I’ve noticed something lately. I’ve noticed a lot of commenters either applauding authors for having awesomely lean physiques and wondering how they too can get to 12% body fat. On the flip side, I’ve also noticed many many commenters blasting bloggers/fitness professionals for not being super lean or totally cut, because isn’t every fitness professional supposed to have a body like this?
The piece of this puzzle that really makes me want to scratch my eyeballs out is that there are so many people out there who believe that one must be incredibly lean, tan, and “cut” in order to really know what you’re talking about when it comes to fitness. And also that it’s healthy and sustainable for the general public to reach this level of leanness as well.
In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. First of all, and the most important point to understand, is that most* of the pictures that top fitness bloggers post on their blogs (and almost all fitspo photos on Pinterest as well) are professional photos, taken at a time when the person has carefully cut their diet specifically for the photo shoot and has also carefully manipulated water, hydration status, and lighting. These photos are not real life. Many of them are gorgeous, yes, but they are a snapshot of a highly manipulated moment, not of a sustainable lifestyle.
*I say most because of course there are those few people out there who are blessed with the genetics of the gods, and who can easily maintain an extremely lean physique without camera trickery and causing hormonal imbalances.
The second, and also extremely important point to understand is that maintaining a female body at 12% body fat, which is the low-healthy limit for women, is not healthy or remotely sustainable for an extended period of time if it’s not your natural state. Some women even push it below this level, to a 10 or 11% which is extremely dangerous to sustain for any female, no matter what your natural size (the fat surrounding your internal organs and breast tissue make up a certain amount of body fat, the former of which is necessary for life).
Yet despite this, I see nasty comments on blogs from women (and sometimes men) who say that the blogger looks “soft” or that they don’t know what they’re talking about because they’re not figure-competitor lean all the time. The people who make these comments are usually just nasty people looking to get a rise out of someone. But for another reader to see that comment and think that she has to have 12% body fat in order to be “fit” is truly dangerous. Possibly trying anything and everything to actually become that lean, she is setting herself up for a world of metabolic damage, hormonal imbalances, and other serious health problems.
Not only that, but when she fails to reach that 12% body fat, or fails to maintain it for any amount of time, she is then thrown back into the mental cycle of not being good enough, not being fit enough, and now she’s a failure on top of it all. This cycle will continue as she repeatedly fails to reach and maintain this mythical ultra-lean physique, all the while crushing her metabolism and endocrine system.
That doesn’t sound like healthy inspiration to me.
In fact, many figure competitors will very readily admit that dieting down to their competition weight has resulted in metabolic damage, which can sometimes take years to reverse, and can take a serious toll on ones health. Molly Galbraith, who is in my opinion one of the most inspirational women in the fitness industry, talks openly about the trouble that she went through after her own figure competition, and is very honest about the misery that accompanied her “lean” stage (read about this here). Let’s also note that I put lean in quotations because to me, she is perfectly lean in her “real” photos and in her photo-shoot photos.
So my question is this: In pursuit of the perfect physique, how much sacrifice is worth it? If you can get down to your “perfect” body composition, it will take hell and high water to keep you there. So what happens when you inevitably fall off of that lean-physique pedestal? You could very well end up in a never ending cycle of weight gain and eventually more restriction to get back to that “perfect” body type. Is this really the life that you want to lead?
For females, any body fat percentage within the teens is incredibly lean. For someone to be disappointed because they are 18% body fat is just absurd, because for most of us that is a number that is extremely difficult to attain, and takes considerable dedication to reach. Even figure competitors often walk around at 18-20% BF in the off season, and they still look very lean. It also goes without saying that women who compete at 12% will live their “normal” lives closer to 20%, because the former is just not healthy or sustainable. For a photo shoot or a moment on stage? Sure. For running around at your job, taking care of the kids and living a happy, healthy lifestyle? Not a chance.
This is where there is a huge disparity in the fitness industry. Pinterest is filled with fitspo images of ultra-lean physiques, those that were created for a moment in a photo shoot. But they lead us to believe that that is the ideal and attainable body for women, and that if you do “just this short 10 minute workout!”, you too can look that lean. As I’ve stated above, however, it is simply not in the cards for most women to ever look that way (or to get there in a healthy way). So women consistently “fail” when they do their prescribed workouts, eat like rabbits, and still don’t look like that gorgeous, bronzed, oiled, chiseled fitness model who is giving you bedroom eyes from behind a squat rack.
So what is the answer? I’m afraid I don’t know. I don’t necessarily think that bloggers and personal trainers should opt out of those fantastically lean photo shoots, but I do think that there needs to be some sort of understanding when it comes to these pictures. Fitness photos of almost-naked women with “inspirational” slogans are a different story however. Fitspo isn’t reality, and if you ask me, it isn’t even that inspirational either. People need to understand that those photos are not reality. They are momentary perfection, snap shots meant to be aesthetically pleasing to the average consumer. They portray an “ideal look” that is unattainable for most of us, yet we are told that that’s what fitness looks like. Is it out of the question to think that people could be inspired by someone who sits at 20% body fat? 25? Does being ultra lean equal being inspirational?
My point is that lean does not necessarily equal healthy, and beyond any aesthetic reasons, aren’t we all exercising and eating well to be more healthy? It does not seem worth having an ultra lean physique if you have to traumatize your body by getting there, and it does not seem fair that this is what we are bombarded with in the fitness world. Show me pictures of strength, health, dedication, and determination. Those are inspirational, and that is what fitness looks like.
Readers: Is this what fitness looks like to you? Do you believe that people are only truly fit if they are incredibly lean? Can you be inspired by a photo of someone who is not figure-competitor lean? Do you have any personal stories about metabolic damage due to cutting to an extremely low body fat percentage or low weight?