugs, and I am finally starting to be an adult about my diet.
My first pregnancy ended with my daughter being stillborn at full term.
During the c-section, I also had a pulmonary embolism which nearly ended my own life.
I had two more healthy babies after this, but they were all a year apart and the healing of my body after two c-sections was a long, hard road.
Initially my primary focus was the fitness of my mind. Losing my child and later learning about my own close brush with death took several years to recover from.
I was also determined to regain core strength, which I needed for my mountain biking, so I started laps in the pool as well as cycling the 3-4kms to work each day.
With small children and a messy divorce it wasn’t always easy to keep these things high on the priority list.
I was also a skydiver up until 12 months prior to falling pregnant with my first. Skydiving is a sport that requires complete fitness of mind and body – especially in the weight department – safety is imperative.
How has fitness helped you through dark times?
Overcoming my past hasn’t been an easy ride – but I persisted with my bike.
I just ride for the sake of riding. I love the peace of cruising through the bush trails and only hearing the wind and wildlife – as cliched as that sounds. I appreciate life and little things like that a lot more than I ever did prior to the loss of my child.
My fitness allows me to get out and experience life again. Something I can never ever take for granted again.
More recently I was diagnosed as autistic. This has made me realise just how important fitness is to me.
It has been the one solid foundation in my life that I never questioned – everything else I always questioned simply because I didn’t understand people.
So it has been a long journey, but I am finally fit in body but most importantly mind, which is why I have also returned to skydiving.
Why do you consider yourself a strong woman?
Because I am a survivor of things that are known to break other people. I don’t give up just because someone else says I should. If I see something I want to do I go out and do it.
Travelling solo around North America, watching the Space Shuttle launch four times, racing downhill on my mountain bike, surfing, SCUBA diving, skydiving.
I always have so many people amazed with what I do, but honestly I am more amazed that people don’t just go and try these things for themselves if they are keen.
If that defines me as strong, then that’s about it. I only see myself as strong because I survive.
How does autism affect your relationship with fitness?
Autism can make me be obsessive about fitness and especially sports I am interested in.
Autism is known for hyperfocus and it’s no different with sport and fitness. It really made a huge difference when it came to trying to have a healthy diet and control my food intake. It got to the point where people around me would comment, “I don’t know how you stick to it!” We all know how diet changes usually end!
But being able to hyperfocus, research and learn anything and everything about diet and what was best for me was so helpful. Once it becomes routine, the rest is easy for me.
Fitness helps a bit I would say, mostly because of the endorphins my body gets from being active.
Of course the main barrier for many people with autism is the social aspect many sports have.
Or the polar opposite of hyperfocus is complete disinterest. This disinterest can be hard to counter – sometimes it makes you ask things like, if this isn’t my major interest why should I bother?
As for the social aspect, I tend to ‘mask’ like many autistic people do to fit in with the crowd. Mind you, a lot of the sports I enjoy can be done solo as well.
But it doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy taking part as a member of a team or social, far from it. It just takes a little more work on my part to figure out the people – not that anyone would know I was doing this.
It has become a lot easier as I have gotten older, simply because we learn more as we progress through life.
What do you think of strong women in the media?
I think the media still push unhealthy body images.
I have two daughters who I would never want to feel like they are not good enough because according to the media the only fit person is a skinny person. The reality is a lot different.
Skinny does not equal fit and healthy. Muscles create bulk, but we are still caught in some 1850s time warp of what is realistically unhealthy marketing based on appearance alone.
Many women associate being a strong woman with being butch or non-feminine. Many women also still believe that men prefer their women meek.
I have met men, when I was dating, who told me to my face I was too strong, that they prefer to be the provider. These are all ridiculous things.
Sure, physiology between men and women is different, we cannot change biology, but we can change attitudes and beliefs. I see a male partner as an equal, not someone who should be threatened by my own decisions about how I live my life.
Being strong, fit and active allows me to get out there and enjoy life first hand, rather than through a screen or online.
I love seeing something and thinking, ‘I would love to try that! and actually being able to do it.
But fitness is becoming more important than ever for me as I age. Our bodies are designed to move, not stagnate, and that shouldn’t change just because we get older.
This Girl Can
Find out more about Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign on the website.
There are inspirational stories, workouts you can do in the park or on the school run, and loads of advice on how to build fitness into your daily routine.
You can even become a #ThisGirlCan supporter to help encourage women and girls of all shapes, sizes, abilities and backgrounds to get active.
Strong Women is a new weekly series published every Saturday at 10am. If you’d like to get involved, get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.