When I was maybe 9 years old, I remember putting on my mom’s Jane Fonda workout record (yes, record—like, the vinyl kind) and telling her I was going on a diet. I didn’t get this idea from her—in fact, I can’t recall my mother ever exercising (she must have stored that record for years; I never once saw her actually use it) or dieting, per se. Beyond that, I was a skinny, bony child—going on a “diet” made absolutely no sense.
Where on earth had I gotten this idea? The grim reality is that media and culture teach women that their bodies are somehow always “wrong,” always in need of “fixing.” Advertising and women’s magazines socialize us to believe that being “thin” is a goal we should always strive toward, that success in “thinness” will make us happy and desirable. The truth is that it is this lie that has, in fact, caused undue, extreme pain and stress to hundreds of thousands of women for decades—not an extra ten or fifteen pounds.
Here are some other things that are true: (1) There is far more societal pressure on women to expel any and all fat from their bodies than there is on men. (2) Women are biologically destined to have more fat on their bodies than men. (3) Research shows that it’s harder for women to lose weight than it is for men. (4) Trying to meet the media’s standards of weight is by and large a great way to feel bad about yourself without necessarily getting any healthier.
So, what do we make of these truths for the modern woman, who would just like to be healthy and feel good about herself, thank you very much?
Well, there’s good news and bad news. Women’s bodies store fat differently (and better!) than men’s. Our bodies store fat on purpose because it influences fertility. Female athletes who train too hard and don’t eat enough are at risk of not producing enough estrogen and can stop menstruating as a result (which may cause women to lose bone mass, too). Anorexia has a similar impact on reproductive cycles. Evolution thinks that our bodies are supposed to be able to feed another being from our own reserves, which is why we store nutrients and fat in the particular ways we do. Men, on the other hand, tend to have more muscle on their bodies than women, and because muscle burns more calories than fat, men tend to have a faster metabolism.
In other words, you are not a failure for not having a thigh gap. More to the point: You are most likely not supposed to have a thigh gap.
The bad news is that the exercise and diet industries target women in ways that convince us we can and should be engaged in a constant battle with what is, in large part, a biological reality. We are told we can “spot train”—that is, target certain areas on our bodies in our exercise routines—particularly those areas where women naturally store fat: our hips, thighs, butts, and stomachs. You can, of course, strengthen certain muscles and burn fat. But you can’t actually choose to burn fat from specific areas if your body has already decided it wants it there. In other words, doing billions of sit-ups is unlikely to give you Kate Hudson’s abs because, well, you are not Kate Hudson. In order to get the “taut abs” that women are told are a worthy life goal, you might need to reduce your body fat to a level that isn’t necessarily healthy for you.
New diet and fitness fads often reach us through celebrity culture. Timothy Caulfield, a professor of health law and policy in the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta and author of Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?, described to me how women have, for at least a few decades now, implemented “severe strategies” to try to achieve the physique of the celebrities we see in magazines and movies. And these celebrities are more willing than ever to dish out advice.
But celebrities are (usually) not dietitians or doctors. They have “won the genetic lottery,” as Caulfield puts it, and maintaining their appearances is, in essence, part of their job, often employing entire fitness and nutritional teams to keep the look. But for us normies, it’s not possible or desirable to work out five hours a day or to live on expensive juices and pills.
Consider the most recent diet scheme targeting women: the “detox” or “cleanse.” This particular type of diet is having a moment, thanks in large part to celebrities such as Paltrow and Katy Perry. Juice cleanses and short-term detoxes are sold not as diets but as programs that encourage health and wellness—a way to “clean out the toxins” and to reset our bodies and metabolism in order to get back to normal. The thing is that there’s no real science to back up these claims. There’s no need to cleanse, from a health perspective, and there is no need to “detoxify” because our bodies do that all on their own. “We have the liver, we have our kidneys, we even have our skin and our lungs . . . our body is constantly working with our environment to rid our body of things that aren’t supposed to be in there and keep things that are supposed to be in [there],” Caulfield said in a recent interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
Detoxes are really just crash diets. And for those who seek a cleanse as a quick way to lose weight, you’ll be disappointed. People may lose weight right away through detoxes, but it’s practically impossible to keep it off because those diets are not sustainable. You can’t only drink juice forever. Beyond that and more generally, “It is very hard to lose and keep off a substantial amount of weight,” Caulfield says. My body concurs. When I tried to do a twelve-day detox almost a decade ago, I only lasted a week. (And I felt like crap for all seven days, mind you.) I did lose weight, but immediately after I escaped the torturous clutches of my detox program, I binged on all the things I’d been deprived of that week (namely, chocolate cake, bread, cheese, and wine). I obsessed over food in a way I never had before—as much as I like cake, it’s not something I ever fantasized about until I was cut off. I resolved never to be so cruel to myself again.
This is not to discourage women from leading healthy lifestyles. Exercise really does make you feel good—and so do vegetables. But rather than obsessing over the perfect or latest diet, just try to eat healthy most of the time. “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” This is the “healthy-ish” lifestyle as explained by author Michael Pollen. And it’s also having a moment right now. But it’s really just common sense. As boring as it sounds, you will be much more successful if you simply make healthy changes in your lifestyle that make you feel better and that you enjoy.
I don’t make New Year’s resolutions (I like my life and hate disappointment, what can I say), but for those who do, maybe adding walking to your routine and some extra vegetables to your meals is a better resolution than "lose twenty pounds." So the hard truth is that losing weight is no easy task for women, but rather than hand-wringing and obsessing over the best fat-burning techniques, consider that your body is not your enemy, and despite what the media tells us, it wasn’t made for the runway.