"Why am I so fat?"
January 7, 2016 5:00 PM   Subscribe

I am what is apparently referred to as "skinny fat", meaning I carry most of my fat on my belly and have a high waist-to-hip ratio. I guess this is unhealthy (in addition to generally being unattractive).

My problem is that even though I'm kind of fat around the middle, I'm still a very thin, small person. Right now I weigh 105lbs. Last summer I weighed 85lbs due to extreme stress and actually had a flat stomach for the first time in my adult life, but my doctor was convinced I was anorexic.

So my question is: what exactly am I supposed to do with this information that my waist-to-hip ratio is dangerously high when the alternative is to look like a skeleton? Which one of these options is the MOST healthy?

I eat a normal amount and I exercise often (2-4 hours of intense cardio a week, plus yoga a couple times a week for strength). In the summer I exercise even more (hiking, biking) and still always have belly fat.
posted by a strong female character to Health & Fitness (38 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
A friend of mine from high school JUST posted about this on facebook this morning. She is (she used to be) built like you, but started lifting weights a few years ago and has gotten pretty into it as a hobby. The weightlifting gave her curves--took off the fat around her middle and pumped up her butt and thigh muscles putting meat on her hips.

I am far from a fitness expert but like I said she LITERALLY was just talking about her journey from skinnyfat this morning, after overhearing her coworkers talking about not wanting to lift weights because it would make them look bulky and unfeminine. Not true at all. She's documented her progress and dude, she looks healthy and awesome.
posted by phunniemee at 5:05 PM on January 7, 2016 [10 favorites]

lifting weights will totally help fix this.
posted by nadawi at 5:13 PM on January 7, 2016 [7 favorites]

I suspect you are not skinny-fat as such (frankly, unless you have some sort of dwarfism, you are not any kind of fat), but actually just disproportionately skinny in the lower and upper body and merely lacking muscle tone in the middle. That is, it's not that your middle is too thick, but that the rest is too thin.

Build muscle. Eat more, lift more.
posted by Sys Rq at 5:15 PM on January 7, 2016 [17 favorites]

Yep, weightlifting.
posted by Miko at 5:29 PM on January 7, 2016 [4 favorites]

Agree that weightlifting might help, but also examine your posture - anterior pelvic tilt and rounded shoulders can exaggerate your gut, whereas standing tall and straight with pelvis tucked back will align everything a little better.
posted by mossicle at 5:31 PM on January 7, 2016 [9 favorites]

In case you don't like weightlifting ( i don't), I cut down bellyfat with a mix of spinning, barre class and low carb diet.
posted by sweetkid at 5:33 PM on January 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

People accumulate fat in different places depending on metabolism and body type. I've never heard of a name for it before.

*BROAD GENERALIZATION* Men tend to accumulate gut paunches, and women tend to accumulate fat in the thighs. Sometimes it's reversed. Every person's body handles the fat a bit differently. It would seem that you just accumulate fat in the middle, rather than say, in your breasts or thighs. There are no rules about this. If you weigh 105 pounds, losing weight isn't really an option; the only recourse you have is to convert fat into muscle or tone your muscle at a more extreme rate.

Bad news is, this could require you to do the equivalent of running 5 miles a day every other day or similar, in terms of physical activity. There's no rule, and no guarantee that that will even help you. For the record, I don't think having some fat on your belly or a high waist-to-hip ratio is inherently unhealthy. At least, no medical practitioners ever told me so; if you're otherwise healthy, there's no reason it has to be bad for you just because. Some people accumulate bellies when their body chemistry changes abruptly with the onset of old age, in spite of running 6 miles a day.

If you're unhappy with it, the only useful thing to do is, as others have suggested, up your level of physical activities. I wouldn't suggest you diet, or eat less, but if there is a lot of refined sugar in your diet (sweets, or carbs), you could look at reducing that particular intake. No guarantees any of that would work.
posted by Strudel at 5:45 PM on January 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Absolutely lift weights. You will not get "jacked" or look unfeminine. For reference you can look at every single famous fitness woman on Instagram (it's like it's own genre now) outside of professional bodybuilders.

You can't get rid of fat in a specific place EVER. It's where your body chooses to accumulate it and where it wants the most of it will be the last place it goes.

