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 (aff). Her basic premise is that we suffer from a bizarre dichotomy wherein we are told that the ideal standard for both health and beauty is as lean as possible while many Americans carry an unhealthy amount of fat. Both are as ubiquitous as they are unhealthy. While many of us can easily point out what is unhealthy, very few can identify what is healthy, because it turns out that healthy is what many of us think of as "fat."

This past week, new research published in Why Women Need Fat: How "Healthy" Food Makes Us Gain Excess Weight and the Surprising Solution to Losing It Forever (aff) written by an anthropologist and a medical doctor, adds more evidence to the debate. In an interview with, co-author Steven Gaulin explains how "evolution shows that women's dieting beliefs aren't just unrealistic -- they're unnatural." According to the author, one of the main points of the book (which I haven't read but hope to) is to show polyunsaturated omega-6 fats like canola and corn oils for the public health hazards I believe they are. From the article:

"Gaulin says their research shows that processed omega-6 fatty acids are the precursors to endocannabinoids, making them a food that acts like marijuana in the brain telling the body, 'Store the fat you have.' And 'Eat more, I’m hungry!' He adds, 'Many studies in the U.S. and other countries show that the single best predictor of how much a woman will weigh is how much omega-6 is in her diet.'"

But the part of the interview that most fascinated me was this gem:

"Many M.D.s have bought this fallacious line that the optimal weight for women in terms of their health is what M.D.s call normal weight, a BMI between 18.5 and 25. And they have thought this to be true because women with higher BMIs exhibit a series of physiological measures that are indeed risk factors for disease in men. But they are not systematically risk factors for disease in women. If you actually look at the data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey and data from studies done in other countries, the optimal weight for women who have had a kid is what doctors currently call “overweight.” I’m not saying that obesity is optimal, but all the findings show that overweight women survive better than "normal" weight women." (emphasis mine)

There seems to be a paranoia in our society that if we tell women it's okay to be fatter, then suddenly all women are going to balloon up into obesity. This is especially true for women who have had children, as we are told that if we don't get back to what we weighed before we grew an entire human being inside us, then we're a failure. And a lot of women have internalized this thinking that the best way, both from an aesthetic and health standpoint, is therefore to get as low as possible and stay there. Which means we are fighting our bodies for the rest of our lives. But think for a moment what it would be like if we gave women permission to carry fat in places other than their boobs and butts and to still be seen as beautiful - not just because adult women should not have to be shaped like teenage boys but also because it's better for our health? I think that perhaps we would see less obesity because there wouldn't be such a huge gap between the ideal and the reality, and there would be less shame associated with having body fat.

There is a reason that for centuries the female ideal was closer to this:

Venus de Milo

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:

Sophia Loren

(Credit Image: © Globe Photos/

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):

thin model

Credit Image: Parker Michael Knight on Flickr

And now we have this:

flat abs

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


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