Skinny-Fat and Moral Panic

Last week I read an amazing post from Ragen Chastain at Dance’s with Fat about the term “Skinny-Fat” and she describes it beautifully,

If you haven’t heard this let me fill you in: “Skinnyfat” is a term used to describe people who are thin but not healthy – they may lack muscle tone, be sedentary, have poor eating habits, be genetically unhealthy etc.

Looking further into the use of this word you can see how incredibly gendered the whole situation is by seeing the bodies that are primarily targeted. There are no famous men whose names have been dragged into the debate but people like Nicole Richie, Gwyneth Paltrow and other female entertainers who look skinny but have a “high” percentage of body fat.

The Today Show taped a segment back in October about the new “phenomenon” where they measured women who fall into a “normal” BMI and found their percentage of body fat. Throughout the whole segment, the behaviors of being health eating well and exercising were discussed but those were not used as indicators of good health. They used the level of body fat, in the one women discussed she had 27%, and indicated that it was cause for concern. This was yet again another discussion based within the moral panic of fat, not actually talking about the health effects of not eating well or exercising but labeling fat as bad.

The discussion could have been positive if they had only talked about habits over body composition. If they talked about the fact that body size is not an indicator of good health this could have been a positive discussion because it would of discussed the things that fat activism has been saying all along, that habits matter not size. Instead what it actually appears to be doing is creating more panic about fat in bodies when there doesn’t need to be. But what actually brought me to looking more into this subject was not Regan’s post but a friend who directed me to a post made by the gym CrossFit (their South Bay, CA location to be exact.)

For those of you who are not aware of this gym, I would personally categorize it as a high intensity, ultra expensive (monthly dues average $150) gym that caters to people who are very athletic or want to be. I do think that their team mentality can be very motivating but as someone who sees the way this kind of gym could be not accessible to all people of ability and income as well as a potentially bad environment for someone with an eating disorder (their post is a great example of this), I would never join this gym.

This is where the CrossFit article comes in, the premise that they are trying to put across is that CF is for all women and that they get a lot of questions from potential members who are scared that they will “bulk up” if they join. They explain that they will actually gain what they consider to be a “lean toned body”, with a low body level of body fat.

I would disagree with their definition of toned, as it actually has more to do with the state or condition of the muscle, not the appearance of it under the skin. Basically you can tone your muscle without being able to see it (See video below)

This is not a response that I would be surprised to get if I was a trainer, sadly the way female beauty ideals dictate that women be waif thin without any apparent muscle tone is a reality.

What really stuck out to me was the body shaming that then ensued near the middle of the article where they compared the body of a crossfitter and a model, which the author said both had a body fat percentage between 12-15%. I’m not sure if CF strives for all of their members to get to this low of a percentage but it is extremely low. After reading this article I reached out to fellow blogger Ashley Solomon Psy. D, a therapist who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders, body image, trauma, and serious mental illness. ( <– Totally stole that from her site…Thanks Ashley!) She blogs at

When asked about what levels of body fat is a cause for concern and the health consequences of it, this was her response,

I always hesitate to indicate a certain number as too high or too low due to the fact that each individual’s body is very different. In a room of ten people with the same body fat percentage, you could find ten different weights, shapes, and health statuses. That said, for women I would consider 14% to be very low. It could be healthy for a very active woman, one we would consider an athlete. But that would be the low end for an athlete, in my opinion. Again, this is not to say that someone lower (or much, much higher) would be unhealthy per se, but this would definitely be concerning.

The 12-14% you mention is the essential body fat, what would be minimally required for functioning. At low body fat percentage, a woman will stop menstruating (some say at lower than 17%), as you said, and runs the risk of losing bone density. Hormone production decreases and immune functioning decreases as well, making one more vulnerable to illness. One could be weak and fatigued easily and have difficulty recovering from illness and injury.

What has always been a cause for concern over CF is the fact that it is such an intense experience, creating the very place where female athletes could fall into a pattern of extreme exercising and dieting. Contributing to this concern was the articles further body shaming of fat bodies by assuming that someone with 30% body fat or above has no muscle mass at all and all I have to do is show you this video below to show you that is completely false,

Aside from that, either person the model or the athlete has the possibility to have health consequences, it doesn’t matter if you have muscle mass or not, having that low of a body fat percentage is cause for concern. Proving even further that bodies, skinny, “athletic” or fat can be healthy or unhealthy it’s all about each individual person not the way their body appears on the outside.

