On Women & Weight: A Manifesto

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Wellness Mama » Blog » Mindset » On Women & Weight: A Manifesto

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!

Two other posts from around the web that promote the same idea and which I found inspiring are “Paleo women are phat” and “The fattest people in paleo.”

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!

Katie Wells Avatar

About Katie Wells

Katie Wells, CTNC, MCHC, Founder of Wellness Mama and Co-founder of Wellnesse, has a background in research, journalism, and nutrition. As a mom of six, she turned to research and took health into her own hands to find answers to her health problems. WellnessMama.com is the culmination of her thousands of hours of research and all posts are medically reviewed and verified by the Wellness Mama research team. Katie is also the author of the bestselling books The Wellness Mama Cookbook and The Wellness Mama 5-Step Lifestyle Detox.


49 responses to “On Women & Weight: A Manifesto”

  1. Nellie Avatar

    I am a kindergarten teacher. I am 35 y/o, infertile and seriously obese (150 lbs overweight). I have migraines and surgically diagnosed endometriosis. Your website has inspired me to take a leap this summer to become healthy and fit through natural means. I certainly did not gain 150 extra pounds overnight and I am not expecting to lose it overnight. I also do not blame anyone but myself for allowing this to happen to me. My life choices, not life events, have caused this total and utter breakdown of my body. I just want to be comfortable in my own skin again… Sorry I have kind of rambled on here:-)

  2. diane Avatar

    Thank you for helping me to love my body, the way it is today.  Thank you!

  3. Kristin W. Avatar
    Kristin W.

    I really love this sentence “not strive for the 2 or 4 if we aren’t NATURALLY THAT BODY TYPE”.  What I do think some people forget is there ARE people that do naturally have that body type to be a 2 or a 4 and I happen to be one of them, in fact I’m a size 0-1, yet people assume we are doing hours and hours of exercise, have never been pregnant and eat nothing when it couldn’t be farther from the truth.  I’ve had 2 emergency c-sections, have a desk job, my only exercise is going on an occassional walk with my kids or playing in the yard with them and I eat a ton of food……REAL FOOD!  People need to understand there are all body types out there but the one thing we all need to have in common is eating REAL FOOD and judging how we feel.

  4. Michelle Avatar

    Brilliant! I’m glad woman in the Paleo/Primal/whatever you want to call it world are starting to stand up for themselves. Stefani from paleo for women did a wonderful/slightly ranty post on free the animal with a similar bent not but a few days ago. We often see our (wonderful) crossfitting female counterparts, with their amazing muscles and think that must be what we’re all supposed to look like if we live and eat this way, but it’s just not realistic for most women. Thanks for reminding women that health looks different on all of us.

  5. Aimee Avatar

    What a great post.  I have only stumbled onto the grain free/paleo/primal scene in the past few months and it has just blown me out of the water.  I am now teaching a boot camp class and am really trying to educate the members on eating healthy, not counting calories.  I have really been considering doing 1 on 1 or group meetings w/ them outside of exercise b/c I feel it is so important.  I am definitely going to use this post as more education for them.

    The other night I told my husband I needed to get back on track for my eathing b/c over the weekend I fell off the wagon and ate cake and chips and lots of unhealthy stuff.  He told me I didn’t need to worry about my weight so much and I told him I don’t, I’m doing it to feel good.  He is not quite on board w/ me for the eating changes I have recently made.  I do feel I am thin, but I feel great, and as was stated in the post, I think I fall under the naturally thin category.  I do have to say inspite of this, I have never felt as good as I do now……I am no longer self concious of myself, I don’t care how much I eat, as long as it is nutrient dense and healthy, and I love my c-section scar as well.  Thanks again for your insight. 

  6. HayleyM Avatar

    I agree that women should not be as stuck on fat percentages and/or rock hard abs, but I do think there is nothing wrong with a 17%-20% body fat. I was a dancer from the time I was in kindergarten all the way through senior year and at age 18 I was 126ish pounds and wore a size 6 (and a 26.5 in. waist according to old sewing patterns my mom used). As far as the whole hip to waist ratio thing goes, I think mine was pretty good. 🙂 I was not “too skinny”, I had regular periods, and loved the way I looked.  I gained 50 lbs over the next two years at college (I stopped dancing and ate differently than at home), and have been exercising with weights and running since then. I am now only 145 lbs and because I am using weights more than when I was in high school I might reach my goal size sooner than than my goal weight, but I just want to say that I don’t think someone is unhealthy if they have an 18% body fat. Ultimately, if you feel healthy, and your body is functioning properly (i.e. monthly period), that is the most important thing. 

