Research: Women Are Supposed to be Fat [The flat abs myth]

by Charlotte on January 2, 2012 · 119 comments

If we’re sincere in our desire to “just be healthy” that may mean embracing more fat – both in our diets and on our bodies. Psst, Adele – LOVE you. Lose the cigs!!

“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 every magazine and on every website, everywhere.

But these photo (-shopped?) beauties with amazing muscle definition distract us from a very important fact: women are supposed to be 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 weeknew 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 evolutionary biologist and a doctor adds more evidence to the debate. In an interview with Salon.com, co-author Steven Gaulin, explains how “evolution shows that women’s dieting beliefs aren’t just unrealistic — they’re unnatural.” 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 they are. 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. We walk a fine line in the book because we argue that being overweight is not nearly as bad as your doctor has been telling you, but on the other hand, Americans are heavier than they need to be. There are diseases that still correlate with heavier weights, like diabetes. But if we ate a more natural diet, by that I simply mean the diet that we evolved to eat, we would all weigh less.” (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.

According to science there is a reason that for centuries the female ideal was closer to this:

Check out that beneath-the-bellybutton 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 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):

And now we have this:

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? What do you think of the Adele quote at the beginning? Too far the other way?

{ 107 comments… read them below or add one }

Kat January 2, 2012 at 11:32 pm

I guess the question I try to ask myself (I don’t have that many body qualms – despite an eating disorder — odd duck much?… except my fear of pants… erm…) is whether or not I would be envious of those abs if I didn’t see them on TV and in magazines.

If I was just an isolated person. No media. No other people. Would I be envious? Is it actually ME that wants those abs or some conditioned part of myself?

If I was just an isolated person would I still want to protect that gap between my legs?

etc.

I think the interesting part of the study you mentioned is that it focused on women that had children… I wonder what the results were for those that have never procreated? Or if there was a statistically significant difference.

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Laura January 2, 2012 at 11:36 pm

I’m not sure. If the standard went the curvier way, I think I would still strive to be athletic. There is some new emphasis on the JLo/Kardashian butt, but it doesn’t make me want to have a bigger butt.

I noticed something this year as I put together my inspiration collage. Most of what I cut out of magazines were phrases. The pictures I cut out were women who were doing things. Sure, they had great bodies, but they were sprinting or biking or holding yoga poses. They weren’t fitness models standing there in tiny shorts. I don’t want their bodies, I want to do what they are doing. It will lead me to a stronger body, but that isn’t the goal. I want to do awesome things, not just have an awesome body.

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Amy January 3, 2012 at 12:30 am

I think this makes total sense. Women in general, as virtually any fitness expert will tell you, have a harder time gaining muscle and losing weight than men do. Not that it can’t be done, but that it will take longer and maybe a little more work for most women.

Frankly, nothing about this article surprised me. I’m solidly overweight, but I eat fairly healthy and exercise, and I have excellent numbers health-wise. It’s not always about fitting into some magical range. Even my trainer says my goal weight (which exceeds both the BMI and weight ranges for my height) is very realistic, healthy and achievable. It is also based on a healthy level of body fat for a woman my age. I find it interesting that an acceptable body fat percentage for my height and age are outside of the acceptable BMI/weight ranges. Because really, the amount of fat on your body vs. muscle, bones, etc. is what truly causes the issues. Not your BMI or overall weight in general. I don’t like the idea of losing muscle or bone mass, so I’d rather be “overweight” but at a healthy body fat than “normal weight” but lose my arm or my quads! :)

I like Adele’s comments. I’m sure some will think she’s someone who is advocating being fat. I say she’s advocating loving LIFE and not focusing on her weight. (although I have noticed she looks somewhat smaller in recent photos)

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Theresa July 29, 2012 at 12:54 pm

I couldn’t have expressed myself any better than Charlotte. I can’t tell you how much peace there is in knowing that this is such a normal thing to think about. It is such a problem because the goal set before women is generalized. It does not take into consideration genetics, age, children or no children. We know that there are different factors into ones fat\muscle composition. There is no one size fits all in “healthy” when it comes to fat. The key is to teach our daughters to embrace their bodies. What good does that do though if the general population teaches them otherwise. My mother did not teach me to abhor fat on my body. I still picked it up. I have a hard time expecting my husband to find me sexy if I don’t have a washboard stomach. Even though I am accepting my shape more in my thirties than ever before, even after two children, I still expect that my husband will not want to run his hands across my belly. That is the driving force to be thinner than my body wants to be or leaner than what a balanced lifestyle would allow for. My husband says that he loves me the way I am, and he probably means it. I am however programmed to believe I am not sexy if I have a pooch or natural breasts. I am a size 8. I weigh between 150 and 155 without overexerting at the gym. I’m 5’5.5 My lowest weight with working out at the gym and practically starving was 146. Even that wasn’t on the “low” end of the charts. I am where my body wants to be. I am balanced, I eat very well with the freedom to enjoy something not so “healthy” in moderation. I know the difference between moderation and over indulgence. I exercise moderately 2-3 times a week. The body I have is a result of what is whole and balanced in MY life. However, some have perfectly “balanced” lives without ANYTHING high in calories and a gym routine some 2 hours a day. To each his own. The key is, I think, finding that balance for ourselves and being willing to accept our body when we get there. Otherwise like Charlotte said, it will be a constant fight against ourselves. God, if only I could have been granted that wisdom 15 years ago.

