Body fat part 4: Philosophical thoughts on body fat

June 22nd, 2008  |  Published in Why eat (or not)  |  12 Comments

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.

Responses

  1. Robyn says:

    February 12th, 2009at 3:44 pm(#)

    Hi there,

    I have to say I really love the way you treated this article. As a woman who has had her moments struggling with body image, I must say I wish I had seen this article earlier. It does a great job of dispelling myths about ‘fatness’. Another issue you may have wanted to include is the notion of ‘fatphobia’ perpetuated through the media as well as medical, educational, and governmental institutions.

    As you said, context is everything. Considering that, then, perhaps you could have made a note that these ideologies regarding bodies and fatness in particular are culturally and historically specific to contemporary Western society. That said, we can take a look at how our society creates the circumstances by which many people become obese (e.g. making Coke cheaper than juice, creating suburbs where walking to a destination is impractical, raising prices of fresh produce and lowering prices of pizza pops and microwave dinners, building fast-food chains on every other corner, installing vending machines in schools, and generally pumping our diet full of terrible shit) while simultaneously condemning them for it and upholding a ridiculous beauty ideal.

    As you mentioned, our environment is created with a particular idea about bodies. to go a little further, then, our bodies are constituted as a result of this organization of space. But it’s not just about architecture or stairways. Socioeconomic status, ethnicity, and other identity markers come into play to create a complex web of factors that are negotiated in relation to the hegemonic norms of the time.

    If you’d like to talk more about this or anything else, please get back to me.This is my first time visiting your site, but it won’t be my last! All the best.

  2. Mistress Krista says:

    February 12th, 2009at 4:24 pm(#)

    Hey Robyn, check out my article on fatness and feminist knowledge in the Sociology of Sport Journal (vol 25 issue 1):
    http://www.humankinetics.com/SSJ/viewbio.cfm?jid=28gnXJgG72faFgjY84ffHd2F27tgPcr777mjT23r&auid=6105185&site=28gnXJgG72faFgjY84ffHd2F27tgPcr777mjT23r
    I address many of these themes.

  3. Elizabeth says:

    February 18th, 2009at 4:00 pm(#)

    This piece hints at a problem I’ve seen lately — people going too far in the opposite direction and declaring that weight loss should only be undertaken for “correct” reasons. If you’re going to eat well and exercise, they say, it must be for health reasons alone, and weight loss should be nothing but an irrelevant side effect. To care at all about how it makes you look is to betray the women’s movement, or something. I’ve seen women admit to starting workout programs with actual embarrassment, always following up the shameful confession with “but I’m not doing it to lose weight, I’m doing it for my health.”

    This annoys me because, as you put it, losing body fat shouldn’t be morally different from getting a haircut — which means it isn’t virtuous, but it isn’t shameful either. We shouldn’t have to make disclaimers about our intentions.

    Then again, maybe I’m a little defensive because my main motive is to look better in jeans. Hey, if vanity keeps me going to the gym, it can’t be all bad, right?

  4. G says:

    February 20th, 2009at 5:26 pm(#)

    I have been maintaining a 50 pound weight loss for a while now. I started out in August 2007 at about 190, at 5’7. I began eating only natural foods, completely cut out fast food PERIOD, and made sure I ate enough times during the day so I wasn’t starving myself. I’m a vegetarian who eats dairy and occasionally eats fish.I also did light workouts and lots of yoga (my favorite). I was stunned at some family comments I received… “you’re too thin” “why are you doing this?” “you need to stop losing weight”. I live in Houston, supposedly one of the fattest cities. I don’t look abnormal. I weigh 138 right now and have for quite some time. It seems that the people in my life who are in their late 40s, 50s,+, LIKED me heavier, and seem to enjoy-or accept-being heavy themselves(despite problems like diabetes, achy joints,hypertension, etc). It was completely the opposite of what I was expecting. It was becoming embarrassing at gatherings when people would make a big deal about it. I thought I was alone in people acting weird towards the person who’s lost weight, but it’s nice to see I’m not. I really like this site. I especially enjoy the foods list. I’m someone who likes to really study nutrients and our body’s processes in using them. Do you think that stigmas associated with losing weight can sometimes be regional??

  5. Mistress Krista says:

    February 20th, 2009at 10:41 pm(#)

    Absolutely — people are uncomfortable with things that are different, whether that’s family norms, local norms, cultural norms, whatever. And when YOU change, people around you may interpret it as a comment on THEM. You may enjoy this piece:
    http://www.stumptuous.com/we-hate-her

  6. Monique says:

    March 9th, 2009at 12:57 pm(#)

    Hi, I love your site. I just started going to the gym last week. This is the first time I’ve been serious about fitness since I stopped gymnastics at 13. I have given birth to 4 children.I’m 25 5’4 and weigh 163.I’m trying to keep this short but that might not be possible. I live in Mississippi, and personal trainers in this area are kind of sad and don’t really know what the hell they are talking about. I am extremely serious about getting strong and losing excess fat, but at the same time I want to keep some of my softness, if that makes sense.Any tips?

