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"That is happiness; to be disolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep." - Willa Cather

Friday, 11 June 2010

And that is why so few people blog about women's weight

In the post below, I discussed % body fat. I posted my own body fat (10.9%) which I was told was way out of the healthy range according to WHO guidelines. I showed pictures of women with various body fat % ages and would really love it if you as readers gave me your opinions about what is healthy. In my PERSONAL opinion, according to at least what I have read, the only one who is obviously unhealthy is the one who is 8-9% body fat, because she is quite clearly using anabolic steroids. So my questions are "Why are the women with 11, 15, 18 and 20% body fat considered unhealthy? Should they be? (okay, so yes, it is true I did infer I don't believe they are unhealthy, but does anyone have evidence to say otherwise?)"

I have nothing personal against any of these women! I think Miss 18%'s body is the nicest, but as pointed out, our ideals are simply shaped by the society we live in. I personally don't know which body fat percentage is most conducive to longevity (though I peronally prefer having a lower body fat percentage since I am so into trying to run fast and that is how I feel best). But I thought it would be a good topic of discussion! I apologize if I came off as judgemental. But if I just constantly wrote "I love everyone and rainbows and puppies and hamsters and then I eat ice cream with my perfect children" no one would read my blog and nothing interesting would be discussed :).

So let's make the discussion constructive again: "Are women with a body fat % between 10-21% really unhealthy?"

Edit #1: At this point, I have spent way too much time stressing about why so many people seem to be offended by my last post. So maybe I DO believe that women with 10-20% body fat tend to be healthier. Is it such a crime to believe that? Does it mean that I hate women who have a higher body fat %? Um, no. Perhaps when I look at the picture of the woman with 30% body fat, I think of high blood pressure and vascular disease and high cholesterol. Are all of these things necessarily true about that particular woman? No, but I think they are more likely in a woman with 30% body fat than in a woman with 15%, especially if the 15% woman exercises regularly and eats well. If I pretended I agreed with the WHO recommendation, I would be lying. But if there is evidence that I am wrong, I'd love to hear about it. But until then, I can only be honest about what I believe.


PiccolaPineCone said...

what does healthy mean? less likely to die imminently? leading a happy life? less likely to develop debilitating illnesses? i think in the range of body fat percentages previously shown, except for the very lowest, theb "health" of the woman (whatever health means) is likely to be determined by something other than her body fat % - does she wear a seatbelt? does she smoke? does she eat trans fats? does she continue to comment on blogs even though she has developed carpal tunnel syndrome? little personal interjection there but relevant to the point - i may be able to run 80 miles per week and have a reasonable body fat but if I cannot perform basic household activities b/c of my wrists, how "healthy" is that?? health is such a broad term and includes things like, as Megan pointed out, things like mental stability which are largely unaffected by body fat. trying to say which if the women is the "healthiest" within this range of imho fairly healthy body fat % (again except fot the lowest) is like trying to say which book will be the most interesting by reading only the title. off to nurse my aching wrists :(

sea legs girl said...

Oh, no, Piccola! That is terrible. Thank you for commenting despite your carpal tunnel. I kept going to your blog and debating writing a comment just to make sure you were okay, but figured you just needed a break from the blog world.

Anyway, I completely agree with you. But if there is going to be a guideline, I just think it should reflect better research than a rough conversion from healthy BMI. At which point too high or too low body fat becomes a health threat in a woman's life (as an idependent variable) is also interesting (at least I think so).

But yes, I think most peoples' end point would be death, ie, how does it affect life expectancy?

Can't you get La Cocottte to type for you :)?

PiccolaPineCone said...

one more thought: from the perspective of evolutionary biology. health = ability to reproduce. from that perspective women who have body fat % that allow regular ovulation are equally healthy. that probably includes all the women pictures except for the lowest body fat % pictures.

Diana said...

I'm with Piccola Pine Cone about our inability to define health well. (By the way, PPC, sorry to hear about your carpal tunnel. That sounds painful!)
Also, I was really struck by the title of this post. There are tons of blogs dedicated to weight, and more often than not, women's weight. I've read a lot of posts about cultural expectations and cultural judgments when it comes to weight, especially cultural judgments hurled at women who fall above the healthy line.
I don't know if the women with lower percentages body fat are actually considered unhealthy, and I am loathe to base health on this one guideline. Do these women work out? Do they eat a balanced diet with enough calories? Are their lower percentages of fat causing stress to their bodies? When you don't look at other factors besides just the % of fat, you can't really make a judgment about health.
Sorry, I know you want to look at this as an independent variable, so I'm at best answering your question in a round about way. I just don't see how % body fat (either "too high" or "too low") can't be tied up with other factors, both biological and environmental. I would make a terrible scientist, I know.