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Gym Buddy Krista January 3, 2012 at 12:36 am

As for the Adele comment, I commend her for everything she said until the last line. I don’t believe it one bit. I think those of us who are overweight protect ourselves from feeling shame by saying that we don’t want to be thin(ner). I think it’s a copout. I think it’s nearly impossible these days to be overweight and not wish you were thinner…it’s just easier to say you don’t want it than to go out and do it. I would love to be thin; and while I exercise a lot, if it means giving up the foods I love and making what goes in my mouth my obsession…I’m with Adele…I’ll stay on the plump side. I’m truly okay with that.

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Jen January 3, 2012 at 7:46 am

Her quote rubs me the wrong way. I love her music, but equating skinny to shit music bothers me. Your size doesn’t define who you are, and I’m sure that she would make the same quality music if she was 20 pounds lighter. Likewise, I’m sure that if Katy Perry gained twenty pounds, her music would be the same.

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Tamara January 4, 2012 at 8:59 am

I don’t think she’s equating skinny and shit music, per se, just saying that she’d prefer her current states (“weigh a ton” and make good music) to their “opposites.” That was just my take, in any case!

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KymberlyFunFit January 3, 2012 at 1:08 am

Hi Charlotte: Lots to think about. As always, finding the balance is crucial and challenging. I think part of the way through the morass of info is to distinguish between health and fitness. We can be healthy even with belly fat. And to be fit, we define it as lean abs. As always, big shout out to you and your posts!

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TS January 3, 2012 at 1:43 am

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again:
Eat healthfully most of the time
Get in a bit of exercise everyday
Be happy with whatever body this results in
(Loosely quoted from a teacher of mine)

Standards of beauty change, but where your body wants to be doesn’t. It’s hard to keep up with whether skinny = pretty (female standard), fleshy = pretty (guy and old standard), strong = pretty (healthier standard, but if I don’t have visible muscle, but still do all the moves of the muscled person, I just have more fat from eating more, does that make me less pretty?). It’s just easier to ignore this, and just have more body acceptance, because that’ll make you instantly healthier (you’re not fighting your body, it’s at its set point, plus less stress). Of course, I’d be lying if I said I did this. I still want the skinny. Poo. At least I have support that’ll give me a kick in the pants and tell me I’m fine as I am, without changing.

I, personally, don’t really take to heart the “I love my body as it is now” of “larger” celebs. At least, not without knowing that they exercise. It usually feels like they’re trying to justify not exercising. If Adele were to say “I exercise an hour a day and eat healthfully, but I do it for me. I don’t want to be skinny, I want to be healthy. I’m happy with how I am, and I’d never want to change me” that would be different. Without the demonstration of being ACTUALLY healthy, it just feels defensive. I think Mo’nique was one who was a huge proponent of big is beautiful, but I pretty much ignored everything she said. Then she started an exercise routine, and I instantly developed more respect for her. She’s not skinny, still technically plus sized, but now when she says “I love my body” I believe her.

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Sarah January 3, 2012 at 2:15 am

This is a great article, as I’ve been thinking a lot recently about fat loss and muscle gain – which I need, or if I actually don’t need either. I’m in a place where I have an easy to maintain weight, am happy with all aspects of my fitness level, and am well within all measures of health (both by the numbers and by how I feel). Yet…still I want more. The good news is that at least I recognise it now. I know I don’t need to lose fat or gain muscle. But again, I still sit here and dither between fat loss and muscle gain. As if it would be a crime to just be happy just where I am!

I am not sure, but I think that if the pendulum shifted back to Sophia Loren, then I would probably just be inclined to not fret as much. I tend to have an hourglass figure though, so it’s probably just because that’s an attainable figure for me. I am really not naturally athletic. Regardless, I don’t know that the pendulum shifting would really be that great for many women. I mean, not that long ago there were ads touting products to help with weight gain because skinny = unattractive. I think the only way we’d all be happy with our bodies would be if there was no standard ‘ideal’ of beauty, and I don’t think that’s realistic. Even wild animals have preferences.

Regarding the Adele quote, I agree to a certain extent, but she’s set up a false dichotomy. It’s not Nichole Richie and shitty music vs. Adele and her beautiful music. There are many places in between, and while I admire that she’s expressing contentment with being overweight, I question the options she presents.

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Tamara January 4, 2012 at 9:22 am

I don’t think she’s setting up a generalized dichotomy, just saying that she is in one category (“weighs a ton” and makes good music) and the opposite of that, for her personally, would be being super skinny like Nicole and making crappy music. She’s a vocal and huge fan of Amy Winehouse’s music, for instance, so it’s clear she doesn’t think all thin singers are crap.