  7. Mistress Krista says:

    March 10th, 2009at 5:40 am(#)

    Don’t worry about how things will turn out. Just get into really good shape and the rest will take care of itself. And read the rest of this site!

  8. Tiffany says:

    March 11th, 2009at 7:49 pm(#)

    Hello,

    I really liked the comparison between getting a hair cut and losing fat. It really makes me realize that I shouldn’t take it so seriously when I gain a little and feel like the world will come to an end. Sometimes I go waaaaay too long without a hair cut, but it can still be cut after all. If I can gain the weight, then surely I can lose it, you would think a full time yoyo dieter like myself would realize that after so many ups and downs.

    I am what most will consider “thinish” and so I am criticized if I mention the word fat and most annoyingly “work out”. I have mentioned to more than one person that I would like to get back in the gym and get into shape and they honestly said “but you don’t need to work out.” WTF?! Everyone needs to excersize their body! I really feel like giving them a little wake up slap in the face for saying something so ridiculous!

    Anyway, thanks for the insight!

    Tiff

  9. Rebecca Knight says:

    April 7th, 2009at 6:21 pm(#)

    Hi, there,

    I loved the comparisons in these articles between someone who loses bodyfat and maintains more LBM and someone who gets “skinny fat” and loses muscle. That’s what I love about this site–instead of lying to us about “toning” and saying we should all look like Paris Hilton, we are learning to be strong and pare down excess body fat the smart way (if we want to, that is!)

    Has anyone else ever seen one of those stick-thin models turn around and seen lumpy bumps on their bikini-clad back ends? This is why we do squats. So we don’t look like those “thin” people ;).

    -Becca

  10. A says:

    December 12th, 2009at 7:31 pm(#)

    Why do I keep seeing so many comments about cellulite on this web site? It’s a real let-down to try and read something about womens’ bodies in terms of how strong, healthy, well-functioning etc they are and then see all the snide comments about lumpy thighs.

  11. D says:

    January 5th, 2010at 12:57 am(#)

    In response to G who said “It seems that the people in my life who are in their late 40s, 50s,+, LIKED me heavier, and seem to enjoy-or accept-being heavy themselves(despite problems like diabetes, achy joints,hypertension, etc). It was completely the opposite of what I was expecting.”

    I know exactly what you are talking about. Over the last year I’ve lost about 20lbs, unintentionally, just through better eating and weight training. I’ve been low-key about it– its been a natural evolution. My very overweight mom, has been not supportive. She even goes so far as to openly mock me when I choose healthier foods while visiting her, as though I were making a superior moral choice and decrying her lack of ethics.

    However, my dad (also fat), complimented me on it, said he was proud, etc.

    The way I rationalize it is that my mom has had to “own” her fatness. When you are fat and a woman, you’re not an individual you’re a “fat woman”– defective sexual goods in the eyes of society. So what do you do with that? You either hate yourself, or own that identity. There doesn’t seem to be a rational third choice if you are going to believe that you are a “fat woman” not a woman who is fat. So, you challenge the assumption of fat woman=defective rather than rejecting the whole premise as absurd and sexist. From that you get online fat support groups, where bloggers have to apologize and say with shame that they are saving their lives by having gastric-bypass.

    Loosing weight, in my mom’s eyes, is a rejection of her and part of the identity she has created for her self.

    In reality, I’d just prefer the salad, thanks.

    (and thanks stumptuous for being a sounding board for some post-holiday-family gathering stress)

  12. Mistress Krista says:

    January 5th, 2010at 6:06 am(#)

    D: A very insightful and compassionate take on the subject. Have you read Steve Hayes’ material?
    http://bigthink.com/stevenhayes/ideas
    I just listened to a couple of podcasts he did with the nutrition folks at Yale U. It’s about halfway down the page here:
    http://www.yaleruddcenter.org/podcasts.aspx

    He talks about the ways in which we must face and endure discomfort, in a compassionate and curious way, in order to make changes in our lives. In order to make change we must confront a great deal of discomfort (physical and psychological), and the source of that discomfort has been with us probably our entire lives. For most people the discomfort is simply too much to bear, or they have not been adequately prepared or supported in dealing with it. When others around us change, it also prompts that discomfort.

    Your point about the binary is a great one. To me, any community of “support” is dangerous when it polices identities and choices. When a person feels shame around making choices that they feel avoid death or improve quality of life, that says that their “support” community isn’t really very supportive.

    There seems to be no “good” (i.e. culturally approved yet also psychically healthy) way to say/feel that one would like to change one’s body AND that one has the power to do so in a non-destructive fashion. In a sense, coming to terms with this identity is a necessary step, but the question is where do we go from there? The danger of owning this identity in a culturally defiant way is that then one often forecloses the possibility of modifying it — and also that one cannot tolerate modification/change from one’s environment, including other people.

    The way through appears (in my experience) to be to understand the physiological basis of why we are who and what we are, and that while the picture is complex, we have a lot of potential for self-determination. If we understand ourselves as making “survival choices” in a certain environment, and being configured to respond in a certain way given certain conditions, BUT also having the power to revise those choices and conditions, and understanding this all with “compassionate curiosity”, then we can spend a lot less time being angry and anxious.


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