Abbie said...

Totally agree with PiccolaPineCone. And I didn't taken any offense to what you wrote. While I recognize that you and I think differently, I often see similarities in the way we view things (weight in this instance).

While I understand that there needs to be certain variables to distinguish "health", to me, the term "healthy" can be subjective to so many different things. I don't find it fair to distinguish it by only one or two variables.

Kind of reminds me of Michale Pollans "In Defense of Food" where he writes about how our society has taken food and completely made it all about how many calories, fat, iron, calcium, vitamins, etc., are in, say, carrots. Do we think that because we might take in the same "nutritional qualities" of a carrot that we are getting the same benefits? He says no. I agree. I think health is the same way.

Hope that made sense

Danni said...

I think you're operating on many faulty assumptions here. The first being that your body fat % is 10%. The next being that those pictures are accurate with regards to body fat %. The final being that anyone calls 20% "unhealthy" -- I've never heard that. This whole discussion is not very sciency. I'm going to email you pictures of myself in a swimsuit to make you regret this whole discussion :p

Danni said...

More to the point, I think being underfat or overfat is not optimal, and there's not much point in belaboring it beyond that. The markers of health like blood pressure, cholesterol, etc. etc. mean more than bf% ultimately. If Jane is 30% and Ann is 20%, but all of Jane's health markers are better, is Ann healthier because she is 20% body fat? No.

sea legs girl said...

I like it. I like it. It's a good discussion. There are a lot of valid points you guys have made: there IS certainly a lot more that makes up the picture of a person's health than body fat (and it is a complicated interplay; good analogy with the vitamins, Abbie). And % body fat is perhaps a minor variable compared to many. And, yes, Danni & Olga, I can only also conclude that my reading of 10.9% was a bit off :), though I don't know why. Also I have no proof that the pictures are accurate (it is hard to find accurate body fat % picures on the net).

BUT, being who I am, I would just like to see a better "healthy range" defined. For example: 3.5 -5.5 mmol/L of potassium in our blood is the safest, outside of which people tend to develop arrhythmias. I don't think it will be as easy to define a safe range of % fat, but the research has clearly not even been started. And I think the proposed safe range is off.

Is anyone out there thinking, "SLG, go take a chill pill"?

Ewa said...

I truly believe that WHO guidelines for fat % are for general (in this case meaning non-athlete) public. We have obese people on one side of the spectrum and anorexic on the other. Giving such guidelines may help people who do not want to deal with researching the subject deeper some idea about what to aim for. I do not believe that a person who eats a healthy diet (now we can discuss what that means), exercises and does NOT obsess about food, and has very low percentage would be considered unhealthy.
Now having said that I would like to add that there is an evolutionary reason why on average women have higher % of fat than men, and that is our fertility, being able to carry a healthy pregnancy to term and so on. But with the abundance of food we have now that is not that much of an issue assuming again we are not talking about anorexics.

sea legs girl said...

Oops. Yeah, I knew I had more to say. Thanks, Ewa!

Piccola, interesting thought with the evolution, but what if we looked at it in reverse: we have evolved to be able to reproduce over a wide range of weights/fat %ages, but what is optimal may still not be clear.

Ewa, well, you are correct about the WHO guideline being based on the general public. And, as stated earlier, it was just a rough conversion of the safe BMI range over to safe body fat range, based on a large cohort of people (with a very small number in the low-normal, below normal BMI range), so it was NOT AT ALL based on any real health parameters or outcomes!!!

And, the very kind TANITA machine actually asked me if I was "athletic" or not and it STILL told me that I should ideally be 27% body fat.

Danni said...

It was "off" because bioelectrical impedance analysis is dramatically affected by electrolyte balance and hydration. If you can, repeat the test at different times of day multiple times -- and before and after running -- and you will likely see the huge variation. I have a TANITA scale at home and it literally ranges from 15% - 30% depending on how much beer I drank the night before or how much I've been running.

I'm not saying it's not 10% to be insulting or something -- having been at Western States and part of the mass DEXA scanning and talking to other people and knowing what their BF%s are, I doubt very seriously that your reading was even close to accurate.

I don't think there's much point in doing extensive research on BF% unless and until accurate testing is widely available. Because what happens is what is happening here -- people making assumptions based on numbers that may or may not correlate with reality.

I do think you need to look within and ask yourself why you think this is such an important topic? I think it's because your self-identity is too closely wrapped up in your ability to control your weight and all that good stuff. You want/need being skinny to be healthier so you can feel better and justified about your neurosis because you know intellectually it's not healthy to be so obssessed. Just my arm-chair psychological analysis :-)

But I of course still think you're swell :-)

sea legs girl said...


