Illustration by Elnora Turner
Ask A Swole Woman is an advice column for people who are sick of clean eating, perfect gym outfits, and chiseled abs. Casey Johnston, who is not a doctor or personal trainer but isn't afraid to tell gym bros to get the hell away from her squat rack, is here to answer all your fitness questions, and wants you to be healthy, enjoy carbs, and get jacked.
Hey Casey,Right now I'm not in bad shape, but I'm not in great shape either. I don't currently work out apart from occasionally stretching and lifting a couple small weights in my apartment when I remember to. I don't want to get particularly muscular but would like to do some toning and lose (at least some of) my belly fat. I've always heard this is the hardest kind of fat to lose (I wouldn't know from personal experience because I've never actually tried for real lol) so I'm kind of apprehensive and worried about getting discouraged before I end up seeing any results. What's your advice for getting started and not giving up after not seeing a difference after like…a week? — Jess
I can relate; I’ve gone up and down the scale in healthy and extremely unhealthy ways, trying to lose the dreaded “belly fat” that is scare-highlighted in the marketing for every diet supplement ever. The first important thing to know is that the so-called “stubbornness” of certain body parts is largely dependent on your biology, and different people store fat differently. Some people have super-slim arms no matter what they weigh; some have super-slim legs; some are more evenly distributed. I can currently see my individual quad muscles when I squat, but have a little upper-arm cellulite; this is just the way of things. I’ve also continued to have “belly fat” basically no matter what I’ve done, even at super-low body weights.There is no magical exercise or process by which you will be able to lose a particular chunk of body fat. You may have heard before that “it’s impossible to spot-reduce body fat,” and it is true. Crunches do not give you abs any more than they make fat magically disappear from your stomach, and the same is true of any body part.Bodies can lose all the fat they have, even “stubborn” areas, if you are severe enough with yourself. Biologically, it’s possible. But then the question becomes, “what is the cost of doing it,” and the answer is probably “a lot higher than you might think.” To illustrate this, I think it will help to dissect what it is you’re probably seeing out there that makes you think “myself, but with zero belly fat” is a reasonable beauty standard.
There are people who lose body fat professionally, even from those stubborn areas. Bodybuilders or fitness models, including women, sometimes diet down very aggressively, but the details of how they do it aren’t always entirely clear; it takes months, and then the window in which they Look Like That is a matter of a couple days. If you aren’t familiar with the process that goes into looking like a bikini model for all of 48 hours or so, it might be edifying for you to find out. Almost all of them gain like 10 pounds in the days following, and sometimes weigh 20, 30 pounds more in their normal lives than they do in the photos you see, because it’s not healthy or safe, especially for women, to be at these insanely low body fat percentages constantly. Very low body weight or a messed-up metabolism from eating too little for too long is associated with a number of symptoms including losing your period, extreme distracting hunger, browning out, and being cold all the time. It messes with your moods in a way that can overwhelm your life, and those are just a few of the reasons you don’t see a lot of real-life people engaging in this lifestyle. People who do live their lives like this are often unwilling to admit how hard it is; one fitness influencer, Stephanie Buttermore, recently tapped out of her super-low-body-fat existence because she was feeling devastatingly hungry all the time except when she went on 10,000 calorie "cheat-day" benders and started just eating to satiety, i.e., until she felt full, each day. She’s gained 30 pounds so far, and frankly, good for her, that rules.
The other thing is that so much imagery of bodies out there is manipulated, if not with Photoshop or FaceTune, then with lighting, posing, liposuction, crash diets, and a mountain of other shit. There is literally an app that draws muscles on your smartphone photos. We have been aware that this is what can lie beneath the surface of photos of impossibly beautiful people for decades now, and still we compare ourselves to these unrealistic standards and find ourselves coming up short.There was a time when the disordered-eating part of my brain would read something like this and go “I don’t care what’s unsafe or supposedly temporary, I’ll do WHATEVER it takes for as long as I need to in order to feel hot and accepted,” including severe amounts of exercise and tolerating all the side effects I listed above. I’m saying all this knowing that if you are feeling bad about your body, that if you feel being able to control it just a little it might make you feel better or that people will love you more, it is not for me to actually convince you otherwise with facts; body dysmorphia is real, more common than we think, and may require serious treatment.People who do lift are able to keep or build their lean body mass more easily, and therefore have, on average, a much easier time manipulating their weight and body fat (there is a reason even the smallest bikini competitors don’t only do cardio). But learning to lift did help me see my body as having a purpose other than being as thin as possible; when I ate to get stronger and saw that my body could not only take in more than meager little slivers of food but actually turn them into muscles, I have to be honest, it fuckin’ ruled! I actually not only liked myself better when I was bigger and more muscular, but also found I could still really loathe myself when I went through bad periods of anxiety and ended up losing weight and becoming a lot smaller.
I can tell you some things that have really helped me, no matter what size I was: Looking at real photos of other women of my general size at MyBodyGallery, or looking at the #30secondtransformation hashtag on Instagram where women show the difference that posing, lighting, and clothing make in how their bodies look (some are quite clearly still posing too hard in their “before” photos, but I digress). I find comfort in these images not because I compare favorably, but because we are so overwhelmed with visuals of tiny, perfect bodies, even in non-mainstream-media venues like Instagram, that it makes a material difference to me to be reminded what normal people look like, and that even people who “look like this all the time” don’t actually look like this all the time.Possibly you know this and are thinking, those are extremes! I just want to lose a little bit of body fat in one particular area. But your body loses fat in the way that it wants to, meaning the cost of changing that specific area may be changing your entire body and lifestyle in a way that, frankly, could make life suck for you. We are blessed to have some real truths from the mouths of people who live these lives floating around on the internet; they are maybe slightly harder to find than the ones who post photos of themselves with their abs flexed next to beautiful plates of fruit overlaid with the text “five keto vegan meals to drop ten pounds fast!” but they are out there.I definitely didn't want this column to come out as a rant about belly fat, but internalizing that language and those standards can be way more devastating to your psyche and your health than you might realize. There is so much you can get out of learning to use your body in a functional way and eating well — feeling strong and capable, feeling cared for, having more energy — it’s a shame to hold yourself to a standard that is not only incredibly difficult to achieve, but also extremely transient. Starting to see your body as a capable vessel that can build itself up is a revelation. You are so much more than pockets of body fat.Disclaimer: Casey Johnston is not a doctor, nutritionist, dietitian, personal trainer, physiotherapist, psychotherapist, doctor, or lawyer; she is simply someone who done a lot of, and read a lot about, lifting weights.You can read past Ask A Swole Woman columns at The Hairpin and at SELF and follow A Swole Woman on Instagram. Got a question for her? Email email@example.com.