Q: Hey Erika! Love the blog! I wanted to ask you, a message board I’m apart of has a lot of women who use the term “skinny fat,” and I don’t understand what that means and when I asked, I got barked on because I don’t understand. I thought you were always only either skinny or fat, not both. What’s the deal?
Here’s the deal.
Lots of people refer to themselves as “skinny fat” when they’re talking about being small in size, but not necessarily lean or muscular. It’s basically the condition of being thin, but having a high body fat percentage.
The body mass index and the way that it’s used in modern health care gives people the impression that those of us with “normal” BMI readings have nothing to worry about. And, because “underweight” is scarcely investigated or villainized the way “overweight” is, just about everyone with a non-overweight and non-obese reading feels like they have nothing to worry about.
Aside from the reality that the standard chronic illness conditions—diabetes, high blood pressure, and so on—aren’t exclusive to those who are overweight, the truth of the matter is that having a high body fat percentage, irrespective of size, is a cause for concern. Not in an alarmist fashion, but in a “we have to think about how our individual bodies will respond to aging” kind of way.
This isn’t really something we’ve ever had to think about before, but our world is changing. Our country and the industries that employ us are changing. Many of us aren’t as hands-on anymore. We’re running machines, manning machines, supervising machines. Now, we have to think about how our bodies respond to sedentary lifestyles well into adulthood and our senior years.
As we age, our muscle mass depletes often because we’re far less active than we were in our twenties or thirties. “Settling down” refers to a lot more than relationships, y’all. So many of us slow down, and some of us come to a grinding halt. Before we know it, we’re losing muscle mass and going into our senior years unable to do many of the things we take for granted, like standing up unassisted, moving up and down stairs unassisted, bending over to pick things up unassisted.
Those of us who worked active jobs into our senior years often had the muscle to show for it. We might not’ve been super-lean bodybuilding types, but we were able to hold our own on our own for a good enough amount of time. Now, things are very different.
This is part of why people who are otherwise thin are becoming aware of the consequences of having a high body fat percentage. Aside from the fact that there is the aesthetic component of looking like a fitspo graphic and all the perceived benefits that could come with it, lots of people also realize that “being thin” isn’t the same as “being lean” or “having a solid physique.”
In fact, this is something that a lot of people trying to lose weight fail to realize, too—that “losing weight” automatically means “losing a muffin top” or “no more cellulite.” Those are things that only come with decreasing your body fat percentage, which includes a combination of losing body fat and developing lean muscle.
I don’t want to see “skinny fat” become a term we throw around to people in attempt to shame them for their bodies or manipulate them into doing what they might not otherwise want. It sometimes seems like people use the term “skinny fat” as a way of getting back at a thin person or “thin people” as an amorphous mass of people. “Well, you’re all worried about me, and you’re skinny fat!” That’s no bueno.
It’s also not something over which someone should feel shame. It’s a common condition among people of any and every size, and some people are able and ready to tackle it, and others aren’t. But, because we’re talking about a lack of muscle, it can and will become a quality of life problem in the future.
But, if you see someone referring to themselves as “skinny fat,” it’s because they’re realizing that “thin” isn’t the same as “lean” or “physically fit” or “capable of maintaining a healthy quality of life through their senior years,” and they are intending—hopefully—to take the necessary steps to help ensure that they lose fat in a way that preserves muscle, and build muscle in a way that counters what mainstream society says they like and want in a woman.
Can’t argue with that.