  7. Allison Johnson Avatar
    Allison Johnson

    I was so worried about my weight all during high school and it even led to a little bit of an eating disorder. All of my thoughts on what was “healthy” or not were totally warped, and I was a bit of a sugar addict. But after getting married and then pregnant with my baby, I didn’t want to eat crap that made me (or him!) sick. So I picked up my act and started eating healthy. After having my baby, I have a LOT of stretch marks, my boobs aren’t as perky, and my hips are a little wider, but I LOVE my body. How funny that my “bikini body” from high school didn’t make me happy–because I was sick. But now, with my “mom body” I don’t need 2+ hour naps in the afternoon, I don’t get awful stomach aches, my mind is clear, and my self esteem has improved 100 fold. I’m healthy! And I love it.

  8. Natasha allan Avatar
    Natasha allan

    I can’t tell you how important this post is to me and so timely.

    I am a new mother of an almost 5 month old. Right before she was conceived I, for the first time in my life, was so comfortable in my body. I had a very physically demanding job and was in great shape. Not only did I feel great, I looked fantastic.

    Once pregnant I began slowly gaining, enjoying eating lots of healthy food (and of course dark chocolate here and there).

    As I gained I started to feel insecure feelings of old… I remembered feeling hyper aware/insecure about my body in high school with no reason to do so. But it was a part of learning to love myself. Fast forward almost 20 years and that feeling was back.

    After giving birth I had such an acceptance and new respect for my body. What a miracle birthing is. I have lost almost all my pregnancy weight by walking 1+ hours daily with my baby and 2 dogs (breastfeeding has helped too, I’m sure). But even though I have lost a lot of weight I find myself comparing this new body with the one that came before my wonderful journey. I catch myself though, realizing I need to now accept my new body and focus on working toward optimal health – not worrying about how I look, how I looked or how I will look in the future.

    I want desperately to work toward loving my curvy hips and the little extra on my tummy. Not only for myself but for my daughter. I want her to grow up with a mother, a woman, who without a doubt loves every last inch of her body.

    So, thank you… thank you for the reminder. Having curves is sexy, beautiful and most importantly: healthy.

  9. cygnus Avatar

    I’ve always held my weight in such a way that when people find out they are shocked to find out I weigh so much. I learned to ignore the doctors who only looked at the numbers and declared me obese (5.5, 180lbs). It was only when I hit 200lbs that I started to gain stomach weight (and I was eating a PB&J sandwich on homemade, whole grain bread everyday for lunch…along with a snack an hour later when I got hungry again…hmm). It was only then that I felt unhealthy, so I began looking for solutions. Now, eating a loose version of this diet (the only thing I’m somewhat strict on is no wheat) I’m still curvy (5.5, 145lb), but I’m in a size 4 and yet just under my BMI.

    I own a scale, but almost never use it except as an exercise in curiosity (when I was loosing weight rapidly without knowing why I kept an eye on it). It frustrates me to no end that so many women see those numbers as vital, when if I were to be solidly inside my BMI I would look anorexic.

    Now, if only I could give some of you my weight loss/figure (which I don’t really care much about) and get some of your other benefits. I still have acne, depression (seasonal mostly), random aches, exhaustion, etc. I look great, but would rather spend the day sleeping then enjoying it.

  10. Jille Avatar

    I loved this post, it made me realize that I have been obsessing too much over my weight and not enough about my health…I too have just started following and I cant get enough, but this gave me better insight on how I need to take care of myself and my family, 
     I have tiger stripes too and am very self conscious about them but I am so proud of my daughters, and after reading this I am more proud of my tiger stripes!!!  Thank You Wellness Mama!  Keep inspiring us!!!  

  11. Allison Nichols Avatar
    Allison Nichols

    Love this post.  It really is disturbing that even with all of the progress we’ve made with paleo/primal/ancestral ways of eating (high fat and thinking of food as fuel), that there’s still this underlying desire to be some kind of ideal. I love that there are posts going around about how amazing the womanly female shape is.

    We’ve changed our diets to support optimum physical health, now it’s time to heal our relationships with ourselves and our damaged body image. Give up on weight loss. Focus on health.

    Thanks for posting this!