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Elisa January 3, 2012 at 3:46 am

I am continually frustrated by the training clients who are looking good and super strong, but who spend their entire session devoted to complaining about their fat and their laziness. Some of these people are too skinny, some are just right, some are chunky, but none of them are lazy- they are in the gym working hard! If you do the right stuff, don’t stress about how you look, and focus on how much better you feel- you’ll be much happier.

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Sue January 3, 2012 at 4:05 am

I often say that I wish I lived in the 1960s, where curvy, soft bodies (like the one I have) were considered beautiful. But on the other hand, I probably wouldn’t be happy living in a “Mad Men” world.
I’d love to be thinner and more ‘toned’, but I don’t actually want rock-hard abs. First, I don’t find extremely muscular women beautiful, and neither does my husband. Plus, I have an idea what I had to do to achieve that look, namely eating a very restrictive diet and working out several hours per day. I don’t want to do that!
I think it’s hard to draw the line between ‘chubby-but-healthy’ and ‘obese-and-unhealthy’. How much weight is too much? I know quite a few women who use having kids as an excuse to be obese.They are 50-100 pounds heavier than before their pregnancies, eating junk, avoiding activity, and claim that they can’t lose weight because they have kids. In my opinion, that’s unhealthy and a bad example for their kids.
I’m not completely happy with Adele’s quote, because I doubt that she’s really healthy and fit, if she doesn’t care at all about her diet, avoids exercise, and even smokes. I love that she doesn’t care about being ‘skinny’, but I wish she cared about her health. But who knows, maybe she does?

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JudysPod January 3, 2012 at 4:16 am

It is challenging to sift thru the medias perceptions. I have just gone (2 years) from 192 to 170 lbs which enables me to do more easier. Important things like shopping, walking my dogs, cleaning the bathrooms, breathing, doing things for myself. I have my own mental set weight that is my goal. 145. That goal has to do with it being easier to find clothes that fit, having more longevity for the things previously mentioned that I love to do. (except the bathrooms) And staying out of a nursing home of which I have read that so many people are in nursing homes due to mobility problems. I am now at 166 lbs and 66 years old and hope this is the year I reach the 145 lb weight and keep my mobility and manage to stay out of a nursing home for the rest of my life. What really disappoints me is the barrage of information by the media that “some pill” will help me get from a size 14 to a size 6. As though a size 14 was a bad thing and a quick fix of a pill could get me there faster. Everything has to work together to make a difference, it is the process, the journey and it is also the carrot at the end of the stick, keeping my mobility.

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miz January 3, 2012 at 4:23 am

you nailed it when you said STRONG IS THE NEW SKINNY —- PERHAPS WE DONT NEED ANY KIND OF SKINNY PROMOTION.

Strong is the new woman.
and as I read this and reread it, Charlotte it hit me again that I dont believe things will ever really change and revert back.
YES we can make a difference in our pockets of the world.
SURE we can help as many women as we can but as a society I dont think we’ll ever even make it back to the days of Marilyn M. and that’s just sad.

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Cort The Sport January 3, 2012 at 5:55 am

Yes, strong is the new skinny. At the same time, while I am in the best shape of my life at 44 years old, 5’7″ and 133 pounds, training for triathlon, marathons, and lifting 3x a week, putting in 11-12 hours of workouts per week, the ONLY TIME I had abs that even approached the picture above was when I stupidly dieted down to 119-120 lbs for a local bench press competition, just to “see” if I could make the weight class, just to “see” if I had the discipline, to “see” how lean I could get. I did, and I paid the price of having my relationship with food messed up for a good while after that. At least for me, the look of those abs that seem to define skinny, is not realistic.

And while my race record as a master’s triathlete should be enough to prove to me that I am doing fine, STILL, STILL there is a haunting voice that tells me I would look a little leaner and maybe be just a little faster if I was 5 lbs lighter even though my body is clearly at the weight it wants to be.

There’s no way men spend nearly the time we do thinking about such inane stuff!!

Like Elisa said, we need to focus on how our bodies are functioning and not nit-picking how they look!!

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reid January 3, 2012 at 6:18 am

What a great article Charlotte! I’m really glad you posted this because I think a lot of us may not realize that part of that lean washboard stomach comes from genetic predispositions and comes with it’s own set of problems.
I’m built like a guy through the hips (thanks Dad!) which is great, but I will never have kids. Most months I don’t get a period either.
That’s the part behind the scenes things that aren’t discussed as often.
(Puts this woman at a disadvantage when it comes to finding a mate that’s for sure…)
But hey! I’m glad that strength is trumping the skinny and I love reading your blog. :D

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Naomi/Dragonmamma January 3, 2012 at 6:27 am

One question: Who is Adele? (Seriously; I’ve never heard of her before.)

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Kat January 3, 2012 at 9:21 am

Singer of the top selling album and song on iTunes this past year (yep, she topped both)… slightly heavier set (only stating this for its relevance to her quote) piano player with a jazzy (sort of??) voice… An amazing vocalist… to the point that I prefer the Live versions of some of her songs… not for everyone though – my sister cannot stand her music

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ri7-vnrJD3k&ob=av2n

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Naomi/Dragonmamma January 3, 2012 at 1:07 pm

Thanks, Kat, just watched the video. I like it!
I hope that ciggy is just a prop. I can’t fathom that someone who makes a living with her voice is stupid enough to smoke.

