I have grown weary of the cult of low body fat

Yesterday, Sam of Fit, Feminist and (Almost) Fifty posted a link about thermogenesis that really frustrated me.  Now, it’s nothing to do with anything Sam said, or even what Matt Stone – the author of the link – wrote.  Rather, it was the idea put forth by Tim Ferriss that sitting in cold water can help with fat loss while sitting in hot water can cause a person’s body to retain body fat. I read this and all I could think was, what am I supposed to do with this information?  Am I supposed to give up my much-beloved hot baths for the sake of shaving a fraction of a percent of body fat off my body?  Am I supposed to put myself through the agony of regularly sitting in cold water – because I don’t do that enough with lap swimming and open-water swimming, I suppose – just so I can pursue that almighty holy grail of a lean body?

It was at this moment I realized that I have grown weary of the cult of low body fat.

This has been a long time coming, mind you.  I can pinpoint a whole bunch of moments at which I found myself rolling my eyes at a lot of fitness advice aimed at promoting leaner bodies with as little body fat as possible.  There’s all of the vaguely pro-ana tricks, like drinking two glasses of water before breakfast so you don’t eat too much (!!) and making sure that water is either ice cold or lukewarm, I still can’t remember which, but I guess the temperature of the water you drink on an empty stomach is supposed to promote greater fat loss.  There’s all of the restrictive dietary advice: don’t eat fruit, don’t eat bread, don’t eat gluten, don’t eat anything processed, don’t drink alcohol, don’t eat dairy, don’t eat potatoes, well, wait, eat sweet potatoes but not white potatoes, basically don’t eat anything besides organic twigs grown using nothing but the tears of Lisa Frank unicorns. And then there is all of the training information aimed at fat loss, and the supplements, and the timing of your meals, and whether you get enough sleep, and whether your stress is managed well and…

I could go on and on ad infinitum, but I won’t. You get my point.

To a certain extent, I get why so many people are into the pursuit of an ultra-lean body.  Part of it, I’m sure, is that lean bodies just look cool from an aesthetic point of view.  All of those muscles with all of their striations on full display – I am the first to admit that I find that kind of physique very lovely to look at.  There’s more to it than that, though.  When a person has a lean body, it serves as visual shorthand of sorts, indicating that the person most likely trains hard and who has excellent nutrition (and, to be realistic, also has a certain genetic make-up that allows for that kind of leanness).   You can’t see a person’s 1RM or their 5K PR, but you can see their visible abs, you know?

The issue is that for many people, the visible abs and the ultra-lean body have become the only thing that matters, even more so than the 1RM or the 5K PR.  Take Nia Shanks, who recently took some heat from someone who basically called her a fraud for not posting photos of herself in a bikini, or Fit Bitch’s Meg, who has also posted about receiving similar kinds of criticism.  Both of these women have demonstrated their fitness prowess time and time again, but that’s just not enough for some people.  The signifier – the lean body – has become the ultimate goal, while the signified – physical fitness – has become of secondary importance.

I think about this a lot in my own life and my own pursuit of physical fitness.  I’m sure the aforementioned critics would scoff at the notion that I think of myself as physically fit, considering that I haven’t seen my abs since…well, I don’t think I’ve ever seen them.  To those critics, I would be considered a fraud because I have not melted away every possible bit of body fat.

But I know the truth about my body and my abilities.  I know the numbers that actually matter to me. I know that I can run a mile in 6:30, a 5K in 21:19, a half-marathon in 1:44.  I can run 20 miles without stopping to walk.  I can swim a mile in open water. I can deadlift my body weight.  I can do thirty push-ups.  I am by no means elite in my level of fitness, but I can do all sorts of things that are pretty remarkable, and so when I think of myself as a physically fit person, it’s not because I’ve managed to meet some cosmetic standard of what a physically fit person looks like.  It’s because I have actually done things that physically fit people can do.

