ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Over the last couple of months, we've been talking about women in a series we call The Changing Lives of Women. We've heard about how women see themselves and how society sees them. In today's installment, NPR's Shereen Marisol Meraji explores body image and the trend toward a stronger, more sporty physique.
TERESA GREIDER: I'm going to come in and save him. He's going to continue to push up - we're going to re-rack that.
SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: That's coach Teresa Greider from CrossFit Ganbatte in LA. Ganbatte means do your best, in Japanese. And right now, Greider, a mother of two's best, involves deadlifting 240 pounds and, today, instructing her athletes on how to bench press.
GREIDER: So you have to partner up. You need a spotter. Watch your partner. Try to help them if that bar path is like scooping out or scooping in.
MERAJI: Ganbatte is a pretty typical looking CrossFit box as their colloquially called - big warehouse space with pull up bars, medicine balls, barbells and industrial-sized fans to dry up all the sweat. Greider and two other female coaches, Jackie Tebow and Kristin Winn, met me there to talk about when they knew being physically strong was cool. And these women are strong. Tebow can do 41 push-ups without stopping - Winn, 10 pull ups in a row.
KRISTIN WINN: When I was growing up, I didn't see women doing these things. I remember being, I think, in middle school or elementary school and seeing the women win the World Cup.
JACKIE TEBOW: And Brandy Chastain took off her shirt. There was this huge uproar and, like, this is so inappropriate and...
WINN: But then everyone else was talking about her ripped abs.
WINN: I was like yeah, look at her abs.
TEBOW: I was thinking the exact same thing. I was like, what big controversy? Look at how great she looks.
MERAJI: Coach Teresa Greider points to the first lady as her current celebrity strong body inspiration.
GREIDER: Michelle Obama is famous for her awesome arms. It's great for someone to get recognition for having great muscular arms versus being skinny as a model - a supermodel.
MERAJI: While Michelle Obama and soccer great Brandi Chastain are now seen as fit body role models, they were criticized in the media for not being ladylike - Chastain in 1999 for doing something men do all the time after a victory, ripping off her sweaty jersey - Michelle Obama nearly a decade later for wearing sleeveless dresses that showed off her buff arms. But in recent years, ladylike has been reappropriated by marketers to mean strong and sporty.
SARAH BANET-WEISER: That notion that we should be strong and that our own self-empowerment comes from strength is trending, if you will.
MERAJI: Sarah Banet-Weiser teaches and researches feminist theory at the University of Southern California and is writing a book about pop empowerment feminism. A girl no longer has to wait for the Women's World Cup for inspiration now. She can go to YouTube and watch a Chevy ad celebrating Mo'ne Davis, the 13-year-old who pitched a shutout in this year's Little League World Series.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEVY AD)
MO'NE: I have a passion for sports. Every day of the week, I'm playing soccer, basketball or baseball.
MERAJI: Another pro sporty girl marketing campaign is from the feminine product company Always. It features girls and young women proclaiming running, fighting and throwing like a girl is a good thing.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALWAYS AD)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes, I kick like a girl, and I swim like a girl, and I walk like a girl, and I wake up in the morning like a girl because I am a girl. And that's not something that I should be ashamed of.
MERAJI: Sarah Banet-Weiser says some of the ads make her tear up, but then she has to remind herself that we're using the female physique to sell stuff, and there's still an ideal body out there women have to live up to. Yeah, it may include more muscle tone from team sports or CrossFit, but there's an unspoken rule that if you go too far and bulk up, you're no longer ladylike.
BANET-WEISER: If we're emphasizing being fit and being healthy and playing sports, I think that's a good thing. But I think that it's - we can't just say we're in a better place. We're in a different place, and we have different things to work on.
MERAJI: Back at CrossFit Ganbatte in Los Angeles, coach Kristin Winn is warming up to train the next group of CrossFitters. She says she's well aware that reframing the focus to physical strength over looks is a work in progress.
WINN: You can be an Olympic swimmer. You can be an Olympic marathoner. You can be Serena Williams, and the first thing people are going to talk about is how you looked in your outfit when you were winning your grand slam.
MERAJI: Winn says she's glad she's living a fit lifestyle in 2014 because a big part of her job as a coach involves encouraging other women to count push-ups, not calories.
WINN: And I don't know that that would've been true 15, 20 years ago.
MERAJI: Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News.
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