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 Nourishing-the-Soul.com
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.