Sure, I could probably lower my body fat if I wanted to, and in the process become a faster runner.  But then I think about the things I’d have to give up – drinking alcohol, eating bread and pasta, my semi-weekly date with a bacon cheeseburger and a beer, evidently hot baths – and I think about what little I would gain from it, and it just does not seem worth the sacrifice.  Perhaps if I was an elite athlete whose livelihood depended on maintaining a peak level of fitness, I might feel differently about this, but I’m not an elite athlete.  I’m not even elite in my local area.  I’m just a recreational athlete who races for fun.  Maybe most importantly, I am a recreational athlete who would like to get pregnant in the upcoming months.  It’s kind of hard to do that when your body fat levels have dropped so low that you no longer get your period (which is a whole ‘nother set of issues – known as the Female Athlete Triad – in and of itself).

(And let’s be realistic – if I wanted to become a faster runner or swimmer, what I’d really need to do is run and swim more.  Losing body fat might help me shave a couple of seconds off my times, but doing consistent speedwork and strength training will help me a lot more.)

This brings me to another point, which is that when we hold up ultra-leanness as The Fitness Goal for recreational athletes like myself as well as people who are just trying to keep themselves healthy, we are basically saying that everyone should be held to the same standards as elite athletes.  This is insane!  In what other area of our lives are we expected to emulate the best of the best?  Are we all expected to write Pulitzer Prize winning novels?  Must we all be capable of singing like the angelic offspring of Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston?  Should we all be able to engineer the tools necessary to identify the Higgs-Boson particle?  No!  So why does this idea persist that says we must all have the bodies of Olympic athletes before we can be considered fit and healthy?

What’s more – not even elite athletes maintain that level of fitness year-round.  I’ve read several interviews with top runners and triathletes who say they deliberately put on weight in the off-season to give their bodies a bit of a break.  Many bodybuilders and fitness models – at least, the ones who are careful not to burn their metabolisms into cinders – give themselves breaks from the discipline required to have such lean bodies.  That’s why they have their competition weight and their off-season weight.  The conditions required to get the bodybuilders and fitness models into the ultra-lean shape in which we are most likely to see them are not really all that sustainable.

I feel like I say this all the time, but clearly it needs to be said even more: what your body looks like is not as important as what it can do.  Your body-fat percentage is not the most important number in determining your physical fitness, not when there are so many other numbers that actually indicate what your body is capable of doing.

Once more, with feeling:  what your body looks like is not as important as what it can do.

(Here’s a post over at Diary of a Newbie StrongWoman that talks about this same topic, albeit much more succinctly and with less ranting than I did. Enjoy!)


33 responses to “I have grown weary of the cult of low body fat

  1. This was excellent. Even as a feminist aware of all the crap that surrounds us about our bodies, I sometimes find myself forgetting how (and you hit it on the head) unsustainable peak fitness is. My body can do awesome stuff, physically. That’s an incredible privilege, for one- to be relatively free of chronic pain, able to recover and heal quickly, and able to have good mobility, etc. For two, ups and downs are probably far more natural, biologically speaking, for an animal such as humans. I really enjoyed this piece.

    • Thank you! And I agree that we forget sometimes what a huge privilege it is just to be able to do things with our bodies without hurting. The sad thing is that a lot of these supposedly fitness-promoting things often end up damaging people’s health in the long run. I’m thinking about all of the people who are turning up with adrenal fatigue, or people who have wrecked their metabolism from too much dieting, or even people who injure themselves biomechanically from pushing themselves too hard. Pursuing fitness is supposed to be about enhancing our lives, not destroying them, you know?

      • Agreed. As an example, my boyfriend was a wrestler through high school and college, and his coaches/he was not responsible in maintaining weight, or cutting to reach it. His metabolism is just done for. He’d probably never admit it, but it sucks. And that’s on top of what he did to himself when he was still deploying in the Marine Corps. Supplements, energy drinks, extreme, rapid weight lifting. Plus the physical training demanded of infantrymen. He’s a recruiter behind a desk now, so it’s different. But he wasn’t great to himself. And it shows. To this day his chosen method of weight loss is meal skipping while taking weight loss pills from the local Complete Nutrition.