Skinnyfat refers to the fact that without any muscle, the person still manages to look thin and healthy when in clothes but out of clothes you see that they're just ... not. So yeah, the answer is without a doubt weight lifting for not having muscles.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 6:01 PM on January 7, 2016 [4 favorites]

Are you sure your waist-to-hip ratio is dangerously high? What makes you think that?

Weightlifting is a great idea, especially because petite women are at elevated risk for osteoporosis, and lifting weights can help prevent that. But otherwise, I would be very surprised if 85 pounds were a healthy weight for you, unless you're very unusually short, and I think you're probably better off where you are with a slightly-not-flat stomach. I also wonder if you have a totally realistic view of how normal stomachs look, for what it's worth.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:17 PM on January 7, 2016 [16 favorites]

Another factor here may be your posture.
posted by rhizome at 6:19 PM on January 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

I wonder where you heard it too, because I've never heard of high waist to hip ratio as "skinny fat," just apple shaped. The only thing your doctor said was they thought incorrectly that you're anorexic.
posted by sweetkid at 6:25 PM on January 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Another factor for the waist-hip ratio may be the distance between the bottom of your rib cage and the top of your pelvis. If this is a very short measurement, you won't have a nipped-in waist because there's no room for it. Even some of the fittest, slimmest women out there can have a rather straight up-and-down look because of that one set of proportions.

But yes, lift weights! Strong is good, and you might develop a little more butt.
posted by maudlin at 6:31 PM on January 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'm not even close to being a doctor, but I also carry most of my excess weight in my belly and don't have big hips, giving me a very low waist-hip ratio.

Everything I've read mostly refers to visceral fat being "dangerous", as in the excess fat all around your organs. It doesn't sound like you have a lot of excess fat. Your natural body shape is nothing to worry about.
posted by jeweled accumulation at 6:32 PM on January 7, 2016

When I lose weight but eat a higher amount of refined whites (sugars, flours) I get thicker in my middle. If I eat the same total calories and have the same workouts, but eat higher quality fats, proteins and most importantly carbs, I have much better proportions.

I can't say that would work for anyone else, but I've consistently noticed it in my own body.
posted by 26.2 at 6:37 PM on January 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I forgot to mention I am short (5'2").

I may not have a realistic idea of what natural, normal women's stomachs are supposed to look like, and honestly no idea where I would even find that out.
posted by a strong female character at 6:45 PM on January 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

natural normal women's stomachs look like all kinds of things.
posted by sweetkid at 6:52 PM on January 7, 2016 [21 favorites]

I don't think this is what "skinny fat" is.

I think you are skinny.

I don't think you are fat.

Different people have different body shapes. Not having a very slim waist doesn't mean there's something wrong with you, medically.

I highly doubt that lifting weights is going to give you a slimmer waist. That's... not how any of this works.

FWIW I'm about your height, have 40 pounds on you, and am well within the healthy BMI range. Also, while I have gotten curvier in a more traditionally feminine way as I have put on weight, I've never had a very slim waist and tend to be a bit pear shaped. This gave me no end of body image grief when I was younger, and frankly I'm embarrassed now that I used to hate myself so much when I was obviously so beautiful. So my prescription is more cupcakes and less beating yourself up about your shape. If you want to take up spinning or barre method or weight lifting because they sound fun, go for it, but don't do it to "fix" your already perfect body.

I also have to add, at 85 pounds and 5'2", you carry more weight in your abdomen because you have organs. I mean, really.
posted by Sara C. at 7:04 PM on January 7, 2016 [20 favorites]

I'm still not clear about why you think you have a dangerously high waist-to-hip ratio. Where are you getting that information?
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:14 PM on January 7, 2016

"Skinny fat" in fitness circles generally refers to women who are thin but have, oh, muscles that aren't really well defined. I see it a lot on r/xxfitness and in other weightlifting circles. Thigh gaps, skinny jeans of the size-0 variety, no belly bump in those bikini photos, etc.

Before photos show women who are proportionate and thin, but "obviously" don't work out. This is generally supported by their 'after' photos to show various muscle development and booty.

