After years of dietary fat being demonized, most people now know that some amount of fat in our diet is actually necessary. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to have had the same realization about body fat.
Consider this quote from Lori Gottlieb’s book Stick Figure: A Diary of My Former Self, which describes her experience with anorexia as an eleven-year-old, including being hospitalized and considering whether she might let herself die.
“I wanted to cut all the fat off my body so people like Leslie wouldn’t say I looked fat at my funeral.” (p. 191)
The tragedy of this is almost unbearable to me. Here’s a young girl, who’s interested in math and astronomy and so many other things, but believes that she needs to be super-skinny, without an ounce of fat on her body. Otherwise, why bother going on?
Nor is she alone in feeling this way. I’ve read about other women who fantasize about cutting their fat away, and many others lament about any fat on their stomach or thighs.
And why wouldn’t people feel that way? We’re always told about BMI charts and percentages of acceptable body fat. What I don’t remember is being told that a certain amount of body fat is necessary – until I had already started to suffer some of the problems associated with having too little.
For women, the biggest hit from having too little body fat is the impact to our hormones. Our bodies seem to decide that they don’t have enough to support carrying a child, so our menstrual cycle simply shuts down. (Most women would want around 20-24% body fat, although not everyone agrees.) This impacts bone density as well as fertility, resulting in the possibility of young women having osteopenia or osteoporosis.
But we don’t talk about this as a society. We focus on always cutting back, cutting the fat out, without recognizing that we need some of it. Even without those other issues, if you have almost no body fat, you get cold all the time, and have a hard time being comfortable sitting or lying down (you have no cushion, after all).
In my case, it wasn’t even just a matter of having less body fat than the “ideal” but also putting my body into a sort of trauma by having lost half of my weight. It meant that I became one of those who don’t have a normal cycle, which resulted in issues with bone density. I still don’t know what the long-term implications of that will mean.
So when people talk about having a certain amount of fat, remember that it applies to our physical selves, not just what we eat, and that as with all things, it seems to be more a matter of moderation, rather than cutting it out altogether.