      • Oh man, I hope your boyfriend can find some way to manage his weight without abusing his body like that. That must be tough for you to watch, as well as hard for him and his body.

        My ex-husband used to do all sorts of problematic stuff to lose weight too – the worst was when he would buy fast food, chew it up to get the flavor and spit it into a garbage can *vom* – and now I am wondering if his reluctance/inability to do the standard diet-and-exercise process was due to his involvement in JROTC in high school.

  2. I was on vacation in Hawaii and I just happen to wind up on the same adventure tour as Brian Urlacher of the Chicago Bears. Part of this tour involved us jumping in cold pool water in our swim suits at the end. Now, Brian was a big guy. Tall and wide. But, compared to a lot of guys I see at the gym, he looked small in many ways. He didn’t have huge pecks, no well defined abs. He looked very normal just extra large. Anyway, if this great athlete who competes at the level of the NFL doesn’t look like a ripped Hulk, there is hope for the rest of us. We just have to be comfortable with who we are. He was very personable and friendly and certainly didn’t seem to care what we thought he looked like in his board shorts!

    • That’s interesting, because I would have assumed that an NFL player would be like a mountain of a man. I take it this was during the off-season?

      The only pro male athlete I’ve ever met was Karl Malone and the man was HUUUUUUGE. Like, my-neck-hurt-from-trying-to-look-at-his-face huge.

  3. Agreed! And taking it a step further the idea that you need to look a certain way or achieve a certain level of body fat percentage to be considered an athlete is extremely harmful. As is, there are issues of fat shaming at gyms or when people are working out, when exercise is so great for you regardless of your outwards appearance. Yet, this sets up unrealistic expectations. It gives the all or nothing attitude that the only way to be an athlete is to look like one, which discourages many from being casual athletes or just enjoying sports/physical activity, in general. Very sad!

  4. I’ve never seen my abs, either. For a while I felt sad about this — and about other muscles, like biceps, triceps, delts and traps, not being as defined as the muscles even of guys I was definitely stronger than — but then I realized it’s just the way my body is, and even if I *could* have a low enough percentage of body fat to have visible abs, I would not be very healthy because getting there would involve restricting food and water and I have no interest in doing that.

    • Some people just don’t have the ability to do that without going to unhealthy places, just as some people seem to be capable of leaning out quite easily. I don’t know if I’m one of the people who would have to go to unhealthy lengths to achieve it or not, mainly because I don’t want to be so strict with the kind of food I can and cannot eat in order to even get to the starting point for all of this.

  5. I have just recently started a new exercise program. I am focusing on physically pushing myself to be stronger. It is so much more fun to concentrate on what my body can do physically then to worry about reaching an aesthetic ideal. Even elite athletics come in all different body types. So, that is something that I try to remember. Also, I enjoyed the article itself.

    • Thank you! And good point about the “fun” aspect of training for performance versus appearance. I don’t deny that it’s very fun to see muscles start to appear where there were none before, but it’s more like a “holy smokes, look at that!” experience instead of a “why do I suck so much?” experience.

  6. The thing that really irks me about all those ridiculous fat loss strategies is that a lot of the people who get all excited about them are most likely the same people who have a lot of room for improvement with the basics. Like… I skipped my workout twice this week, but it’s ok because I’m going to go sit in an icy tub of water…?

    For most people I think it would be more productive to do a better job on the basics of fitness and nutrition than to obsess over “tricks” that can reduce their body fat by 0.05%

    • I laughed out loud when I read this comment, because it’s so accurate! I mean, I guess caring about all of these little details would make sense for someone who is already at their physical prime, but most of us are still at a place where we would benefit more just from being consistent with training and eating than from worrying about the effects of hot baths vs cold baths on our body fat percentages.

