“She’s so pretty! So what is it about her that makes her so ugly? And what is up with her makeup??’ My husband isn’t usually one to comment on such things. In fact, unless you’re an after-hours clown on on your way to host a Mary Kay party, he probably won’t even notice if you’re wearing makeup or not. (Upside: He thinks I look best in my PJs and a ponytail. Downside: He thinks I look best in my PJs and a ponytail.) So when he asked, I had to look. We were watching a TV show where the main bad guy (girl) is played by one of the most conventionally pretty actresses you could imagine: Tall, long blond hair, perfect skin, big eyes that turn a freaky yellow when she uses her mystical evil powers. Which she does all the time because, you know, she the bad guy (girl).
“It’s just because she’s evil,” I answered, going back to my book. (Must! Multi! Task! eesh.)
“No…,” he said thoughtfully. “It’s something about her face. Something’s off.”
Did I mention she is rail thin? Her already skinny face had been made up to highlight the hollows in her cheeks, making her look downright gaunt. Plus the makeup artist had done those excessive black smokey eyes everyone’s so fond of these days (which I can’t understand but that’s probably because I realized after trying several times that my eyes are too small and deep set to handle any kind of heavy eye shadow). And because she was screaming, all the cords in her neck stood out in stark contrast. The effect was, well, skeletal.
“Is it because she looks like a skeleton?” I asked. (And I don’t think they were intending to make her look ghoulish – her character relies heavily on her good looks to get what she wants in the show – but perhaps dramatic?)
“That’s it!” he exclaimed and, relieved, went back to his computer game. (I swear we’re both ADHD. We never go to movies because it’s practically impossible for either one of us to sit still that long.) “And she looks way older than I think she is.”
Ever since thin has been the thing, women have recognized that once you’re past 25 you have to make a choice. As purportedly summed up by the gorgeous Catherine Deneuve, “A 30-year-old woman must choose between her bottom and her face.” Meaning, of course, that if you diet yourself to appropriate thinness then you’ve lost the fat in your face (not to mention your boobs) and you look older. But if you choose to keep youthfully plump cheeks then you have the plump everything else to go with it. (Or if you’re an actress of this generation you just get a bunch of facial fillers and hope that someone stops you before you hit the uncanny valley.) I looked up this actress on IMDB and she must have chosen her bottom because at the time the series was being filmed she was late 20′s to early 30′s. But if I’d been pressed to guess, I would have thought her to be in her 40′s.
I would like to add here that it is not my intent to bodysnark this lady – which is why I’m not using her name or picture – but rather to point out that our society’s insistence on ultra-leanness has unintended consequences.
Among those unintended consequences may also be ill health. I’ve talked on here a lot (probably too much) about how it’s better to have a little too much fat than too little when it comes to health, resistance to disease and longevity but a recent study came out that I think highlights this perfectly. “Natural Bodybuilding Competition Preparation and Recovery: A 12-month case study” is basically a researcher stalking an elite natural bodybuilder as he bulked and cut over the course of a year, in a traditional bodybuilding way. (Note: case study means study of one, with all its attendant caveats.)
The findings were interesting. At the male subject’s leanest and therefore peak physique:
- His heart rate decreased from 53 to 27 bpm. Contrary to popular belief, having an ultra low heart rate isn’t healthy. While it’s normal for athletes to have heart rates in the 50′s, bradycardia (a medical condition where the resting pulse is too low) is diagnosed starting at 60 bpm. A too-low pulse can leave you lightheaded, dizzy, faint or very fatigued. At worst it leads to chest pain, heart disease and even heart failure.
- Brachial blood pressure dropped from 132/69 mmHg to 104/56 mmHg. 90/60 is generally considered the point at which medical professionals start to get concerned.
- Percent body fat declined from 14.8% to 4.5%. Our brains are 60% fat. The myelin sheath that covers our nerves is made out of fat. We need fat to live. On a cosmetic level, being too lean can make you look old and also make it painful to walk, sit and lie down. (Truly, ask any bodybuilder what it feels like to walk when you’ve lost the pads of fat on the bottoms of your feet.)