  12. kathy Avatar

    Thank you so much for this inspiration! I was in a slump all day today and started obsessing over the 20 pound that I want to lose (I’m 5’5″ and 140 pounds). I remember how I felt at 120 and I want that feeling back. During the holidays, I gave up my naturally good eating habits and let man-made food rule my life. I have now been eating whole foods again, mainly fruits and veggies, and have not lost any weight yet. I feel so much more healthy and my clothes do fit better so I know my hard work has not gone in vain! I was feeling sorry for myself earlier today, but after reading this post, I feel so much better about myself and know that if I continue to eat the way God and Mother Nature intended, my body and soul will follow and become more and more healthy.

  13. Karyn Avatar

    Great post, but I have to admit my favorite line was the one about the “tiger stripes”. I feel like a triple striped tiger, but my kids are worth it! 

  14. Rebekah Avatar

    I thought this was excellent, Katie. I’ve been thinking many of the same things, and am becoming increasingly comfortable with my (curvy but healthy) self.

    You did a great job writing this out clearly, too, without swinging to foolish extremes–not bashing naturally slim women, and simultaneously, not pretending that obesity is okay. (I have some very thin friends who would be hurt by a suggestion that their lack of “hips” means they’re ugly or unhealthy. You avoided that. Thanks.)

    1. Cassandra Roy Avatar
      Cassandra Roy

      For the record, obesity is only not okay in the same way that migraines are not okay, or digestive problems are not okay, or acne is not okay. Excess adipose tissue is a symptom, not a disease. So it’s only okay to “not pretend that obesity is okay” if you’re discriminating against all signs of health issues.

  15. Laura Oliva Avatar
    Laura Oliva

    Wow!  I’ve been following your blog almost religiously for the last few weeks and enjoyed all of your posts about natural living, nutrition, and health, but this is my favorite post so far!  Kudos for calling out the proverbial elephant in the room.  I have definitely noticed that a lot of the other primal/paleo sites I’ve visited place a lot of emphasis on aesthetics and what this lifestyle does for your looks.  I can only assume this is because the changes that occur in this area can be so obvious and dramatic. 
    I agree with you, however, that we focus solely on these things at our peril, missing the forest for the trees, as it were.  Physical beauty comes as a result of true health; aim for that health, and the physical benefits will naturally follow.  Thank you for a much-needed reality check!

  16. Cassandra Roy Avatar
    Cassandra Roy

    I’ve been working on my health for almost a year and a half, very slowly. There were no drastic changes for us because everytime I did try to make those changes, it lasted maybe a whole day. So, small changes. We’re at 90% grain free, no soda, no juice, only healthy sweets in moderation, high quality food all the way, eat when I’m hungry, stop when I’m full, plenty of rest, great reduction in stress. I have gained over 50lbs in that time and it is only NOW starting to come off me.

    So what was the problem? Well, I might not have lost weight, but I feel *amazing*. For the first time in my entire life, I have regular periods with no PMS, I have energy, no more IBS or heartburn, my acne is going away, my hair is thick, what fat I do have is redepositing itself away from my tummy, the chronic depression I’ve lived with for almost 15 years is pretty much gone, my teeth are remineralizing, everything is just freaking great. YOU HAVE TO EAT TO GET HEALTHY and sometimes that means eating a ton of calories, which although we are eating better foods in the right proportions, I chowed down to my heart’s content. Then, one day almost a month ago, I realized I wasn’t very hungry and could only manage half of what I used to eat and suddenly all that weight I had retained started melting away. That’s a big deal especially since I’m not in a place to begin serious workouts yet, but I’m getting there.

    If I had been more concerned with the calories than my health, I would still have depression and aches and tummy issues and unbearable periods and no energy, all combining to make me crave bad food if only for comfort.  Don’t be afraid to eat!

    1. Julia Woensdregt Avatar
      Julia Woensdregt

      You go girl!! This is a great message and not enough people have heard it. Please keep sharing with everyone who will listen!!!

  17. Susan Avatar

    Awesome post!  Thank you for writing it!  It basically comes down to prioritizing the question of “how do I feel? Do I feel nourished, strong, healthy”  over “how do I look?”.  It’s the ‘self referred’ rather than the ‘object referred’ stance.  The internal ‘feeling’ of health and well being rather than the external ‘appearance’.  Cause we all know that when we feel healthy, we look great!
    Way to be supportive Wellness Mama!

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