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Satu January 3, 2012 at 6:34 am

Hmm. I certainly look more like Sophia Loren than any of the other examples WITHOUT

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Satu January 3, 2012 at 6:53 am

Aargh! I was saying that I’m already looking more like Sophia Loren except I’d don’t have a waist anymore. That bothers me, and it’s also a health issue.

I guess my life could be easier if the ideal reverted back to Sophia Loren (and I started using corsets!), but I don’t think it’s likely. Maybe the best option would be to learn to ignore messages about the ideal body. There aren’t many people who correspond to the ideal anyway, and even those who do often don’t like their bodies.

Personally, I’d like to be much stronger than I am, but I’ve never dreamed of being uber skinny or having six pack abs. And these days (meaning I’m 43, not in my 20′s or 30′s anymore) I think more in terms of what is practical: if I had to train over 10 hours /week and eat a very restrictive diet to have those abs I wouldn’t bother. Why make your life so hard if you don’t have to?

I don’t know who Adele is either. She looks beatiful though.

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the Bag Lady January 3, 2012 at 7:13 am

(Bless you Naomi/Dragonmamma! I have no idea who Adele is, either!)
And perhaps I am wrong, but when I look at her picture, she doesn’t look overweight to me (‘course, you can’t see her body, but she doesn’t appear to have 6 chins…. or even 2!)
Humans are odd creatures. For centuries, we worried about having enough to eat. We spent most of our waking hours working our butts off in order to have enough to eat and to stay warm and dry. In this modern society, most of us have plenty to eat and don’t need to work physically hard in order to ensure we are warm and dry. So people go to gyms to replicate the work they used to do in order to live comfortably. And spend hours obsessing about their weight and their looks and whether their butt is larger or smaller than JLo’s. This media-driven obsession with our appearance is gonna be the death of us, I swear!

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Michel January 3, 2012 at 7:36 am

While I love that quote from Adele. Though recent photos show here slimmed down after having her throat surgery.

I love Sophia Loren and her curves. Thing is you can’t have a big butt and no boobs, that doesn’t constitute as being curvie. You have to be the whole package I think.

I would love to have abs like that. But having 2 kids, 2 c sections and diastase I don’t think my abs can ever get that ripped. So I just prefer to get them not looking like I’m 4 months pregnant again. ;)

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Michel January 3, 2012 at 7:38 am

I think you don’t have to change woman’s opinions of their bodies. You have to change MEN’s opinions of what looks good.

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Dr. J January 3, 2012 at 8:12 am

People need to have fat…nobody needs to be fat!

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Katie January 3, 2012 at 8:25 am

I think we should eat and exercise because of how it makes us feel. While it is incredibly difficult to look at lumps and bumps on ourselves and find that beautiful, there is a certain “owning up to” that comes with it. Own up to our own bodies and scoff at the magazine bodies (which aren’t real anyway, to an extent).

Do not get me wrong when I say eat and exercise because of how it makes us feel. I know plenty of people who over exercise thinking it makes them feel great, but some are doing it because they are striving to look like a magazine model. Other people, like myself, eat tons of cookies because I think I feel great from it. In reality, I just avoided dealing with any feelings of frustration, loneliness, anger, or boredom (FLAB!).

I really like the part about eating more naturally. It seems like this is where we go wrong. Sugar is okay to put in coffee, not Splenda. Products with aspartame breaks down into three different toxins in our bodies that directly affect the brain. Unfortunately, it is in small enough amounts we do not see the effects until later (with build-up over time) or with significant, daily over indulgence.

So instead of eating that Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwich (which is delicious) make it yourself. Instead of eating turkey bacon, go ahead and have real bacon, two slices are only 80 cals. Get as close to the natural product as possible! I 100% agree!!!

Fabulous post Charlotte! Wonderful writing, as always!

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deb roby January 3, 2012 at 8:46 am

Maybe it’s my age, maybe it’s my practical nature.. but I don’t go around baring my midriff to everyone. So i really don’t care about a 6 pack or rock hard abs. Who is going to see them?

Now gorgeous muscular arms .. and lean enough for the definition to show? THAT”S a goal I’m going for. Yes, it requires a certain lower level of body fat. But for me that’s around 22-24%. Acceptable. I still have a little bit of a pooch at that size, but like I said, I’m not showing it to anyone.

Why can’t women be happy somewhere in the middle ground? NOT skinny, skinny but not obese either?

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StoriesAndSweetPotatoes January 3, 2012 at 10:22 am

This is such a compelling issue to me, this obsession with a flat, female stomach. Healthy women are supposed to carry more body fat than health men. We have totally different bodies and hormones. I’ve been told by doctors that women need a protective layer of belly fat around their reproductive organs for them to function optimally. Hence, too low % body fat and no period. I’m in recovery from anorexia and although I gained some weight back in treatment I lost my period when I began exercising again. I’m eating and exercising appropriately but my body simply isn’t maintaining enough body fat for menstruation. I’m working on fixing this but it does require a rejection of the standard opinion that a stomach should be as flat as it can. And that is going to be hard for people to accept because a flat stomach is more tangible than health.

