Research the Flat Abs Myth: Women Are Supposed to be Fat

"Get ripped in the new year!" "Have the lean body of your dreams!" "Six-pack abs in 6 weeks!" "Burn fat up to 400 times faster!" Thanks to the advent of Resolution-Making Season (also known as the fitness industry's Santa) and an e-mail address that seems to be on every marketer's PR list, I've been getting a slew of "get shredded" pitches every day. The products are wildly variable - everything from mushroom pills to different exercise equipment to books - but the end goal is always the same: to help women get as lean as possible. Inevitably these pitches are all illustrated with pictures of 18-year-olds with perfectly sculpted abs. I don't even need to describe them further, because you already know exactly what I'm talking about. They're in magazines and on websites, everywhere.

But these photo (-shopped?) beauties with amazing muscle definition distract us from a very important fact: women are supposed to have fat. I'm not knocking these girls, especially because I give them mad props for putting in the work required to get those muscles, but while there is a nod to health with most fitness experts acknowledging that women shouldn't go "too low" (although that varies wildly as fitness competitors are often under 10% while most medical professionals will tell you not to go below 16-18%), people completely forget that getting as close to the minimum of the healthy range as possible is not the same when it comes to health as being a few percentage points higher. And of course there is such a thing as "too fat," although if you need me to explain that to you, then clearly you don't have enough lady mags in your life. Body fat is integral to a woman's health and there is no on/off health switch; it's more a of a sliding scale with risk of death a disease increasing rapidly at both ends of the spectrum.

So if too low and too high are too bad, then what's a Goldilocks girl in our weight-obsessed world to do? Where is the sweet spot when it comes to fat? According to science, it's more than we think. Gina Kolata, a science writer for the New York Times who predominantly covers health and fitness research, blew my mind a few years ago with her book Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss---and the Myths and Realities of Dieting

Credit Image: mararie on Flickr Check out that beneath-the-belly button pooch on Venus! The full cheeks! Her fleshy thighs and arms (what's left of them anyhow - they got blown off at such an unflattering angle)! And not a clavicle in sight! She was the standard of beauty for centuries.

Even 50 years ago it was this:


(Credit Image: © Globe Photos/ZUMAPRESS.com)

Sophia Loren was considered not only one of the most beautiful women of her time but of all time. Today she'd be doing plus-sized modeling and working with a trainer 5 days a week to tone up.

But then we swung this direction, which most of us now recognize as unhealthy (I'm not commenting on this woman in particular, I don't know her from Kate Moss):


Credit Image: Parker Michael Knight on Flickr

And now we have this:


Flat abs via Shutterstock

The flat-as-a-board tummy. It may be healthier, but does it still represent an unrealistic and unhealthy standard? I'll admit it: I still wish my abs looked like this.

But the problem is that we may not just be driving ourselves crazy with this shift, even worse we may also be hurting our health. So what's the magic number for optimal health, happiness and beauty? 42! Kidding. I have no idea. And I may be overthinking this. Certainly there are women who are naturally very thin and are healthy just as there are women who are considered "large" who are also very healthy. I am not condemning anyone for their natural shape. What I do know is that if we put half the energy into being good as we do looking good, we would have cured cancer by now. And I say that as much as a personal indictment as I do a societal one. I freely admit that I struggle with this concept. Would I still be the size I am if being "fatter" was considered beautiful? Honestly, probably not. I'm not sure what the end is, but I think it starts by recognizing the ultra-ripped standard as being detrimental to our health just like ultra-skinny is.

Help me figure this out - What are your thoughts on this? If we suddenly reverted to the Sophia Loren standard of beauty how would you feel? People say "strong is the new skinny," but maybe we shouldn't be promoting any kind of skinny?

Note: As per our terms of service, BlogHer does not render medical advice or professional services. The information provided here should not be used for the purposes of diagnosing or treating a medical or psychiatric illness. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional care. If you have or suspect you may have a health problem, you should consult your health care provider.

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Written with love by Charlotte Hilton Andersen for The Great Fitness Experiment (c) 2010. If you enjoyed this, please check out my new book The Great Fitness Experiment

This is an article written by a member of the SheKnows Community. The SheKnows editorial team has not edited, vetted or endorsed the content of this post. Want to join our amazing community and share your own story? Sign up here.
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