So now we’re at the part you knew I would get to, what with being an academic and all. In our culture, body fat is associated with particular meanings, many of them negative. You may be asking, “Krista, why are you talking about fat on a woman-positive site? Aren’t we supposed to, y’know, be freeing ourselves from the beauty myth and all that?”
Yes! Of course. And I get pissed off as hell with people and social institutions telling me how I should look.
But we also have to live in a society where there is substantial negative reinforcement for excess body fat, as well as quite real potential health consequences from carrying around a lot of additional fat. Social space is organized around particular types of bodies: bodies that can climb stairs, bodies that can see and hear well, bodies that are a certain size and shape. We have to balance a lot of competing demands and figure out what’s best for us, based on our own needs. Let me outline my approach to this a bit more in depth.
1. Fat is a relationship, not a thing.
Well, body fat is indeed a thing: as I mentioned in part 1, fat is a substance with a definable structure and properties. But it’s more than that. For women (and many men), the idea of “fat” creates a relationship between how we perceive ourselves and how we interact with the world around us. So, an 80-lb. anorexic sees herself as “fat”, an average-sized 150 lb. woman sees herself as “fat”, and a 300 lb. woman sees herself as “fat”. When bodybuilders are on stage, and they aren’t lean enough, someone will invariably say, “S/he’s fat”, which doesn’t mean, “That person resembles a premenstrual walrus”, but rather, “That person has failed to meet the aesthetic and body composition requirements of this activity”. In other words, context is everything.
What we call “fat” is socially defined, and may have little basis in what is “really” fat. I think this point is important to recognize because it indicates how arbitrary our judgements can be about what is fat, and how we value fat in ourselves and others. Fat, then, becomes a dynamic between us and our culture, rather than a possession that we have or do not have.
2. Separate body fat from value.
It’s pretty clear that fat = bad in our culture. What I’m suggesting is that we re-think the inherent value we give to fat, and understand it instead as something which is important to have in the right quantities. Some people are tall, some people are short, some have brown eyes, some have blue eyes, some people have more body fat, and some people have less body fat. That’s the way it is. Ideally body fat should have no more positive or negative associations than other indicators of health and fitness.
Having more body fat should not be correlated with stupidity, laziness, slovenliness, etc. Rather, body fat should be viewed as merely another physical feature which varies individually. If you choose to reduce your body fat, don’t view it as a moral issue. Think of it like a haircut or clipping your toenails: you’re simply decreasing the amount of a physiological component, not embarking on a religious crusade. Knowing your body fat should be like knowing your shoe size. It’s just a number. If you want to change that number, go ahead and do it. But you’re not a better person if you’re X% rather than Y%.
3. To build on #2, people have naturally varying levels of body fat.
Human biodiversity is normal and desirable. Assuming that naturally skinny people are inherently healthier and fitter is a mistake.
While there is a healthy range of body fat levels, above or below which is associated with negative health consequences, it is a range, not a single number. Some women may look and feel cruddy at 15%, while others may be happy and healthy. Same with 30%. Body fat is not the only variable of fitness or health, and there are many women with much higher body fat levels than me who can outlift me, outrun me, and generally kick my ass.
Each person ideally has a level of body fat which is appropriate to their genetics, gender, age, training goals, and general state of health. Fitness and fatness are not incompatible.
4. Don’t participate in fat-negative behaviour.
I know of parents who put healthy, growing children on diets or force them to do exercise (I don’t mean fun exercise, I mean deliberate anti-fat, post-meal aerobic type exercise) so that their tiny tots will not suffer the horror of excess adipose tissue. Forcing your child to preventively diet and exercise is probably the surest way to make sure they have messed up eating habits and body image for life. Don’t tie acceptance of a person to their body fat levels. I’ve met some lean people who were unbelievably dysfunctional about their health and their bodies in general. And spare me all the excuses about how it’s okay to crap on people with more body fat because we’re biologically inclined to prefer slenderness. That’s just a little too close to saying it’s okay to exterminate people who aren’t genetically ideal. It’s not okay to bash people because of a physiological feature, and it’s not okay to participate in paranoia about body fat with someone who is vulnerable.
5. You can both critique the health problems associated with excess body fat, and be positive about each person’s right to control their own body.
Separate these two issues. I don’t like many of the options for hormonally based contraception, but I would never tell another woman that she shouldn’t choose it for herself. I prefer to keep my body fat a bit lower than the average, and that is my choice. My female training partners have ranged in body fat from 18% to 29%, and all have been active, healthy women who were quite satisfied where they were.
6. It is irrefutable that higher levels of body fat, above a particular range, and particularly visceral fat (aka deep tummy fat) are clearly correlated with health problems: joint pain, Type II diabetes and insulin resistance, breathing difficulties, etc.
However there are many other things which are correlated with health problems: drinking to excess, smoking, inactivity, stress, getting dealt a crappy hand in the genetic poker game, and so on. Body fat is one variable of many.
- Excess body fat can indeed signify inactivity, poor nutrition, eating problems, and underlying medical conditions such as polycystic ovarian syndrome or insulin resistance.
- Excess body weight can put mechanical stress on tissues (such as spine and knees), and is directly responsible for some medical conditions such as sleep apnea. There’s just more “stuff” there that compresses things.
- Body fat secretes hormones and cell signals, and participates actively in the body’s hormonal environment. Excess body fat changes your biochemistry.
But body fat in and of itself does not necessarily cause all the health problems; rather, poor nutrition and lifestyle habits, and lack of adequate activity are also major culprits.
7. You are not a prisoner of your body fat.
Fat has no inherent value other than what we attach to it. You are a prisoner of your mind and spirit. If you feel imprisoned by your body fat, look deeper to examine the issues which you have that are associated with it. And don’t give your body fat the status of a sentient being. You have control, to some degree, over your body composition.
While the end range of what you can achieve is limited by your genetics, nearly everyone without some bizarre metabolic disorder can achieve and maintain a level of body fat which is healthy and ideal for them. I don’t mean this to get all individualist here, because we should certainly continue to be critical of the bullshit social ideal of thinness which we’re all supposed to emulate, but you have the power to enable your body to make positive changes.
8. Everything has its place.
Body fat is there for a reason. You need it. It does good things for you. It enables your reproductive system to be functional, it helps regulate hormones, and it serves as an indicator of “body happiness” (to your body, excessive leanness = starvation = stress = bad). It makes you lovely and curvy, makes it comfortable to sit, makes it nice for someone to snuggle you (nobody wants to hug a xylophone). It’s an important part of your body, so give it its due.