The use of the term skinny-fat yet again creates an even more stringent and small window where bodies must be within to be considered morally sound and sadly, CrossFit appears to be just another gym that not only is contributing to this moral panic but trying to profit from it as well.

Note: I have not found any place that CrossFit specifically recommended that low body fat  is required for good health, but some places have.  Making this whole use of the term skinny-fat even more scary and potentially hazardous.

14 thoughts on “Skinny-Fat and Moral Panic

  1. Thanks SO much for posting this. My hubby’s best friend is very active with this particular CrossFit group in the South Bay, and some of what he has done with them concerns me. I haven’t been able to find anything specific about them to share with him, as he is quite enthusiastic about his participation in what they call “The Caveman Diet”. This is a particularly extreme high protein -uh-lifestyle change-’cause you know it’s not a diet.
    This is an attractive, smart, healthy 29 year old very fit athletic young man flirting with eating disorder, and it scares the hell out of me. If HE can fall victim to this, what does that mean about the rest of us? I am well aware that body dysmorphia and disordered eating are not solely women’s issues, and that media pressure for men to comply with sanctioned body image is on the rise. But I found everything from Cross Fit really disturbing. Friend had a ready (and almost cult-ish) answer for all of my questions.

    Anyone else know more about this group? I wish I could find something definitive to help him avoid the BIG problems I see lurking.
    Thanks again for sharing this.

    • You can find a lot about them just by googling. Most of it I find to be very scary.

  2. I am so thankful for this post and amazed and delighted to have my video included!

    I know we are having a conversation on Twitter (which is great!) but I just wanted to share my thoughts here as well.

    There are several CF folks at my gym these days, who are learning how to do the Olympic-style lifts. One-on-one they are really sweet and wonderful people, but when a group of them gathers, they slip into their CF mentality which is really aggressive and has a serious fat-shaming quality to it.

    I can’t imagine being a fat woman at a CF gym. There is such a paradigm of fat = failure. I love my gym because that paradigm doesn’t exist, but I’ve noticed the tone shifting with more and more CF people joining. I really don’t want to scapegoat the whole movement, and as I said, I really enjoy these folks one-on-one. It’s more the obsessive/compulsive mob mentality that slips in and gets strange and shaming so quickly.

    And honestly, I bet the majority of CF people don’t know what we’re talking about, because they’ve never been the fat girl at the gym. They’ve never had to stand there and hear other people say “Have you seen Patty? She’s gained so much weight. She looks terrible.” And know that Patty weighs about 100 lbs. less than I do.

    And they’ve never seen the shock on people’s faces when I lift just as much or more as they do. They’ve never had the full body scan along with “how much do you lift?” and seeing the thought bubble “But you’re so fat! How can you lift more than I do?”

    I’m working through this right now, so it’s just amazing to me that you would include my video with your post! It’s so interesting how the world works!

    Thank you so much for this. I look forward to more conversation about all of this!

    • Please! Thanks for being awesome and posting your video! I loved it because you do what CF does, yet you go against everything they think you should look like. I hate that you are having to deal with their mentality at your gym, especially since I know you go there because it was so inviting.

      • Just to clarify, I actually don’t do what CF does. There are CF folks who have come to my gym to learn Olympic-style weightlifting – that’s my experience of them. I have never worked out at CF gym, nor will I ever. They are far to obsessed with repetitive aerobic exercising. I do plenty of aerobic exercising, but I do lots of other stuff too.

        Sadly, the word has gotten out that I don’t “dig CrossFit” and those folks aren’t being quite as friendly as they once were. Not a big surprise, but still a bummer, because that makes for even more bad feelings at the gym.

        Anyway…great discussion!

  3. Contributing to this concern was the articles further body shaming of fat bodies by assuming that someone with 30% body fat or above has no muscle mass at all and all I have to do is show you this video below to show you that is completely false,

    While I definitely agree that he shames bodies, especially those like the woman pictured with the (allegedly) 30% body fat, he never says that someone over a certain fat percentage has no muscles. He just says that someone thin with a high body fat percentage has not a lot of muscle, which is probably true. That someone like the woman pictured can’t wear a bikini on the beach like he assumes is of course again unnecessary and ridiculous.

