Forget the thigh gap. Now it’s all about the ab crack. Strong has replaced skinny as the new body shape – is this a step forward for women, or another unhealthy obsession?
Megan Prescott, 25, had been working out for several months when her “ab crack” finally appeared. An ab crack is a vertical dent that runs down the middle of the stomach and is only evident in extremely toned bodies. It is accompanied in most cases by a six-pack, and has superseded the “thigh gap” as the latest obsession among young women.
“I like my abs,” says Prescott, lifting her T-shirt to reveal a clutch of brown muscles. That’s definitely an ab crack, I say. “I hope so,” she replies, running her fingers down the prized hollow. What does she like about it? “I just like looking strong,” she replies, “like I can do stuff.”
There has been a momentous shift in thinking about women’s bodies. The Eighties were all about long legs, championed by supermodels Elle Macpherson and Linda Evangelista. The Nineties were the decade of cleavage, popularised by Eva Herzigová in the 1994 Wonderbra ad. Kate Moss expressed the ethos of the waif, with her incredibly thin, boyish body. In the Noughties, magazines were awash with articles on how to get “thin thighs”. The ab crack reflects our present moment. A time characterised by personal trainers, boot camps, detoxification, organic produce, Instagram and Facebook.
Women have got fed up with starving themselves to a size zero. Fold in the 2012 Olympics and such role models as Jessica Ennis-Hill and you have a surge in muscly women. “Strong is Sexy” proclaimed the recent cover of Self magazine, on which Serena Williams showcased her six-pack in a crop top and tiny shorts. Beyoncé, a figure of powerful sexual allure, doesn’t only promote strength in her lyrics – “I bought my own diamonds and I bought my own rings” – but in her muscular and “bootylicious” body. Jennifer Lopez is always being papped flaunting her killer abs.
One in seven people in the UK is a member of a gym, according to a May 2016 Leisure Database Company report, a rise of 5.3 per cent on the previous 12 months. But nowhere is the pursuit of toned abs more apparent, the belief that “strong is the new skinny” more prevalent, than on social media.
Kayla Itsines, a 25-year-old personal trainer from Australia, has become a one-woman fitness phenomenon through her £12 per month Sweat with Kayla app and her £44 Bikini Body Guide Workouts book. Itsines has 5.7 million Instagram followers, and promotes the idea that a flat stomach boosts your confidence. Her followers post before-and-after gym selfies with crop tops and impressive thighs and such comments on her excruciating workouts as, “Now I’m actually dead.”
Working out is also embedded in Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign. Launched last January as a drive to get women and girls exercising, it features motivating images of females hard at a variety of sports, with slogans such as “Sweating like a pig, feeling like a fox” and “I kick balls. Deal with it”.
Iris van Rosenburgh, 20, is reading pharmacology at Cambridge University, where she belongs to the powerlifting club. It helps her “release aggression”, she says, alleviates pressure and leads to a happier life studying. She has seen women members increase from three to ten over two years. Men still dominate, with 50 members. But still, van Rosenburgh, who can deadlift nearly twice her body weight, talks convincingly of power. “Most women don’t join necessarily for the effect on body image and confidence, but that ends up being a side-effect. You are not so worried about whether you’re skinny enough or whatever. You are just like, well, I can lift 105kg, so there.”
Lilly Hunt, 25, also destroys the notion that young women aren’t strong. Having studied molecular genetics at University College London, she is now in the fourth year of her PhD in developmental genetics. She argues that strength is the next step in the fight for gender equality. And she is making this step in areas dominated by men. She plays rugby and does parkour, a sport in which participants vault and jump from walls and buildings. She spends her holidays testing equipment for Ninja Warrior, the TV series where competitors attempt to complete obstacle courses of increasing difficulty.
We meet at the Arch, a climbing wall in Bermondsey, south London, a windowless room with club music pumping from a sound system. Hunt whips up the wall with finger-breaking velocity, a climb made all the more impressive because she had challenged herself to do it without the use of her feet.
“At school the ideal was to be slim, and I was lucky to be skinny, but I don’t think that is the right way of thinking about it now. I was fine with being skinny, but I love the fact that I am strong,” she says.
“There are so many skinny women who have flat stomachs, and that is fabulous if that’s what they want. But when I look at a woman who’s got, say, a six-pack, I appreciate the work, the effort that has gone into that,” she explains. “When you’ve got someone like Jessica Ennis-Hill, who is not only muscular but is achieving and inspiring people, how can you be negative about her body image? Women think they are going to turn into Arnold Schwarzenegger, but they never will.”
