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Fat, fit, and why I want to be leaner anyway

As you’ll know from reading my posts on our blog, I’m fat and fit, aiming to be fitter and to be the fittest I’ve ever been, at 50. (In some moods I prefer big and fit, read why here.)

Weight loss isn’t a direct goal for me in this project. That’s partly because I’m a supporter of the Healthy At Every Size movement, partly because I don’t think there’s a fatness-fitness connection, and partly because for me, personally, there aren’t health related reasons to lose weight. So I take it as a starting point that it’s possible to be the fittest I’ve ever been and not weigh the least I’ve ever weighed. Indeed, although I wouldn’t like it, I might be the fittest I’ve ever been and weigh more than I do now, though I’d much rather that not be the outcome I get.

As I detailed in Fat, Fat, and What’s Wrong with BMI I’m a bit of a healthy living rock star. Yes, I’m significantly overweight but I have excellent blood pressure and heart rate, excellent good-bad cholesterol ratios, and excellent blood sugar levels. I’m also an over-achiever in the bone density department but that’s from years of living large and lifting heavy weights.

(An aside: Bone density is a great reason to lift weights, especially for you small, thin women whose frames aren’t much challenged by the mass you carry around. Weight lifting works to build bones unlike endurance sports such as swimming, cycling, and running which in volume can actually hurt bone density. Read “Training to Improve Bone Density in Adults: A Review and Recommendation here.)

I’m also not sure about the wisdom of picking a goal–long term weight loss–that defeats almost all the people who aim for it. (Read Gina Kolata’s Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss—and the Myths and Realities of Dieting for some of my reasons.)

Oh, and I already eat very well. I’m a vegetarian, aspiring vegan, non-drinker, who stays well away from fast food. I have a bit of a sweet tooth and sometimes I eat too much of  good thing but there’s not a lot of room for nutrition improvement.

But I really would like to improve my ratio of lean to fat, by building more muscle and losing some fat, even if I think that’s got zero to do with fitness or being fittest by fifty.


That’s a question that in our culture hardly seems worth asking. Everyone I know, pretty much, wants to shrink. The size 4s want to get back to size 0, the 10s back to 4, and so on. It’s a cultural obsession and mega money making industry. I try to stay clear.

Most people assume weight loss is why I exercise. But really, if that were my goal I would have quit long ago. Indeed I worry that lots of fat people quit working out because they aren’t getting thinner and why else would they go to gym? The fat but fit person looks like she’s doing all the work and not getting the rewards. Nevermind that the real rewards are health related and have nothing to do with weight.

So again, why do I want to be leaner?

My main reason I want to get leaner is sports performance. An awful lot of what I do depends on a power to weight ratio. For an explanation of power to weight ratio and its importance when it comes to cycling, read The Pursuit of Leanness over at Australia’s Cycling Tips blog.

I’ll never be a hill climber. I’m a reasonably powerful sprinter and time trialer (for a recreational cyclist in her midlife years!). I know my place in the cycling world. But I’m sick of getting dropped on hills.

My second motivation for the pursuit of lean is wear and tear on joints. I love sports and physical activity. Hard to imagine life without it. But you don’t see many overweight runners in their 70s. Cyclists either. I worry about stress on my knees and hips and think there’s got to be an advantage to weighing less. Or at least if I want to play with people lots younger than me, as seems to be the case with every sport that I do, I want to even the playing field.

Evening the playing field is one of the reasons I feel great being a non-drinker on multi-day cycling events. Stay up, you 19 year olds and 25 year olds. Have another beer. I’ll be asleep, sober, and well hydrated by 10 pm. Not fun now but fun when I see you suffering tomorrow.

Finally, there’s  bad motivation, one of which I try to be wary. And no, it’s not looking good naked. Like Tracy, I’m pretty comfortable in that department. I don’t have a lot of body image issues. I’ve often wondered about why that’s so. I’ve got some thoughts about my resilience in that department, fodder for a later post, I think. (Short answer: Thanks spouse, thanks feminism, thanks queer community.)

Sometimes I want to look like the very fit person I am. There are days when I’m weary of fighting the good fight, challenging our notions of the size and shape fitness takes. Sometimes I want people to look at me and see who I am and what I do.