    Most of the cavemen/paleo/primal/whathaveyou diets are not much higher in protein than the other nutrition concepts found with people who weight-train, but higher in fat.
    I see that looking at that kind of eating from an intuitive eating standpoint makes it look like deprivation, but if you do not have a history of dieting, why is a change of eating/not eating certain foods inherently problematic?

    • I do agree that they do not outright say that someone higher than 30% has no muscle mass, but they did imply it with the body they showed. Unless you actually see that body in person or I should say live in that body, there is no way to tell what is going on. Also notice how they dehumanize the person from the body by it being a headless to be deemed unacceptable and flawed. Aside from that my comment stems from the fact that many people believe that fat people do not have toned muscle or strength, since we are considered weak physically and emotionally. Further up in the article he gives the definition of being toned, which it says is only possible when you can literally see the muscle under the skin, which is not the case and implies that fat bodies cannot have muscle mass or a toned body.

      Also the change in diet they are promoting that Chutti mentions can be problematic when it also involves the environment CF sets with their gym, a very intense almost obsessive need to conform physically. Someone without a history of dieting can still be at risk of developing an eating disorder especially when you have people surrounding you that are not only participating in the same process but are encouraging you to perform risky behavior.

  4. Of course, if a thin woman goes from “skinny fat” to very lean with defined muscles, there will be no shortage of men ready to complain that That Just Isn’t Sexy.

  5. Granted i dont believe in FA but I’m fat and a crossfitter. I’ve never thought the workouts were dangerous and everything is scaled to your ability. Is it hard? Yes. But it is doable and crossfit boxes (gyms) are some of the most welcoming gyms around. People get to know one another, cheer for one another and experience a great community environment.

    Additionally if it were so dangerous why would so many 60, 70 and 80 year olds do it??

    • I don’t think anyone said that what they do is not physically possible. I know that CF South Bay says that everything is tailored to each person’s needs, that is great. What is worrisome is the dynamic of any gym, CF is being used specifically for this post because of the article that was written and the issues with it. I think having community without shaming is a great thing, but as other commenters have already said, that is not the experience that is had been found with CF. Shaming doesn’t make anyone healthier.

      Also, you can look at Cross fit’s wiki for other issues that people have found with their own program, including a long history of injuries.

  6. Great post! I found you through Nourishing the Soul and can’t wait to read more. You really take hold of the big picture. I find this “skinnyfat” topic completely fascinating… my first reaction when I first heard the term (on the show Weeds) was RELIEF! Like – yes, people will finally understand that skinny does not equal in shape! But you have shown that our culture can twist practically anything into another shame-fest about fat. How sad, but how true. Talking about it is a huge first step. So thank you.

    Also, can I just say to Tristy: Your video kicks serious behind. You are awesome. And I totally relate to the whole fat-girl-at-the-gym experience you talked about in your comment above. I usually just get more motivated to rock out at the gym when I get those looks or hear those comments, but I don’t want aggression or competition to be my primary motivators. So, when I’m at my best, I look at the experience as a way to practice emotional detachment. Not my prejudice, not my problem! Wishing you the best.

    • Thanks for reading! Your reaction to the word was very similar to the person who told me about the article. It can be hard to see the shaming when we are so use to the spin that is put on things.

  7. Thanks for the kind words about my video @dianabanana! Here’s to the fat girls who kick butt at the gym!

  8. To further clarify- It was indeed the conformity and group think that I found most disturbing. There was a falsely idealistic ritual and a heaping load of pseudo-science involved in the paleo talk that concerned me in a group setting. If the body shame in that post is any indication, there is something going on. Our friend is usually good about re-thinking this stuff when framed in terms of ableism ( he has a brother with major disabilities). Friend has been known to be a bit of a ‘joiner’ in the past, but is able to make good decisions once issues are pointed out to him.

    And late to the party, but I enjoyed the video a lot, too!
    It’s so great to have fat models for working out. When people are surprised that I can do something physical, I like to tell them I have a six pack, or maybe an eight pack, but I keep it under wraps.
    I just moved, and will have to join a new gym soon. Don’t know if I’ll find as accepting a place as I had before, but I seem to gravitate towards facilities with a lot of older retired members-they’re more accepting….and expensive. I’ve got to save up the (gulp!) $1500 membership fee, but it’s worth it for my sanity.

    Thanks all, this was just what I needed to hear now.

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