But not everyone approves. For Chloe Madeley, 29, the daughter of Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan, weight training helped allay the anxiety that threatened to overtake her when she was in her early twenties. “It makes you feel mentally and physically strong, capable, determined, accomplished, focused – all of these big buzzwords,” she says. It has given her a career – she qualified as a personal trainer and launched an app, Weights 4 Women, fitness plans, supplements and a forthcoming clothing range. She also has an ab crack. “It’s called a linea alba and I love it, because it shows how hard I’ve worked.”
But she has also been bitched about on Twitter. “When I do a big photoshoot, I get hundreds of tweets.” And a sizeable proportion – 50 per cent – are abusive. “They say things like, ‘You look like a man. This isn’t attractive. It’s disgusting.’ And they are mainly from women, which is really depressing.”
She says her critics are out of touch. “My mother [TV presenter Judy Finnigan], for example, doesn’t like the way I want my body to look. She doesn’t understand it. But fashion is changing. Because of social media and Instagram, women are becoming inspired by other women’s bodies. Social media has lifted the veil on the different options that are available aesthetically.”
Others argue that the problem isn’t the muscle, it’s the whole “strong is the new skinny” phenomenon. “It can work to make women feel worse about their own bodies,” says Professor Marika Tiggemann of the School of Psychology at Flinders University, Australia, co-author of the paper Exercise to Be Fit, Not Skinny: the Effect of Fitspiration Imagery on Women’s Body Image. “Not only are women not thin enough, they are not fit enough either,” she says. “Social media gives the opportunity for lots of social comparison, which has been shown to be bad for body image.” Digital fitness, she says, reinforces “yet another ideal that women can fail to live up to”.
In 2012, Xavier Di Petta was a 16-year-old computer geek in rural Australia, playing around with coding, creating simple apps from his bedroom. He wanted to make a picture application. “I was on Tumblr, and lots of photos popped up centred around ‘fitspiration’.”
Nowhere is the belief that ‘strong is the new skinny’ more prevalent than on social media
The word fitspiration (or fitspo) was originally used as an antidote to “thinspiration” or “thinspo”, which had the unhealthy objective of helping women to get super-thin. “Fitspiration was more about leading a healthy lifestyle, not just to look good,” he says. “It wasn’t about being the biggest fitness buff you could be, but incorporating fitness into your lifestyle.”
Having registered the name, within 24 hours he had created the first fitspiration app, a compilation of images and posts, food and workout tips and recipes. He paid Facebook $20 a time to advertise the app on various healthy living pages. It got around 40,000 paid downloads over six months, earning Di Petta around $40,000 (£32,700). Then he withdrew the app with a view to refreshing it, but school and other business ventures intervened. In 2014 Di Petta featured in the TimesTop 25 under 20 New Icons of a Generation. He now lives in Los Angeles.
Fitspiration, meanwhile, has boomed through apps, blogs, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, often with healthy meals, selfies, inspirational quotes and motivational images urging women to try rock climbing, do a handstand, run a marathon or reach some other extreme fitness goal.
It has spread through hashtags such as #SWEAT, #superfoods, #motivation, #skinnytofit. And through such slogans as “Excuses don’t burn calories”; “If you’re tired of starting over then stop giving up”: “What do you want to be this summer? Fit or jealous?” According to Instagram, there have been nearly 9.5 million posts using the hashtag #fitspiration.
“You have bloggers, on-demand channels, trackers, wearables, apps, and many of them are now picking up on the fact that, for women, strong is good,” says David Minton, director of the Leisure Database Company. “It’s just in the new vocabulary.”
Global brands have seized the opportunity. Nike, adidas, Vans, Converse, Puma, Under Armour and New Balance have all seen up to 252 per cent growth in their Instagram followers in the past year. But companies don’t only use their own pages to promote their brand. They also market through “third-party outlets”. The woman blogger sharing workout tips may not simply be an enthusiast. There is often a Nike swoosh, for example, somewhere in the picture.
“My biggest worry with [fitness] apps is that when young girls use them they often think that is an ideal they have to achieve, and that can be really damaging,” says Annaleise Depper, a PhD student at the University of Bath and co-author of the paper Are We Fit Yet? English Adolescent Girls’ Experiences of Health and Fitness Apps.