For example, I’ve got incredible abs. You can’t see them as they are under a layer of fat but they do amazing things. I’m very strong in my core but it’s like they’re a secret super power, my invisible abs.

Not being seen for who I am is a bit of a struggle on my life on a few fronts. (You can read some of my work on bisexual invisibility here and here.)

So sometimes I’m sick of it all and want to be seen as the athlete I am.

But I’m hoping to keep those motivations at bay and focus on the hills and the climbing.

22 thoughts on “Fat, fit, and why I want to be leaner anyway

  1. Clearly, the community or communities in which you exist can help to minimize if not overcome the societal pressure to conform, or at least to be seen as attempting to conform to certain prescribed ideals. The absence of good support systems in one’s life will no doubt make it difficult to feel good about yourself if you, again, do not conform, or at least are not seen as attempting to conform. Not only will you feel marginalized; you will be marginalized, made invisible, and when visible, criticized, and that is horrible.
    I think, like you, that people should make it not about weight loss per se, but about health, and they should be proud and stay proud of who they are and what they are accomplishing in that regard. It is essential that one stays positive about the process, and stays proud.
    The societal pressures, however, can make this almost impossible without BOTH the proper perspective AND a good support system.
    I had to lose weight for medical reasons, and I must say, I am being treated so much better by everyone around me. However, I do not think it is because I’ve become so much more healthy – amazingly so, in fact; it’s because of how I now look. And it is nice to be so well regarded.
    But it also reminds me of when I worked downtown as a messenger, and a year or so later as a lawyer in a nice suit. I will never forget that the same man who was dressed better than I as a messenger, and then not as well-dressed as I once I became a lawyer, treated me badly upon entering an elevator as a messenger (budded in front of me; was somewhat dismissive in many regards) and then treated me as royalty later (held the elevator open for me; allowed me to leave in front of him; smiled and held his head down as if I were a superior in some way). The problem is: It is very difficult to be angry or reproach another when they are being nice to you, even if they are as&*#^les. And it is hard not to like being treated well.
    So the societal pressures to conform are intense, and they are very real from both a reward and a punishment perspective. So – I guess, in other words, I understand everything you say, Sam, and I agree with it, and I also feel the anguish associated with the almost unavoidable conflicting feelings one will have about all of this, even with regular access to healthy support systems.

  2. Being treated differently when thinner is the thing I hate most about losing weight. I try though to think about it as information about the person treating me differently. “Wow, so that’s what they really care about. Interesting.” And there’s no one in my circle of friends and family who fusses over it. Compliments on muscles, yes. Compliments on speed and form, sure. But weight itself is, for me, a boring matter, not worth mentioning much. I still haven’t forgotten that I once complimented a co-worker on losing weight, only to find out she was battling cancer. Not all weight loss is healthy.

  3. You undoubtedly have fantastic support systems in your life, and have also found a way to embrace fact over fiction. Amazing. I work far outside of academia, such support systems, and I sense I have more inner conflict about these matters than you, or that I care to.

  4. Oh this is exactly how I feel ,it not about me being thin either ,its about my performance as a athlete .

  5. I’ve been reading “Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It” by Gary Taubs. He gets in to the real science of why your fat cells grow, often at the expense of providing energy (fat) to your starving muscles and organs. One of the big triggers for this is elevated blood sugars and insulin, and recommends avoiding or reducing the amount of carbohydrates and refined sugars in your diet to help your body use the stored fat for energy, rather than storing more and stealing from the muscles and organs that need it. I hate this, because I love carb-heavy foods and sugary-sweet things, but I can’t argue with how these things work. (Also, he points out that those of us prone to this kind of energy storage tend to crave those carbohydrates and sugars more than others because those are the things that end up fueling our starved muscles when the greedy fat cells won’t share.)

  6. Since when did the desire to loose a bit of weight come to require such elaborate justifications and hand wringing. Basically, it seems that nobody wants to admit that there are advantages to being lighter, such as the lessening of wear on joints, et al, honestly, there are many other benefits. You might like to consider that perhaps fat acceptance has gone too far when it feels like heresy to admit that. Personally, I have no problem admitting that my body would work better with some weight off. It’s just common sense. That doesn’t mean I hate my body as it is, just that I’m realistic and honest about what effects being heavier really have on me.

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