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Man Bicep January 3, 2012 at 10:35 am

This is a great post. Female beauty is such an interesting topic because our definition of beauty is constantly changing and so varied across countries.

There isn’t one true standard of beauty and I’m pretty sure there never will be. I think the only thing we can do is preach to people that they need to be content with their own shape and know that their body, whatever it’s shape and size, is beautiful if they are living healthily!

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geosomin January 3, 2012 at 10:54 am

It’s strange that we are all trying to be something we might not even be able to. A lot of it really is genetics – of example: exhibit A – me – I for whatever reason have always had a flat tummy and now that I am thinner and healthy I have rocking abs but I still jiggle all over on my butt. I will never have an apple bottomed booty without restricted and really unhealthy fitness and diet…but I don’t need one (and I resent the world telling me I require one to be happy!). I wish we’d let women just be content with themselves as is. Be healthy. Feel sexy in your own skin.

I’ve noticed there used to be WAY more fashion articles on dressing for your body type…they seem to be replaced by “lose 10 pounds now!”. Pear shaped women – unite! :P

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Jenn (GH) January 3, 2012 at 12:58 pm

Yes! I share your pear shaped boat.

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Erin January 3, 2012 at 12:48 pm

I am very happy with my abs. My abs are the most toned they have ever been in my life but the price I suffered for my rock hard core is my deflated (yes I had a baby) 32 A cup boobletts. We as a society are so obsessed with appearance. I’ve been watching Dr. 90210 (well cause it’s good lets face it) but have discovered how much I’d love to change. I’d love a boob job (C cup) my deviated septum fixed, and some other more personal things I found on myself that I’d loved to be fixed.

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Jenn (GH) January 3, 2012 at 1:03 pm

Why is it so hard for our culture to celebrate multiple body types?

Why is it so hard for Americans to eat real whole foods and let their bodies find their natural shapes and weights. Our culture is so extreme. If something is “bad” we avoid and if it’s “good” we go overboard. It’s ridiculous. Some people will have naturally flat abs like that and others won’t. Some will have round butts and others won’t. Some have bigger noses and other don’t. Some women are curvy others aren’t. It’s can all be beautiful if we shift our perspective.

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Tamara January 4, 2012 at 9:30 am

Well said, Jenn!!! xoxo

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Heather January 3, 2012 at 1:05 pm

All very good food for thought.

For me, I think more in the terms of whether I can comfortably do all of the things I want to do. Meaning, can I hike, bike, run, ride horses, etc. without being easily winded or feeling like my heart is going to pound out of my chest. I have a little work to do yet where endurance goes, but l’ve come a long way.

I’m thinking quality of life should be the main objective.

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Kim January 3, 2012 at 1:11 pm

This time of year makes me so sad because I think it makes women feel so terrible about their looks. Not only is this just the most depressing time of the year weather-wise, it’s also miserable from a mind perspective. There are too many women unhappy with their looks. I mean, I know obesity is a bad thing, and I am totally on board with working with a doctor to lose weight if that is what the doctor thinks is best for you. BUT – I don’t think most women I know are trying to get thin under a doctors orders. And all the media and society do is treat us like failures for not living up to what is expected of us – and it’s all so unrealistic.

I’m with Adele on this one.

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Alyssa January 3, 2012 at 4:16 pm

Go Adele! It’s refreshing to see a woman focusing on her talent and ambition rather than her six-pack. Too many entertainers are good-looking but mediocre because that is what our culture rewards. I wonder if artists like Katy Perry, Rhianna, and J-Lo would have the careers they do if they worked out less, wore more clothes, and made better music. (I apologize if you are a fan of these ladies. They’re just not my cup o’ tea.) I’ve often wondered the same thing about young actors and actresses: so many of these folks get work based simply on how they look, rather than on the level of their talent and commitment to their craft.
The simple fact is, the more we obsess over our physical imperfections, the less we are able to accomplish.
More and more I try to emulate my husband’s idea of fitness: he eats when he’s hungry, stops when he’s had enough, and exercises to reach his own goals rather than to look a certain way. (He’s a fan of rock climbing, so many of his goals are centered on that.)

And I absolutely agree: if we put as much time into becoming good people as we do toward being good-LOOKING people, we’d have cured a myriad of diseases by now, as well as poverty, homelessness, and hunger.

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Alyssa January 3, 2012 at 5:39 pm

BTW, watch out for Venus! She’s not as armless as she looks.

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Rachel Dell January 3, 2012 at 4:48 pm

that makes me feel good inside. i don’t need to be skinny to be healthy. i just need to be healthy to be healthy. revelation!

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Crabby McSlacker January 3, 2012 at 5:29 pm

Wow, lots of interesting food for thought here… I can’t seem to help idealizing a muscular look on women, realistic or not. Don’t know if it’s societal conditioning or in my case, the gay thing. (Always liked ‘em a bit on the butch side). But intellectually I know that curvy is just as healthy as sculpted, as long as there’s good functional muscle underneath.