“The slogans can be useful or not depending on what they are,” believes Marika Tiggemann. “But some of them, eg, ‘Puking is acceptable, stopping is not,’ encourage excessive, perfectionist and obsessive behaviours and can be quite harmful.”
Others report that some online fitness regimes are just plain silly. “There are a lot of one-month, two-month ab challenges and with some of them, I think, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of sit-ups to do in any timeframe.’ It’s totally unrealistic,” says Lilly Hunt.
But Di Petta believes that social media has brought strength training to the mainstream. “Previously, the only people really talking about it online were those who were very into fitness culture, gym gatherings and the supplement world. Social media has allowed everyone to participate and now it’s cool to post photos of yourself at the gym, to talk about squatting and make jokes about lifting. Before, no one was really doing that.”
The upshot is that bodybuilding is the new exercise trend among young women. Comprising resistance training with a very specific diet that results in extreme muscle development, bodybuilding has been a widespread men’s sport since the Forties. There were women who competed in these early events, but it really opened up when the International Federation of Bodybuilding introduced the “bikini fitness” category in the UK in 2010. “Bikini” describes a look that is “realistically toned” rather than excessively muscled. Fifteen women competed in the British finals in 2011; last year there were more than 900 (including 13 in the junior bikini fitness category for 16 to 23-year-olds).
Megan Prescott, best known as Katie Finch, the loudmouthed twin in the television drama Skins, started weight training in her early twenties and progressed to bodybuilding two years ago. “I wasn’t happy with my body. I am quite straight, boyish, and I wanted a more feminine shape. My trainer said you can’t change your bones; you have a wide waist. But you can create the illusion of an hourglass by building up your shoulders and legs.”
She had believed that running was the answer. “I suddenly realised that if you run and lose fat but have no muscle, you are still not going to look good. Running not only messed up my knees, but I made myself miserable and I looked awful.”
Anyway, she worked on her shoulders, abs, legs and so forth and was persuaded to enter a UK Bodybuilding and Fitness Federation (UKBFF) bikini qualifying event in May, where, to her surprise, she came second. With another competition coming up fast, she trains twice a day five days a week, and once on the sixth day. And she’s on a strict diet. “I’ve done the muscle building, now I’m in the shredding stage – getting the fat off from around the muscle, to show how much you’ve built,” she explains.
For ten weeks (and previously for 20 weeks before the qualifier) she’s been subsisting on rice, chicken, vegetables, oats and eggs. No sugar, bread, alcohol or dairy – although she is permitted an apple and a banana a day. And a protein shake. Occasionally, if she’s on the verge of collapse, she has a teaspoon of almond butter. “Sometimes I’ll text my trainer and say, ‘I’m dying here. I don’t have the energy to drive home.’ He’ll be like, ‘Eat a banana and one square of 90 per cent chocolate.’ He knows his stuff.”
She says her boyfriend, who runs a property company, is “understanding” and has embraced her fitness programme, despite not sharing the same meal for more than two months. It fell to her mum and her grandparents to express concern. “They were like, be careful, don’t get too big,” she reports. But she says her grandfather changed his mind when he saw her on stage at the qualifiers, in her red velvet bikini embellished with Swarovski crystals. “He said, ‘You look extremely feminine.’ ”
Competing also necessitates rigorous “water manipulation”: basically, drinking huge amounts the week before – six or seven litres a day – and reducing it to very little as the day nears, with just sips on the actual day. Muscles are showcased to best advantage in a dehydrated body.
The bikini girls’ bums are so well defined, like two circles. I want the two-circle bum
“This is not an attainable physique,” she admits. “Or rather, you could get that body, but only for one day. As soon as you drink water and give the body the nutrition it needs you go back to looking normal.” As with Cinderella, the transformation is short-lived.
Breasts (mainly fat) tend to disappear. “You are probably going to lose your boobs,” she says. Not that it matters when you can have breast implants. “But your bum is a muscle. And when I finish this competition, my aim is to build a bum,” she says. “You see some of the bikini girls and their bums literally look like two circles, like completely defined. It looks amazing! I want the two-circle bum.”