I forgot to thank you for the offer of the bikini pics. I have no doubt that if your percent fat is actually in the upper 20's, that since you are so athletic that you are healthy. PLUS, if we were female warriors, I think you would be superior to me. Plus you know how to shoot a gun. And you live in Montana. No, I'm not a closet lesbian. But feel free to send the pictures :).

sea legs girl said...

Danni, just wrote that comment while you were writing, so now I should respond to your other comment. Well, I'm so interested in it because 1. it is something in my life I spend a lot of time trying to control and I have OCD and I love having control over things and 2. I love medicine and science and it is interesting to me: learning fat percent, determining what is healthy and how it is determined, etc.

Thanks for the explanation about the Tanita. I guess I could do the experiment also on my self and analyze the variation and make a little Tanita compendium explaining what factors make % body fat low and high. But then you know I'd be avoiding work and my family, like I'm doing now, so, anyway I really do gotta get going.

I think you're swell, too :).

Diana said...

Hey, I just want to respond to the edit #1 you made in your post. I don't think that people are necessarily offended by what you have written. I'm not offended at all, and I like to read what you have to say. It just seems to be a moot point to talk about % body fat and nothing else.

Also, the fact that you say when you look at the woman with 30% you think of all of those health problems is exactly what I was referencing when I mentioned cultural judgments. In the American (perhaps Western?) cultural framework, fat=unhealthy=unhappy and skinny=healthy=happy. (I'm not saying you said this in your post, I'm just trying to tie this into a larger issue I think is present in society.) I've had those thoughts about overweight people plenty of times myself, and I am totally ready to admit that I like being athletic and slender, however I still hate the generalizations about weight, % body fat and health that seem present in the culture.

As a tangent that you can address or choose to ignore, because it goes off topic: Do you find that the Danes are less interested in things like BMI and % body fat? I just don't feel the obsession here in The Netherlands with those health concerns the way I felt bombarded with them back in the States. It feels so American to be concerned with those things. Maybe I should write about that on my own blog space instead of clogging up your comments section.

SteveQ said...

Wow! I thought you fat people were supposed to be jolly!

[Usual disclaimer applies: joke.]

sea legs girl said...

That is a good question about the Danes. I think it depends on who you spend your time with. The people on our Tri team certainly discuss it and had a group measurement of % bodyfat done and also had their VO2 max measured among other things and the whole package cost quite a lot. So much that even I wasn't willing to pay. AND our local health club offers a % bodyfat measurement for only 20 kr ($4) to all members as an incentive to join (even THAT was too expensive for me, the American, to pay). So, I wouldn't say the Danes are "above" being interested in body fat or are less interested than Americans. One thing I definitely don't hear much about here is fad diets.

Is there a Dane out there who wants to comment? :)

sea legs girl said...


You're always ready with an inappropriate joke at the appropriate moment :). Thanks.

Meghan said...

In case you're wondering, I'm unoffended. Like I said, I appreciate the fact that you explore issues that are often off limits in our culture outside of a therapist's office. That said, I sometimes think that your apparent views on women's health are not what I wish mine to be. ;)

Here is what I perceive to be healthy: balance. And, balance on multiple levels of mind and body. However, you're asking about just body fat, so I'll stick to only body composition.

A woman with 30% body fat, no layer of muscle tissue beneath, and uncared for bones may be on the cusp of health imbalance. However, take that same woman and have her work out in a gym or on a farm until she grew a tough musculature and a sturdy skeleton under her layer of fat, and I might call her a most healthy woman.

Take another woman with 15% body fat and that same nice muscle layer attached to bones able to support those muscles, and she could also be at a pinnacle of health. However, remove that muscle and leave her with withering bones and just that fat, and I'd be hard-pressed to call her healthy.

So, I guess my answer to your question about degrees of health in women with body fat percentages between 10 and 21% would be, "it depends." It depends on what else she has going on in the physical composition of her body.

I admit that I feel sympathy for you, Sealegs. From my position on the other side of your blog, you're a beautiful woman, inside and out, who has lost sight of the big picture amidst O-C tendencies about just a piece of your body's make-up.

sea legs girl said...


Thank you for that wonderful, thoughtful answer! And, of course, I agree there are many, many things that contribute to good health. I had never personally thought about percent body fat much before I got a free reading. I brought it up as a topic, because I figured lots of people would want to share their opinions and since the WHO guidelines seem quite skewed (and if they are going to set a "healthy" range without good research to back it up, I feel I have the right, and when it comes to caring for patients, the duty to point that out). But, honestly, I have not and will not obsess about my own % fat. I may try it again, though, to see how much variation is in the TANITA (as Danni pointed out), but that's the curious scientist in me. While I appreciate your sympathy, you know, I feel I am quite a blessed person with a wonderful family and I am personlly quite happy and content :). But, as stated, if I talked about that all the time, the conversation would be a bit less interesting! Take care, Meghan! And thank you for your insight!