I still see so many skinny models with no muscles at all, and hear so many women shuddering over the possibility of “bulking up” that I’m not sure Strong is the new Skinny for that many women yet. But either way, the vilification of a healthy amount of body fat is NOT a good thing!

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Kate January 3, 2012 at 6:28 pm

Thanks for posting that. I would like to see the focus more on health than fitting any choice of narrow definitions of beauty. But the real reason I like it is I just realized I kind of have the Venus De Milo look. ^_^

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Hannah January 3, 2012 at 6:45 pm

This is an amazing post Charlotte! I agree with everything you say. As far as “strong is the new skinny” goes here is my take on that from a while ago!
http://balancingontwofeet.com/2011/08/11/is-the-new-skinny/

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karen@fitnessjourney January 3, 2012 at 7:33 pm

This is a great question. I don’t like the term “skinny”, to me it brings to mind anorexia. I would however like to see more women aspiring to be stronger and embracing strength training, but not to the point where they mess with their cycles or lose their periods. Strength training is essential to keeping our bones healthy and contributes to strengthening our joints as we age. As a 46 year old woman I can attest to the fact that maintaining a healthy weight as we age is not for the weak.

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Lauren January 4, 2012 at 7:59 am

But that’s just it: if it’s such a struggle, is it in fact “healthy”? The struggle itself sounds unhealthy, and the goal sounds like it must be based on a younger/pre-pregnancy ideal. This is not about letting yourself go, it’s about letting yourself be what you need to be, here and now.

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redhead January 3, 2012 at 7:48 pm

I don’t know what the answer is, though I tend to think it has to do with finding a balance between depriving yourself of junk you’re craving and eating what you’re craving, between working out to the point of obsession and working not ever working out. There’s not a cookie cutter ideal body (or shouldn’t be, I mean) because you’re right, some people are naturally skinnier or thicker.

But I’m not giving this much thought because… ummm mushroom pills? What? Are they supposed to help you lose weight or get you high and tripping?

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Jody - Fit at 54 January 3, 2012 at 8:35 pm

I think we all have different views on what is or is not right in this regard. I never liked nor do I like now that thinner look that men & TV seem to like – even the thin that is not too thin. And yes, very interesting point on Sophia Loren….

All I think we should be promoting is being healthy by doing it in a healthy way – not crazy stuff. Some like to be “thinner with a little muscle. Some like more muscle like me. Some like even more muscle. I thing we all just need to find our own feel good body but do it without resorting to crazy fads & diets…

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Cameo January 3, 2012 at 8:41 pm

I am curious to see if Adelle sticks to her guns. I hope she does because it would be nice to finally have a celebrity who is famous based 100% on talent (who doesn’t suddenly decide to become a spokeswoman for a weighloss company.)

I often wonder about this. When I was at my leanest I didn’t get a period for 2 yrs. I was still not considered underweight precisely because it is such a sliding scale and also because I had so much lean mass that the scale put me right at the low end of “healthy”. I gained 10 pounds and my period returned. Guess I wasn’t healthy at all!

I think we’ve all been conditioned to see portruding bones and muscle tone as beautiful. I don’t see the trend being reversed in our lifetimes. And yes, if it were culturally more acceptable to be plump, I most certainly wouldn’t spend as much time exercising and meal planning. I’d cure cancer! ;)

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Katie January 3, 2012 at 9:23 pm

I don’t really see this as a new phenomenon. Twiggy was just as tiny 30-40 yrs ago. I really wonder, though, what Sophia Loren thinks about all this.

I really think we can and sometimes do use “society” as a cop-out. We all play a role here; we’re all part of society.

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Mrose January 3, 2012 at 9:44 pm

I think that Adele is saying that because she knows that she will never be super skinny so why bother pretending you do.

I know that I have no idea what healthy looks like any more. Its also probably different for each woman. I look at my stepsister who never goes over 100 unless she is 6 months pregnant who is 2 inches shorter than me and I think she looks like hell and kind of gaunt.

I look at me who is 2 inches taller and 60 pounds heavier and think that this isn’t looking good either. Yet I still equate losing weight with never being able to eat anything remotely tasty EVER AGAIN for the rest of my LIFE. And I especially feel this way today since I had a kale smoothie for breakfast, when I wanted French Toast.

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Karen January 4, 2012 at 12:45 am

Yikes! I like a toned, trim body, but I would never want to be described as having the body of a teenage boy! Women need to accept and love their bodies. They should have curves and they should have more body fat than a male. We need to concentrate on what health and wellness means for each individual, not fitting into a size 0 or having a 6 pack. The photo of the malnourished model could give me nightmares…..

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Lauren January 4, 2012 at 8:19 am

I agree with Adele; for me, “skinny” is by definition unhealthy and requiring undue attention.

The Omega 6 thing is wild. I will look into that, but it makes sense.