Holly Fallon, 28, started bodybuilding about a year ago. She likes feeling like an athlete (“The way you can manipulate your body through diet and training is fascinating”), the transformation in her body and the surprise when people learn she’s a lawyer. She works for Browne Jacobson in Manchester, where she specialises in commercial property. “People in professional jobs tend to run marathons or triathlons, so it is quite unusual,” she admits. “But it [bodybuilding] is becoming more popular. I’ve met women who are teachers and one competitor was a scientist.”
The turning point was returning from a trip to the US in 2014, where for the previous four weeks she’d consumed almost exclusively beer, burgers and fries. “I felt heavy, just very uncomfortable. And the more unhappy I felt, the more I wanted to eat.”
She decided to join a gym where, among the weights, mirrors and kettlebells, she felt “pretty intimidated”. She hired a trainer, lost weight, toned up and developed a gym habit.
The move to bodybuilding came last May. At her first competition, she anticipated orange-coloured she-hulks, but discovered “nice hair, make-up, beautiful bikinis and gorgeous hourglass figures – broad shoulders, nipped-in waist, rounded glutes, defined thighs. Just a strong, feminine look.”
She competed in the UKBFF ZKK Classic Championships in July. “It was nerve-racking. I used to be very shy, and to stand up on stage in front of a couple of hundred people in a bikini goes against everything. But I got a massive buzz from it. I just loved it.”
When we meet she is “off season” and eating more. A fact that is ignored by the anorexics. “The bikini side of bodybuilding can be known to attract people with eating disorders, because it’s a way of controlling your diet. And that’s fine if you’re prepping for a show. But you see girls who won’t up their calories between competitions. They stay the same year on year.”
Women on Twitter will say things like, ‘You look like a man. It’s disgusting’
Donna Gittings, 31, is a student nurse from Worcestershire. “I started going to the gym to lose my baby weight after I had my son eight years ago. Then it became an obsession. I cut back on food. I’d weigh myself constantly.” She used to take laxatives to keep weight off. “I had a really bad attitude. Then I met my partner, who is a bodybuilder, and he got me into weights. I changed from wanting to be skinny to wanting to be muscular.”
She started competing, working up through the ranks: bikini fitness; body fitness; ladies athletic. “I have quite an addictive personality.” Steroids have replaced laxatives. “It’s mainly to retain the muscle when I diet before competitions. The first time, I noticed I was very vascular, my voice got slightly deeper and my skin was slightly greasier.”
Her aim is to get even bigger.
The ab crack regime, by Matt Roberts
As personal trainer Matt Roberts tells it, the ab crack is one of the hardest physical features to achieve. You need to have extremely low body fat. It’s all about getting as lean as possible, so lean that there is nothing there to disturb those abdominal muscles popping out. For an averagely fit person to get one – and keep it – they would need to follow this routine five days a week.
Wake up early and go straight into starvation cardio: a jog, bike ride or fast walk before eating anything. The body will have low blood sugar and will have to break down fat to keep going.
Breakfast should be protein-based – a bowl of porridge or two poached eggs and a slice of rye. No butter. No juice.
After breakfast, engage in some extremely high-intensity interval training. Exert yourself beyond your comfort zone – way beyond it. For example, do uphill sprinting, recovering with bursts of walking in between. Or swim two lengths of a swimming pool at full speed, standing and resting for a minute and then repeating. You should be pushing yourself so hard that you can’t do more than 45 seconds before having to break. Repeat at least six times.
By forcing your body to really engage, your heat levels will be dramatically higher and you will burn huge amounts of calories.
Follow this with resistance training. One day, do the heaviest weights you can lift, using all your biggest muscles – thighs, hamstrings, butt, chest, back. Using these muscles eats up the most calories. The heavier you lift, the more of a wake-up call it is for the muscles, so you burn even more calories throughout the day. Do 5-7 sets of 5-7 reps.
The next day do moderate weight resistance, such as circuit training at the gym. Alternate between extreme and moderate resistance daily.
As for diet, cut out alcohol and remove refined sugars completely (no white bread). About one third of your diet should be protein-based – lean cuts of meat, such as chicken breast, or white fish and eggs. About 25 per cent should be good fats such as avocados and nuts and the rest complex carbohydrates, such as beans, peas and brown rice.
Hair and make-up Lauren Alice at Mandy Coakley Represents using Mac Cosmetics and Bumble and Bumble. Picture two Lilly Hunt wears crop top, £30, ivy park (net-a-porter.com); leggings, £40, Stella Sport (stellamccartney.com); trainers, £76.99, Nike (store.nike.com). All other clothes, subects’ own