For women frustrated by our culture’s intimidating standards of beauty and sexiness epitomized by say, the Victoria’s Secret Angels, the good news is that there is a new feminine body image ideal in town—and it belongs to Ronda Rousey.
It’s been a big summer for the mixed martial arts champ Rousey. In June she appeared in a romantic role playing herself in the Entourage movie. That wasn’t her first film—Rousey had previously appeared on the big screen alongside heavyweight action stars in The Expendables 3 and Furious 7, and is now apparently slated to star in a movie version of her autobiography, My Fight/Your Fight.
Fresh off that Entourage appearance, in July she scored ESPY awards for Best Female Athlete and Best Fighter (in a category that included four male nominees). A few days after that, she put down her trash-talking UFC opponent Bethe Correia in a mere 34 seconds to retain her women’s bantamweight title. That’s par for the course (if I may mix my sports metaphors) for the undefeated Rousey, who routinely forces her opponents into submission in less than the first minute of the first round, and who owns the record for the shortest match (14 seconds) in UFC championship history.
But the most significant and unexpected development came this Tuesday when it was announced that she would be the next model to spice up a Carl’s Jr. burger commercial. The fast-food chain is known for its sexed-up ads featuring barely-clad supermodels dripping hot sauce as they indulge orgasmically in a burger. Previous models have included Jessica Simpson, Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian, Emily Ratajkowski of “Blurred Lines” infamy, Kate Upton, and Charlotte “the new Kate Upton” McKinney—all sex symbols in the traditional vein.
The choice of Rousey signals not only an interesting change of direction for Carl’s Jr., but also an acknowledgement of a new standard for female sexiness. The kickass Rousey is no mere sex kitten. Her intimidating physical power and animal intensity, combined with a disarming grin and wavy blonde mane, are making her the face (and body) of a new kind of sex symbol.
They earned her, for example, the cover of ESPN the Magazine’s The Body Issue 2012, in which she posed discreetly nude, as well as an appearance in the 2015 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. For the latter, the 5’7”, 135-lb. Rousey actually gained weight intentionally—no doubt a first for an SI model—because “at 150 pounds, I feel like I’m at my healthiest and my strongest and my most beautiful.”
She may carry herself with a pantherish confidence now, but in a Cosmopolitan interview last month, Rousey revealed that she once had her own body image issues:
I grew up thinking that because my body type was uncommon [i.e., athletic], it was a bad thing. Now that I’m older, I’ve really begun to realize that I’m really proud that my body has developed for a purpose and not just to be looked at.
Rousey elaborated on this a little more explicitly when she countered critics recently who called her too “masculine”:
I have this one term for the kind of woman my mother raised me to not be, and I call it a do-nothing b*tch. A DNB. The kind of chick that just tries to be pretty and be taken care of by someone else. That’s why I think it’s hilarious if [someone thinks] my body looks masculine or something like that.
Listen, just because my body was developed for a purpose other than f*cking millionaires doesn’t mean it’s masculine. I think it’s femininely badass as f*ck because there’s not a single muscle on my body that isn’t for a purpose, because I’m not a do-nothing b*tch. It’s not very eloquently said but it’s to the point and maybe that’s just what I am. I’m not that eloquent, but I’m to the point.
Yahoo! Beauty editor Bobbi Brown was bowled over enough by Rousey to call her “the new face of beauty.” In an interview with Rousey, Brown gushed,
I saw this beautiful picture of you and it stopped me because you were in a bathing suit and you have the most beautiful strong body. Before I even knew who you were I said, “Oh my god this is the new face of beauty.”
“We are trying to push strong as the new sexy as much as possible,” Rousey replied.
Indeed, and it’s working. Ronda Rousey and other star athletes like Serena Williams and skier Lindsey Vonn (both of whom Rousey beat out for the ESPY this year) are proving that strength is sexy in men and women. They’re helping to free women from the media’s expectation (demand, really) that their bodies are merely to be looked at. They’re inspiring women to aim for a healthy new ideal. Most women can’t strive to meet the body standard of a genetic lottery winner and professional mannequin like Gisele Bundchen, but they can strive to be strong and purposeful and to adopt a winner’s perseverance. In other words, they can strive, like Ronda Rousey, to be “femininely badass.”