BMI is a very crude measure, developed by an actuary to guage which insurance premuim to charge based on weight/risk of death, but not at all accounting for lean mass vs abdominal fat etc which ACTUALLY correlate to (which is not cause) disease.

If we accept that breast-fed and bottle-fed babies, male and female, need separate growth charts, why can’t we accept that a woman’s body fat percentage changes with age and reproductive status?

It IS women who enforce this violence of inappropriate female beauty, since studies show that men all over the western world will pick silhouettes of women with a waist to hip ratio of .7 as the most attractive, within a broad range of overall sizes. This ratio correlates to reproductive health.

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Lauren January 4, 2012 at 8:52 am

In unrelated surfing, this came across my screen. It made not too much sense at all until the last 2 paragraphs: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/239854.php

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Tamara January 4, 2012 at 9:27 am

It’s a complex issue, to be sure. I tend to favor a slightly curvier look than some others, but I don’t necessarily want to look like Sophia Loren. My BMI is around 25 right this minute, so If my current physique were suddenly considered ideal (from an aesthetic standpoint), would I still be aiming to lose 10-20 pounds? It’s so hard to know. I tell myself I’m doing it because I myself would prefer to be smaller, more agile (and stronger, which is another issue altogether), but how much of that is informed by societal preferences? Such a tough call!

As for Adele, I’m pretty sure she has quit smoking, since she had to have laser surgery on her vocal cords. I really hope she never goes back to the narsty habit! And I’ve already chimed in above on a few comments, but I really don’t think she’s saying anything like that all skinny singers are crap. She’s just saying that for her, she is heavy and makes good music, and she prefers that to its opposite, being thin and making crappy music. As I mentioned, she’s a vocal and huge fan of Amy Winehouse, so she clearly doesn’t have an anti-thin-bias as far as singers and their music go.

Thanks, as always, for the info and insights, Charlotte!! xoxo

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Rebecca January 4, 2012 at 1:43 pm

I want to be functionally fit.
Lift heavy things.
Run away from trouble or towards someone who needs help.
Hold my own bodyweight, whatever that may be.

I don’t want to be ripped for the sake of a six-pack–
I want to be strong in order to handle anything that life throws my way.

It’s still a struggle for me, sometimes,
Knowing that my body will always be softer looking than most folks’–
No matter how strong I am, that ripped, lean look will probably never happen for me.

I have to get over that–what matters is what I can do–
*not* how I look.

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Krissy January 7, 2012 at 10:23 pm

Interesting outlook but when you look at that quote from adel you know she is going over the top to make a point and I find it a little fake. If she would “rather weigh a ton and make a good album” why has she employed a personal trainer?

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alice January 22, 2012 at 5:09 pm

Just found your blog and I’m really enjoying it! I wanted to chime in and say that skinny doesn’t necessarily mean unhealthy though. I have a small frame with few curves and am very thin (figure of a teenaged boy sounds right…), but I’ve been this way my entire life. It’s frustrating that people think I must be unhealthy or have an eating disorder when it’s simply genetics. I try to eat well and exercise, but I don’t do those things in an effort to stay a certain size. There’s no one size fits all body type and I think there’s room for all of us to be beautiful. Just my two cents!

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Katie Martin March 1, 2012 at 9:42 pm

I really appreciated a lot of the things said in this article. The way women think about their bodies can become so distorted and forlorn because of media and the minds of men, and even just gossip between fellow women! Sometimes it seems as though no matter what a woman looks like it will not be right in just a few months. It is surely the case that women lose weight and build muscle definition less easily than men, and that is just biology, so trying to fight it is futile! But exercising in general is still a very important thing to do for anyone. It doesn’t have to be in order to “set skinny” or “get buff”, but it helps your body process better, gives you more energy, and just helps with someone’s general well being and mood. But wouldn’t it be nice to go to the gym or go on a walk and see that the other women around were happily exercising instead of seemingly dying under some torture of trying to become the ideal body type? I look forward to that finally getting into peoples’ heads.

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jenny June 4, 2012 at 1:03 pm

nice article! my thoughts are that some women put their idea of a picture perfect body as their top priority. They’re willing to sacrifice other parts of their lives to accomplish their fitness goals. My question is this- why do so many of these women act like its no big deal? What is it that they want? attention from the rest of us? attention from men? do they want us to think they are naturally built that way? Another concern I have is women basically starving themselves in order to get the flat belly. i see so many moms that are anorexic. I do not understand why they think starving looks beautiful. Perhaps they are so fixated on staring at their waist that they don’t realize their acromion process is poking someone else in the eye. (Thats the tip of the shoulder bone) Another sad component- so many skinny starving women do not even look like women at all. Their curves are gone. They have the bodies of men. I wonder if their husbands like feeling sinew and bone or if they wish for a softer suppler version of their wife. And how prevalent is OCD dieting- extreme organics, raw diets, and basically starving onesself of nutrients they need all in the name of wearing a bikini with no muffin top. sorry for the rambling. touchy subject for me. I will never be skinny, though I am petite and thin. I focus on overall health, and it upsets me so much when I see women who are wasting away and they don’t even look beautiful.