"Dangerously high" waist to hip ratio is a very different issue (isn't this something they have pointed out in men as being a precursor to Horrible Things Happening(tm)?)
posted by Mysterious Trousers at 7:19 PM on January 7, 2016

Nthing lifting weights. Having more muscle will help you burn more calories, even when you're just sitting around watching tv. I also tend to carry most of my weight in my stomach. Now that I lift weights 3-6 times per week, I look so much leaner and my stomach is so much flatter. Plus lifting weights can elevate your metabolic rate for up to 72 hours.
posted by Nicole21 at 7:19 PM on January 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Are you feeding yourself enough when you're doing hiking or whathaveyou? You should definitely be able to gain some more muscle tone than you accuse yourself of having.

I'm not saying eat an entire pound of bacon or anything, but I do feel like maybe adjusting your diet would help.
posted by Trifling at 7:28 PM on January 7, 2016

I may not have a realistic idea of what natural, normal women's stomachs are supposed to look like, and honestly no idea where I would even find that out.
Posted before (NSFW) I really like the Nu Project. Real ladies. Nude. Non-Sexual. There's TONS of different body types. There's no "supposed to look like" in terms of the variety of body shapes.

I am also skinny - is any of this due to bloat? Or is it actual fat under the skin? Because often my stomach will stick out quite a bit due to bloat and posture (I have stomach issues.) It seems more obvious because I have a small chest. I agree with different types of exercise may help, but really I think tackling this with clothing can be helpful for your self image. Sometimes there's just parts of our bodies we can't change. I assume you're just more of an Apple Shape. If so, there's tons of style advice out there.
posted by Crystalinne at 7:29 PM on January 7, 2016 [14 favorites]

At your weight and level of activity I don't think your skinny fat or fat at all. In fact it sound like you may have an "apple" body shape. Women with apple shapes tend to have wider undefined waists and midsections and thinner legs and arms. It also make you prone to gaining weight in that area. Everyone is shaped differently and this may be yours. There nothing wrong with that. I have a friend with this body shape and although her legs remain slender when she gains weight it all goes to her stomach and shed have to be really think to make her stomach tight and flat. I would do a quick Google search for "Apple shaped body" and see if you feel like it fits. Also could it be that maybe the clothing you're wearing isn't flattering to your body type which may be making you look heavier. Lastly, the media doesn't do a very good job of showcasing apple shapes in magazines and what not. Lots of women have this body shape but they are never represented. Kate Upton is one example of a celebrity with this body type.
posted by CosmicSeeker42 at 7:36 PM on January 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

There is such a thing as "normal weight obesity", which has been defined as having a body fat percentage in the obese range (31% or greater) while being at a weight within the normal BMI range. Some research has shown that being "skinny fat" in that sense carries risks similar to being overweight/obese (as measured by BMI), and has been associated with metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance. Obviously one can't tell from what you've written, but with a BMI of 19.2, it's possible you're "normal-weight obese", but odds are you're not in that range.

If it turns out you do have a higher body fat %, it's to your benefit to increase your lean mass. Some studies are showing that a higher percentage of fat-free mass (muscle & bone etc.) is associated with improved function when diseases are present (e.g. CF) and a lower incidence of Vitamin D deficiency (regardless of BMI).

The annoying thing is it's hard to accurately measure body fat percentage. You can estimate it with a calculator like this, one of those body fat scales (though they're notoriously inaccurate), a skinfold test (best cheap method, still prone to error), or a DEXA scan (only reliable method, obviously costs). But you can aim to keep increasing muscle.

I think it's worth increasing lean mass if possible, regardless. Strength training will help you retain bone density as well. And most people find their body image improves when they get into it. I think though that it is also really, really important to be kind to yourself. It's not going to completely change your shape, and people do sometimes still get fixated on particular body parts. I think it's best to work out in a way that serves your body and mind (so do stuff that's fun for you, as well - mostly fun stuff, just do strength training 2-3 times a week if you can), and accept whatever aesthetic effects happen. (Also, get enough protein.)

If you eat at maintenance level calories while doing a progressive lifting program, your body fat % will go down. It'll take a bit time that way, especially if you're a woman, compared to eating above maintenance to build a lot of muscle ("bulk"), but I think it's the easier way (psychologically).
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:31 PM on January 7, 2016 [6 favorites]

You're supposed to have belly fat. It protects your organs. A "flat stomach" isn't actually flat all the time, it just appears to be flat in some poses due to good posture and muscle tone.