  7. Thank you so much for this post! I’ve been thinking about this recently, since I’m interested in putting on muscle (even bulking up), but anything geared towards hypertrophy is also dedicated to being super lean. Yeah, it looks awesome, but hopefully soon there can be more room for different body types. Muscularity in itself doesn’t have to be tied to leanness. (I also think your point about leanness as a signifier, though, may explain why I’m so insecure about how much I lift . . . if my numbers aren’t impressive, I have no signifier to fall back on and “prove” that I’m fit.)

    • I totally know what you mean about the insecurity that comes when you don’t feel like your body’s appearance matches what you can do. Part of me wants to be all Geto Boys about it and say that I shouldn’t have to prove something if I know in my heart that it’s true, but it’s not my default emotional stance and so I have to put in some effort to keep that kind of self-confidence at the forefront of my mind.

  8. Interesting post, Caitlin. I began writing a comment which then got longer and longer– and I realized that I could blog about this topic myself ;). To me leanness is an acquired taste. All those competitors, models, etc. who want to be lean do go through crazy cycles of intense training and dieting is not healthy. (I used to be one of those people, but I wouldn’t measure out things like crazy or cut too many things out. The carb-cycling did work though, but I felt miserable.) Sure, (to me) these people have great physiques, but is not good role-modeling of health. If they want to do it, I don’t mind, I just don’t buy into that anymore though. I found that the way I stay in shape and pretty lean (I guess) is by having a healthy and balanced plant-based nutrition (yes, I am vegan). I don’t diet, I just crave and eat healthy food. I also eat all the fruit and white potatoes I want, really! I train diligently because my body loves it so much, but I never to the point where I feel pain. I don’t think leanness is at all bad if one does it in the most healthiest way. My goal is to be fit and lean and I still eat all the food (plants) I love, never depriving myself of anything my body desires. I am not in the competition scene any longer (by the way, I competed in the bikini division before and I realized that is not me and I don’t think I’ll ever do it again). Right now I’m focused on eating healthy, building muscle and figuring out a way how to get even more lean in the healthiest way possible because one day I hope to compete in figure. But in order to get there I will not put my body through ridiculous stress.

    • Hey Beatriz! I’ve been reading your blog for the past few months – since you started commenting, actually – and I have to say that I really admire how you pull off a lifestyle that is healthy and ethical but also very pleasurable for you and your family. You show through example that a healthy lifestyle doesn’t necessarily have to be one of deprivation!

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  10. Great post (and I say that as a competitive bodybuilder 😉 ) I found your blog via Hey Joob – glad to have found it and will subscribe


    • Thank you! I’m checking out your blog right now too and I see that you are into open-water swimming! I am, too! Nothing quite so ferocious as the English Channel but I do love to swim in the Gulf of Mexico (which has been a relatively new thing for me, as I used to be terrified of going into the water). Anyway, I look forward to reading more of your work.

      • Ha ha yes, I used to be! I don’t swim any more but have recently moved back to the coast of the English Channel so… who knows… never say never 😉 It’s a wonderful sport, nothing quite like it. Enjoy! 🙂

  11. I loved this post (and the post at Diary of a Newbie Strong Woman that you linked to, and the post on 180 degree Health that she linked to)! I agree that it’s crazy that so many people expect perfection in fitness, when we don’t expect perfection in other areas of life.
    As of a few days ago, I’ve gone 2 months without weighing myself. That’s the longest I’ve went without weighing myself since I was 12 or 13 years old (which was when I first stepped into disordered eating). For the past couple of months, I’ve been working out with a focus on enjoyment and performance, instead of looks, for the first time in my life. It’s amazing how much more I enjoy exercise when I’m not worrying about whether it’s helping me lose weight! I used to force myself to work out several times a week, but I usually hated it and would find any excuse to avoid it. Now I get some sort of exercise (even if it’s just a walk around the block during my lunch break) almost every day, and I look forward to it. (I realized things had changed majorly for me when I was thwarted in my plans to go for a run the other day and I was MAD! I wanted that run!)
    Sorry I turned this into a long post about myself… basically I just wanted to say that I’ve also “grown weary of the cult of low body fat,” and it’s amazing how much better things are outside the cult!

