This post will be a departure from my usual writing about recipes, natural living, how to make lotion bars, and cloth diapering. Certainly, I think all these things are incredibly important, but I’ve noticed a disturbing trend among some of my readers and others, and felt compelled to write this post. Today, we’re getting personal….
A Disturbing Trend…
In short, while there are a lot of good things going on in the health/paleo/primal/grain free movements, I’m disturbed by the focus on women having six pack abs and extremely low body fat. Certainly there are women who have this type of physique naturally and others who make it a goal and commendably work toward it, but the underlying expectation and pressure that all women should look like this is disturbing to me.
Additionally, many of the paleo/primal/health sites are male dominated and focus on things that will improve the male physique, though many of these things can be damaging to the female physique. While rock hard abs and low body fat percentage can be signs of optimal health in men (as it reflects healthy testosterone levels), this is not the case for women!
Any woman who has tried knows that obtaining six pack abs takes a lot of dedication and daily hard work. Many women, to obtain this (not all…) have to drop below a healthy body fat and can stop menstruating. As fertility is a sign of HEALTH in women, jeopardizing this to obtain a certain physique can be very harmful to overall health! I’m personally a member of an online all-women heavy lifting group because I enjoy the strength aspects of this, but there are women in the group who (despite having great strength and overall health) go to extreme measures, fast constantly, and get down to 12% body fat or less for the aesthetics even though they stop menstruating.
It’s no secret that there is societal pressure to be thin in our society, and while I do think it is highly important to eat a high nutrient diet and maintain a healthy weight, the 15-18% body fat that many celebrities and models have is NOT a healthy weight for many women (especially those in child-bearing years)!
Of all the emails I get, the most tend to be about fertility struggles, with weight related issues coming in a close second. These emails are almost exclusively from women, and while some are from women with genuine health/weight struggles and severe leptin/insulin problems, others are from women who are a few pounds (less than 20) over what they consider to be a healthy weight despite eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly and trying to improve lifestyle factors.
At the risk of sounding crass, perhaps this is the weight that your body wants to maintain. Hips are normal and healthy for women! Curves are normal and healthy for women! A feminine figure is healthy for women! Personally, while I can dead lift over 200 pounds, do a pull-up or climb a tree, my “abs” are masked by a little loose skin from my four pregnancies and a scar from my c-section and I’m ok with that…
A Recent Notion
It’s a fairly recent notion that women should be stick thin and not curvy, and I think this has done damage to many women. In the past, the waist to hip ratio was more important than the objective size to many women. Studies have shown that men prefer (and women prefer to have) a waist to hip ratio of .70, or a waist measurement that is approximately 70% of the hip measurement.
Other famous women who have had the .70 Waist to Hip Ratio (and who ooze femininity): Marilyn Monroe (.69), Sophia Loren, Venus di Milo, and Jessica Alba. Interestingly, this ratio is also correlated with less risk of certain diseases and higher health markers. In fact, the WHR (Waist Hip Ratio) was a better predictor of disease than BMI or other health markers.
In women, weight stored in the hips, buttocks, and breasts is typically higher in beneficial Omega-3 fats (and higher stores of these can mean healthier babies…) while abdominal fat is typically higher in Omega-6 fats. This is one reason many women report getting curves for the first time when switching to a higher fat, real food diet. Excess abdominal fat in women can signal more visceral fat (which is linked to disease) and higher stress and male hormones.
Cortisol and androgens (which can both be harmful for fertility) both increase abdominal and visceral fat.
What is “Ideal”
How many women think and obsess about the extra weight they’d like to lose ever day, or even every hour? How many dislike themselves because of their extra weight? This stress alone is unhealthy for women. When the focus is solely about the looks, then we are always on a “diet” and focusing on depravation. On the other hand, when we focus on trying to eat more healthy whole foods, the focus is on the benefit and the nutrients.
Let’s focus on eating healthy foods and nourishing our bodies rather than maintaining the weight we had in high school.
Let’s focus on exercise for the health and strength benefits rather than the weight loss goals! (Sarah Fragoso makes some excellent points about functional strength)
Let’s focus on optimizing sleep and stress levels rather than obsessing about an ideal weight!
On a very personal level, I’ll publicly admit that after having 4 kids in the last 5 years, I am NOT the same size or shape I was in my athletic high school days, and I am OK with that! I wouldn’t trade my four gorgeous kids and the stretch marks and saggy boobs that came with them for all the size two jeans in the world or the ability to fit into them! My body has been doing a great job and nourishing my little ones in utero and providing nutrient dense milk for them. I don’t care that my ab muscles and core strength are masked by my tiger stripes and c-section scar because I’ve earned those stripes.
I’m not the size (or shape) I was in high school (when I was eating utter junk daily), but thanks to a healthy diet, I have healthier hair, skin, muscle tone, and overall health than I ever have.
Instead of trying to obtain the 16% body fat of a Victoria’s Secret Model, let’s change the “normal” for women and bring back the days when the feminine figure of Marilyn Monroe or Betty Page was considered beautiful!
Now, before the comments begin, I want to clarify that I am not advocating that women overeat, eat unhealthy food, give up trying to maintain a healthy body and weight through diet and exercise, I am simply claiming that perhaps what we consider the ideal needs to change. Perhaps we should be comfortable and happy as sizes 8, 10 or 12 and not strive for the 2 or 4 if we aren’t naturally that body type.
I’m suggesting that we consider stopping the endless cardio which can be hard on our bodies and lift some heavy weights which are not only good for our bones, muscles and insulin levels, but also help build a feminine figure and good waist to hip ratio.
I’m suggesting that we forever eschew the low-fat and low-calorie craze and focus on eating the most nutrient dense diet we can, including all the healthy proteins, fats and natural starches (not from grains) that we need.
I’m not promoting a specific body type or exact body fat level, I’m just humbly suggesting that we focus on health and not an arbitrary weight number as the ideal…. that we focus more on eating real food and nourishing our bodies than cutting calories to reach a specific weight. I’m also not in any way putting down women who are blessed to naturally have a slender figure or muscular abs…
What’s a Woman To Do?
So to recap: Don’t obsess about the scale, eat a healthy, grain free, nutrient dense diet and eat when you are hungry! Avoid foods that are harmful and eat your fill of real foods. Develop a healthy relationship with food and don’t obsess over a number on a scale! Let health be the priority and accept that with gorgeous skin and hair and optimal health/fertility may come an extra 5-10 pounds from your ideal weight…
Live this way because it is healthy, not because you want to lose weight because, at the end of the day, the aesthetics will only get you so far, but an overall feeling of health and increased energy will keep you motivated.
Exercise, but do it to be healthy and for functional strength, not just for visible ab muscles. Realize that often we (women) are tougher on ourselves than others are and learn to love who you are before you try to become someone else. If you aren’t happy with yourself, just losing weight won’t change that! Women won’t be as able to easily obtain or maintain a very low body fat as men will, and that is ok!
If you want to improve your waist to hip ratio with exercise, stop the cardio and lift weights! Deadlifts, squats, kettlebells, lunges and other weight related exercises will help tone the waist, hips, buttocks and thighs without adding bulk. Eat a quality, whole food diet and get enough Omega-3 fats. Oh, and get enough sleep to keep your cortisol levels in check!
Your turn to “weigh in”… Are you happy with your weight/body type/waist to hip ratio? Have you noticed a difference in your body composition after lifting heavy weights or changing to a higher fat/whole food diet? Share below!