- Strength decreased during preparation and did not fully recover during 6 months of recovery. This one was particularly interesting to me since bodybuilding is all about building and shaping your muscles – but what’s the point of all that muscle if you’re actually losing strength?
- Testosterone declined from 9.22 ng/mL to 2.27 ng/mL. I’m not a dude but I’m pretty sure you don’t want your testosterone going south. Andropause (who knew there was a male version of menopause??) is said to begin when testosterone falls below 3 ng/mL. Plus, higher testosterone has been linked to better heart health and less risk of heart disease. (Which might explain point #1.) Edited to add: The National Institute of Health defines chemical castration as when the serum testosterone falls below 2.5 ng/mL… so this man had temporarily castrated himself?
- Total mood disturbance increased from 6 to 43 units. I’m not sure what standard they used to measure “mood disturbance” (and boy howdy do I want to take that test now! – I love taking personality tests! Which reminds me – not too late to enter my Archetype Me giveaway!) but clearly being more disturbed by a factor of 7 can’t be a good thing.
My point here is NOT to knock bodybuilding (or thin actresses). If you do it and you enjoy it then by all means do what you love*. The researchers noted that all the biomarkers – except, ironically, strength – went back to normal or near-normal within 6 months of recovery. Nor is it my point to say that a healthy diet and exercise is pointless. Rather, my point is to knock this ridiculous standard that ultra-lean = ultra-healthy. It doesn’t. With body fat, like pretty much everything else, there’s a sweet spot. And lower is not always better, not in regards to health or aesthetics.
I find this myth particularly dangerous because it’s so hyped in health circles. “Strong is the new skinny!” is often code for “Now you have to be strong and skinny! And if you get skinny enough you’ll automatically look strong because you won’t have any fat covering up your muscles!” Plus I worry, especially since this is Eating Disorders Awareness Week, that this has become a socially acceptable mask for disordered eating: Subsist solely on chicken breasts and broccoli while compulsively weighing and measuring yourself and everyone worries but do the same in the name of “getting lean” or “contest prep” and suddenly it’s fine?* Practically every girl used in “fitspiration” looks like she has single-digit body fat. And I’m afraid for all of us if this has become the standard we aspire to.
Do these findings surprise you at all? What can we do to combat this “healthy” misconception? Have you ever done a bodybuilding contest? If so, what was your experience like? Have you ever thought someone was older purely because of how thin their face was?
*For the record: Not saying all bodybuilders are eating disordered. I think the difference is those who are doing it for the love of the competition are okay with the re-feed period and putting substantial body fat/weight back on. But I’ve known too many girls (and guys) who get caught in the trap of wanting to stay “contest lean” all the time. EDIT: Or maybe I am saying that, in a way. I’ve had a lot of cognitive dissonance since writing this. On one hand I don’t want to offend and I have close friends who are body builders, fitness models and the like. But on the other hand I don’t see any difference in what they are doing and what I, and others, did as an anorexic/compulsive over-exerciser. And because I love my friends very much, I’m going to risk offending them. I don’t think what you’re doing is safe or healthy. Not at all. I’m sorry.
For an even more blunt (and eye-opening) point of view on this subject read: The effects of bodybuilding and figure competition on metabolism at 180 Degree Health. Because of his personal experience, he explains it in a way I never could.
Edit Part II: Lots of interesting comments on this coming in from my Facebook page as well and I feel like several of them warrant re-posting here. (And do check out the comments on this post as well, lots of perspectives I hadn’t thought of):
From Shannon: “Having competed and having my body fat down to 8%, yes you are weak. I’m happy now at 14% and feel good, still not as strong as I was when I was 17%. My brain, when body fat and carbohydrates are low, is like mush. I have been driving and forgotten where I was heading to or how to get there. I do my best to take in my essential amino acids and Omega’s. My BP is 90/60 everyday regardless of my weight. I would consider botox, but the hubby says NO!”
From Alexander (another competitive body builder): “Lowest i ever got was under 3 percent. I ended up in the hospital. Doctor’s exact words: drink Orange juice and get some pasta when you get home, or you’ll be dead inside a week.”