  12. I love this. I actually just came off of a “failed” attempt at carb back loading (I didn’t even last a week). Because the off-carb times were so gosh darn restrictive, I very nearly almost had a mental break down at work — cue the tears over a bowl of chicken with spaghetti squash. Seriously — at my desk, in front of my coworkers. It was then and there that I realized that losing a little body fat was not worth losing my mind… and then I ate some cereal. Awesome awesome post!!! (And isn’t that cold water thing ridiculous???)

  13. I have been thinking about this a bunch too. Why can’t we JUST eat and train.
    Eat consciously, hardly any processed foods, lots of vegetables, ethically raised and grass fed meats, beans, trying to eat as locally as possible, with as much joy as can be experienced while doing so. Eating should be joyous, eating the best food you can afford, as simply as you can, is an amazing experience. And shifting the focus from nutrients, micronutrients to conscious joy and respect for food and our bodies is a great way to live fully.
    Sometimes have a treat, because they are good, but not often because that is imbalanced. I have a bit of belly fat and I have to say, I love eating full fat yogurt with my granola, I won’t eat low fat anything, so I rotate what I do eat and don’t have the yogurt every day. When I look at my tiny belly fat, I remember my yogurt and how much I love that too.
    And train. Because our bodies need to exercise. Train because we want muscle definition, strength in our walk, confidence in our body. All this hyper awareness of the details is tiring.

  14. Really excellent post. I particularly like this line: “when we hold up ultra-leanness as The Fitness Goal for recreational athletes like myself as well as people who are just trying to keep themselves healthy, we are basically saying that everyone should be held to the same standards as elite athletes.”

    I’ve never thought about it that way, but I totally fall into that trap. Instead of being proud of myself for what I can do, I’m constantly beating myself up because I’m not as fit as I could possibly be. I’m always comparing myself to a friend who’s a personal trainer, without ever consciously reminding myself that that’s her job! It’s not like she’s that fit and is also in her second year of law school like I am. She works out every day for a living, whereas I spend 12 hours a day at school or working, of course we’re not going to look the same.

    Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that your post really helped me put things into perspective. Thanks!

    • Thanks! And yes, it’s no good to compare yourself against someone who does fitness and sports for a living. I imagine a six-pack would be much more doable if having one was part of our jobs!

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  16. Awesome post. Being an athlete is so much more than the pursuit of leaness. To constantly have exercise about weight does everyone a huge disservice.

  17. I am naturally thin and have been bullied most of my life by women who are bigger. I’ve had to get into fist fights and won most of them. It’s a shame women just can’t be nice to each other regardless of size. It really pisses me off that as an adult I still have to put up with bitchy mean women. They act as though because I am thin it gives them every right to act like bullies. Then some will mention they are “REAL” women to insinuate that I am not. THAT IS NOT FEMINISM.


    Being a feminist does NOT mean you must not wear makeup.

    Being a feminist isn’t about the look. It is about if you care about women’s rights. The women who currently act like bullies or trample on other women for stupid reasons ARE NOT FEMINISTS.

    BULLIES ARE BULLIES. If you are not happy with yourself, acting like a bully towards another female doesn’t make you a feminist nor does it make yourself look good or better. It makes you someone who actually degrades women in the same fashion men have.

    Stop acting like feminism revolves around being a jerk or looking more like a man and acting like bullies.

    Stop defining feminism on weight and looks. Then maybe feminism can make a real comeback.

    Oh and drop the fucking fashion magazines and quit proclaiming that because a woman is thin and you hate fashion mags that gives you every right to be a bitch.

    • Did you mean to post this somewhere else? Because this has literally NOTHING to do with the post.

      I’m sorry that you have experienced people being shitty to you because you are thin. That’s not right and it sucks.

      But hey, if coming into a space where people are talking about an issue that is only tangentially related to your rant and going on about how bitches aren’t doing feminism right, if that makes you feel better, then have at it.

      P.S. I’m also thin so don’t start that “you hate thin women” nonsense with me, because I’m not having it.

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