You sound a bit apple-shaped with skinny limbs. It's not unattractive and it's not intrinsically unhealthy, but building some muscle in your arms and legs may help your self-image.
posted by desuetude at 11:16 PM on January 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm shaped very similarly (but like a scaled-up version in both height and weight) and I've been weightlifting for a year now. It's great! All the people up thread are right to recommend it! But it has not flattened my stomach appreciably, so I just want to prepare you for the fact that it's not necessarily a magic bullet. What it has done is change my relationship to my body so that I'm more concerned about being strong or building endurance than whether I have a flat stomach (which at this point I have accepted is unlikely due to a combination of my inherited build and my love of cake).
posted by theseldomseenkid at 11:53 PM on January 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

People accumulate fat in different places depending on metabolism and body type. I've never heard of a name for it before.

*BROAD GENERALIZATION* Men tend to accumulate gut paunches, and women tend to accumulate fat in the thighs.

Android vs. gynoid fat distribution, FYI.
posted by ludwig_van at 12:29 AM on January 8, 2016

You sound like me when I eat too much sugar/white flour. Like, snacking out several times a day.
I gain a size in clothes around my waist, but stay skinny. Cutting down on the snacking helps me with the bulge but, nat, won't help gain better curves or muscles.
posted by Omnomnom at 3:56 AM on January 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Anecdotally, a lot of the people I have met who have an unusual amount of belly fat (like where they look super bloated or have that orb of belly that sticks out?) drink too much alcohol or drink alcohol very often. That's another factor to consider maybe? But I much prefer other poster's answers about lifting weights and trying to normalize images of women's bodies.
posted by purple_bird at 9:43 AM on January 8, 2016

When I'm sitting a lot, and relying on sugary, easy foods for most meals a few weeks or months (muffins, bread, etc.), my belly fat increases, when I don't snack as much and snack better (fruits, veggies, hummus), walk every day, and stop eating after 7pm my belly fat goes down.

If you are naturally apple-shaped the effects of this will be more apparent, I'm pear-shaped so it takes me longer to notice it happening.
posted by lafemma at 9:51 AM on January 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: To answer some questions:

Yes I probably have a poor body image.

I have a 26" waist and 32" hips. Googling suggests this is too high of a ratio (0.81).

I do consume too much sugar and booze I think. That probably doesn't help.
posted by a strong female character at 10:48 AM on January 8, 2016

If you don't have experience lifting weights, I'll put in a quick plug for a good Crossfit Gym (a feminist one, if you have one around you!). I have a hundred pounds on you (and not that much height), but have found Crossfit pretty easy to get in to, with a good mix of cardio and strength, and coaches helping to teach the movements safely.

It has been good for my body image, as I've gotten stronger and can do more things... and spend more of my mental energy on strength and abilities instead of on what my body looks like.
posted by ldthomps at 10:59 AM on January 8, 2016

I have a 26" waist and 32" hips. Googling suggests this is too high of a ratio (0.81).

I think you're worrying overmuch about this. You're really pretty small already.

The ratio thing is just part of a bunch of factors related to your health. Unless your doctor has told you this is a medical issue, I'd leave this alone for now, especially with your weight swings in the last year. Or at least talk to a doctor first.
posted by sweetkid at 11:03 AM on January 8, 2016

The ratio thing is a way of measuring how much fat you're carrying in your belly, because carrying too much fat in your belly is a risk factor for diabetes and heart disease and other bad things. You have a very small waist measurement, and you are not carrying too much fat in your belly. (Another way that doctors measure this is that your waist measurement should be below either 32 or 30 inches, depending on which authority you ask. You are way below that.) Basically, you just have unusually slim hips, and that's not a risk factor for anything.

It sounds to me like you should be addressing your body image issues. There's nothing wrong with your body.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 11:32 AM on January 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

I have a 26" waist and 32" hips. Googling suggests this is too high of a ratio (0.81).