Anonymous said...

I'm around 26% body fat. in high school i went down to 13%, and still felt fat. i was between a 4 - 8 size in high school when i first got treated for the ED/exercise bulimia. my body doesn't trim down in a flattering way. i lose it all from my stomach, face, neck/shoulders, back, feet/shins and lower arms. i look weird, i still have the ass, boobs, thighs, and upper arms next to the protruding bones on my neck, upper chest and back.

My body looked nothing like the 20% girl, even. and i was told much "thinner" women had a healthier fat percentage, it was just on a different frame spread differently. and i couldn't control that.

It took years to accept, and years of being embarrassed, thinking that people were judging me as out of shape or unhealthy because i wasn't as thin as they were.

To be honest, I am comfortable just doing triathlons and finishing in the middle of the pack. My goal is to do them and not be worried and embarrassed about how people would judge me for being "plump" compared to them. It's wasted energy and frankly it seems to be annoying the shit out of everyone around me. This blog is a hard read because it kinda confirms all my fears about what other people in the gym/race/etc are thinking about me.

Yet i can't look away :)

sea legs girl said...

Hi anonymous, thanks so much for taking the time to comment! Well, my interest in wanting to discuss what a healthy body fat % is really blew up in my face. It's hard to know what that number means when one gets a TANITA read out and I am glad so many people have piped up and made the point that, of course, one number means next to nothing in the large picture of a person's health. I think it's awesome you are into triathlons and, not that it mattter what I think, but I would never think less of a middle of the pack triathlete than an elite one in the sense of who is a better person! And I personally would be lucky to be considered a middle of the pack triathlete. Anyway, the MOST important thing, as it sounds like you have learned is we are comfortalbe and happy with where were are at both physically and emotionally. And I didn't mean to diminish this by showing pictures of women and posing the question about what percent body fat is healthiest. I look at it from the point of view of a physician and I would love to learn if there were an ideal range or exactly what % body fat means in terms of health. But that research really hasn't been done. Of course when I see obese people I tend to think of the health problems they may develop or may have, but I can't stop my head from thinking that, but should I feel guilty about that? Anway, there are far more important qualities in humans than what they look like in a bikini. But being a physician and who I am, I can't help questioning whether there is an ideal. I certainly didn't mean any harm and only hope that readers of this blog can learn something once in a while. Sorry about the long answer, but I really thank you for your honesty and wish you all the best.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure if you should feel guilty. I think it might not be an ordinary reaction - even for a doctor (and i'm from a family of doctors). To me, when I see a particularly overweight person (i wouldn't say the 30% fat you showed) i tend to think "that's what i will look like if i don't exercise everyday" or "that's what i'd look like if i eat everytime i'm hungry." And i've been told, that's not healthy.

I have a cardiologist for a father, and i know that a lot of problems are more genetic than we like to admit. I have an obese, 80+ year old grandmother who still goes to the gym, swims laps, and has perfect cholesterol and blood pressure. Her diet is too much of generally good things (though she might eat too much dairy). You may assume a sedentary lifestyle but she's more active than peers her age. My diet has always been controlled, even with an Italian family. growing up i was a string bean til puberty hit. Now my body is not the picture of health it once was, but my dad has always been in the camp that exercising is much more important than a strict diet. And to be honest, I am never going through the years where i gave up dairy and grains again for what amounted to vanity issues alone. it's not worth it.

I have a 34E, and hips that are nearly in proportion to that. As someone who grew up most of their pre-pubescent life as an athlete (particularly swimming) curves like this were dreaded and associated with sedentary, unathletic types. It is still hard adjusting - even a decade after puberty - to the fact that this is the body I'm stuck with and short of surgery, I can't do much to change it in a healthy way. I guess i wouldn't judge peoples health based on looks, if you could, or even based on body fat.

sea legs girl said...

Hey, anonymous. I've gotta admit this is an interesting discussion. First, it sounds like you have the body shape that is associated with longevity in women and you can stand to have a bit of extra fat on you because of it. When I see women with 30% body fat, I don't give it much thought, but I actually said when I see "obese" people I can't help but think of the healthy problems that go along with it. Just like when I see someone smoking. No difference. I don't think anyone knows the ideal when it comes to logevity or risk of health problems and "normal" vs. "thin" when it comes to womens' physique may have little consequence for most. Whereas some women probably benefit from being on the thinner side. That is just my impression, though, from watching peoples' blood pressure and cholesterol levels.