body image · fitness

What is my body type? What does it matter?

CW: talk about body sizes and descriptions and feelings about them.

This weekend, I came across a FB post from a triathlete who posted a picture of herself, asking the group how they would describe her body type. The company that sponsors her team had asked her (with good intentions, she said), as a way to get her input. She describes herself as a person who’s struggled with weight and is a back of the pack rider for her team.

Among the 110+ (and counting) comments she got were:

  • Strong (hands-down winner among commenters)
  • Healthy and active
  • Athena (triathlete category, minimum weight requirement of 165 lbs/75kg)
  • Perfect!
  • Strong AF!
  • Beautiful
  • Adult woman size
  • Fit and Fabulous
  • Bad Ass Lady
  • Sturdy
  • Solid

There were also some suggestions that felt size-conscious or even a bit size-embarrassed (my term); feel free to scroll past these if you like:

  • Curvy athletic
  • Voluptuous
  • Rubenesque
  • Hourglass figure with extra hours
  • Athletic fit plus (but clarified to be plus healthy, real, etc.)

What do I mean by size-embarrassed? When I hear words like “curvy” and “voluptuous” and “Rubenesque” (outside of 17th-century art history), I always feel like the message is something like “this woman’s body is outside the ideal or norm for the context, and I’m trying to defer to that norm but also say something positive while at the same time acknowledging the tension with a joke”.

All of the commenters were trying to support the original poster and were very attentive to being body-positive and admiring of the poster’s athletic achievements, which are considerable. And yet.

Their respectful discussion reminded me of how hard it can be to talk descriptively about bodies. It also made me think about when and why we feel we need to talk descriptively about bodies. Yes, when we shop for clothing, there are some styles that favor different dimensions and ratios of hips and thighs and waists and breasts and legs, etc. And when we do physical activity, it’s important to note and attend to the variations among bodies that dictate modifications in training, gear, apparel, etc. And finally, at more intensely competitive levels of some activities and sports, detailed facts about the athletes’ bodies become more salient to performance.

Samantha has written about names and labels: Fat or big: What’s in a name?

She’s also written about names for bodies here: I’m fat but not super-fat: on labels, power and identity

Reading Sam’s posts, I’m feeling a little better about the fact that, 3 years after her most recent post, I don’t have a clear position about how to talk about bodies, bigger bodies, my body, your body. I know I don’t like the notion of body types, but am not sure what to do when I feel the need to describe myself or someone else. As Sam said, “it’s complicated”.

To be continued. but for now: do you use body-type language? When do you use it? How do you feel about it? I’d love to hear from you.

5 thoughts on “What is my body type? What does it matter?

  1. Sometimes I think of the exercise as if I were writing a book in which I figure as a character. How would I describe my body? But of course it’s not just description. These terms have judgement built in. The point that still troubles me is how many words we have for men’s bodies like mine that are positive–big, strong, burly, brawny–and how they don’t seem to work as descriptors of women’s bodies. I don’t like curvy and plus sized. I want “fat” to be a neutral term and sometimes I use it for political reasons but it doesn’t feel right either.

    1. Or if I were writing an image description that goes under a photo on the blog. How do I describe my body? Like you, I’m still not sure.

  2. When describing myself, I usually default to using measurements rather than descriptions, maybe because it feels less judgey? It’s mathematical, not a category. My hips are 14 inches wider in circumfirence than my waist. Based on pants fashions, I believe that is outside the norm, but I have not see a graph comparing such things, so I can’t confirm it! 🙂 Which brings up another annoyance–why do we “name” women’s clothing styles based on body types rather than just provide measurements, like they do for men? I would LOVE to buy pants with a waist, hip, and inseam measurement, rather than looking for a “Marilyn” or a “Lindsey” or whatever. It’s so reductive of the diversity of our bodies.

  3. In my past, when brave enough to try some dating sites, I always click ‘athletic’ when the option bar for describing your shape comes up. The site always got points from me for asking ‘type’ instead of weight.

    Based on my BMI, yep, I’m overweight, but I’m neither curvy, or an ‘apple’ or a ”pear’ ( that’s some crazy shit descriptor there).
    I have defined leg muscles, carry some extra in my waist, and broad shoulders from years of gymnastics.
    I only speak descriptively about my body when I don’t want to waste time looking for , let’s say, a new outfit, something for a friends upcoming wedding. I’ll tell the sales woman, ” looser fit in the shoulders, , no dart seems in the front of the dress – it’s not flattering on me” etc

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