I think you need some help with this, either by speaking to a trusted medical professional or therapist. Not rely on Google for this stuff. Look, we all have body image issues and body issues. But you're skewing these ratios into something more than what they are. They're just a general tool to sort data and average things. You don't have a 50" waist. You have a 26" waist which is very very slim. I think in reality you have small HIPS - not a large waist. Again, it's a ratio of hips to waist. Again, you probably have an apple shaped body, with less prominent hips. It's just the way you're built. Same as how I have small breasts. I mean, I just do. I highly doubt you have any risk of anything related to body fat - unless you have too little body fat.

And, this isn't coming from someone who doesn't get it. I have a 31" bust, 26" waist, and 36"hips and weight about 100 (a bit less, health issues caused me to lose some weight.) It just so happens that I'm a pear shape. So I have a lot of hips/butt for my weight and size. My waist to hip ratio is .72. But my hip to butt ratio doesn't really tell you anything about my health. According to this, my ratio means I'm at lower risk for some health issues, but in reality I'm a bit underweight (for me) and have a chronic illness.

I really think speaking with someone - again a doctor and/or therapist - can help you re-equalize. Go get a checkup and talk about it. See if your diet makes you bloated, get some new clothes, etc. And I'm by no means perfect. I've got tons of body image issues, but it seems you're heading in a direction of life-changes that may be too drastic for a body thing that you can't change that way. You've already had doctors be concerned about your weight loss in the past.

If you DO move forward with lifestyle changes, please do so with the help of a doctor. Be sure you're doing it in a healthy way, and don't expect the general shape of your bones to shift. I mean, I can't make my hips smaller, that's just how wide they are. Thems' my bones.
posted by Crystalinne at 2:26 PM on January 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

From your original question: So my question is: what exactly am I supposed to do with this information that my waist-to-hip ratio is dangerously high when the alternative is to look like a skeleton? Which one of these options is the MOST healthy?

Your last update: I have a 26" waist and 32" hips. Googling suggests this is too high of a ratio (0.81).

That is .01 over that rather arbitrary, population-based 0.80 standard. That is not dangerously high for a woman. You are not going to get seriously sick because you have a 26 inch waist and relatively small hips. In fact, you are well under these current standards for women:

- American Heart Association, National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute: Waist circumference: > 35 inches
- International Diabetes Federation: Waist circumference: > 31.5 inches
- World Health Organization: Waist-to-hip ratio: > 0.85 (not 0.80!)

Look, you're obviously under a lot of stress and you're focusing on this one area. Time and therapy can help you get past this. But please, for God's sake, stop telling yourself that you're doomed. Don't let any outdated sources or random Googling fuel your self-hatred and fear.
posted by maudlin at 2:29 PM on January 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

It sounds like there are two things going on here:

1) You have a lack of muscle tone and fitness ("skinny fat"). Exercise and muscle building will sort this.

2) You are naturally apple shaped. Nothing will "sort" this. In fact it doesn't even need to be sorted, because there is nothing wrong with it. It is just the way you are made. All you can do is accept it and wear clothes that flatter that shape and embrace the positives.

I totally sympathise because I am the exact opposite (tiny waist, legs and arms like tree trunks) and that has its own drawbacks. It is a terrible shape for running and forget ever buying a long sleeved top or fitted trousers. I'm sure most people reading this could tell you something annoying about their body shape too, but we are all normal.
posted by intensitymultiply at 3:26 PM on January 8, 2016

> Yes I probably have a poor body image.
I have a 26" waist and 32" hips. Googling suggests this is too high of a ratio (0.81).
I do consume too much sugar and booze I think. That probably doesn't help.

As a small-boned woman of a fairly similar size as you, I can tell you right now that the idea that your waist-hip ratio proves that you're "fat", let alone it being "dangerously" high for a 5'2", 105 pound woman, is utter nonsense. Alternately: listen to your doctor.

Look, if it makes you feel any better, you're probably measuring your waist wrong, most people do. The actual smallest part is much higher than where your pants sit, and you should be pulling the measuring tape as tight as you can. If you actually have a 25 inch waist and thus a waist-hip ratio in the congrats-you-are-at-low-risk-for-coronary-disease zone, will that convince you that you're not fat and that there's nothing wrong with your body shape?
posted by desuetude at 5:50 PM on January 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

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