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Ben Reynolds January 12, 2013 at 9:52 pm

For me it comes down to the life the person is living. In modern culture it is now not very easy for people live a natural active and healthy life. We must all learn to be free again and let our creative energies express and flow… :)

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sophie May 4, 2013 at 1:39 pm

Overweight people can say they’re happy with their size and not try to be healthy because it’s a free world and if they don’t care about ‘being healthy’ then they are entitled to that choice. It’s their life. Although i can totally see how that seems inconceivable that someone ‘wouldn’t’ want or care about being healthy., Many people just don’t care.
I personally enjoy eating healthily most of the time and exercising daily as i know from experience and research, how much better it makes me feel and that’s something you gain immediately, psychologically knowing you are looking after yourself, and physically for example exercise produces feel good chemicals. If i have a day of eating junk i notice physically as well as the usual guilt you may feel for abusing your body. Tiredness/sick feeling etc. What i’m tryna say is being ‘healthy’ isn’t neccessarily a very measurable concept like how do you know when this feeling of being healthy will matter or take effect, it’s more long term, what motivates me more is the immediate impact of my choices that hour after the meal or later that day.

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sophie May 4, 2013 at 1:50 pm

One thought i wanna put out there is of being grateful for our bodies not just for how aesthetically pleasing they are but for everything they do for us. You wake up and your body is busy working away at feeding your cells, cleaning house, doing everything it does so that you can live and have the pleasure of doing all the things you want. If i ever get a little insecure or hate on my self for how i look i remind myself of all that my body does for me and how amazing it is. We are more than just a sexual object.

Once i learned to be grateful and take wonder in all that a body can do i naturally want to nurture my body and take care of it. It’s so easy to get into the cycle of hating ourselves for messing up our healthy diets, cos we might gain some weight or not gain that perfect lean look we’re after, but if this isn’t your sole focus, and respecting this amazing body is then you’re naturally going to treat yourself kindly and in a healthy way as a byproduct rather than punishing yourself.

It really upsets me to see people getting skinny at the expense of their health and respect for their bodies. Our bodies are so much they can bring life into the world amazing! they can run marathons, they can stave off disease, they can be strong, they can be sexual, they can be transportation. So many things.

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sophie May 4, 2013 at 1:55 pm

jenny i agree about what you said unfortunately implies anything other than curvy isn’t womanly and that’s a bad message. Some women are naturally thin and have very straight bodies very little curves, this doesn’t mean they’re not beautiful in their own way. It;s unfortunate that there’s such a narrow ideal of beauty in society, uniqueness is what makes everyone beautiful we should accept it all.

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In modern western culture in particular, the media have set the ‘beauty’ standard that women are now accustomed to the norm of being stick-thin, and despite the retaliation of plus size fashion models in the know about hideous anti-obesity campaigns, who tenaciously fight the bigger person’s corner in these debates. If we look back through time and history, both Greek and Roman goddesses were always depicted as being generously portioned, so too Celtic deities and the Iconic Joan d’ arc – because women back then were not mauled and threatened with copious images of the ‘ideal’ look as they certainly are today, and men therefore did not pressure women into a certain weight, shape or size. It was generally the rule of thumb that if a woman had broad angles and breasts; the more fertile and strong she would be to produce offspring, and this trend lasted right up until 1800′s in the west at least. I can tell you however, and from my own personal experience of being plus-size; I receive far more male attention than I ever did being five stone lighter! – not sure why or how this is the case, yet do carry weight well as well as have exceptional good looks – most people think I am a plus-size model, yet I am too short to be that as you need to be at least 5ft 8-9 and I am approx. 5ft6.

As for the Sophia Loren picture, she was simply a stunning woman, yet her waistline was achieved by wearing whale boned corsets from the age of 15!. Adele appears to know and understand the true concept of accurate female form, and why women in this debate will be doubting and questioning their own size and shape when they are constantly bombarded with mixed messages, the present day media industry and many female celebs, do nothing to speak the truth about how it is that women are supposed to be fat. As far as I am aware, and although some stones overweight myself, do not perceive or experience myself as such – how and why then, it is most definitely a media frenzied obsession that convince and lull a majority of women who are not plus-sized, that they must be thin, and the thinner the better.

It is just simply unfashionable in some parts the western Europe to be ‘natural’ just as it is commonly very unpopular in some parts of the Asian continent to be mocha. Adele is spot on about the majority of women being voluptuous if already blessed with curvature – it is only in the past 150 years that opinion has fluctuated in the west, yet never and not a problem in any other part of the civilized globe, and since the evolution of the female kind has man or woman given preference to the ‘ideal’ form being on the lighter side of the weight-scale – it is a modern-western construct made far worse by the media and those female celebrities who advocate the norm to be stick-insect like.

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Eric Carr Middletown Delaware April 8, 2014 at 12:49 am

This will help release the melatonin for a decent night lie.

Yoou may have raw or cooked one depending your private preference.
Do this for 30-60 seconds, after aan individual should be very, very out
of breath.

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ripely April 8, 2014 at 6:45 am

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