Monday, March 14, 2011

Weight and Gender

A photo of Sophia Loren with husband Carlo Ponti. Source:

Recently, both Debra and Dr. Sharma have been using the word "obesities" rather than "obesity" to illustrate the fact that overweight can be attributed to a number of different factors (not to mention the fact that living with a weight that is "over" what is conventionally deemed to be normal is not necessarily a "bad" or "unhealthy" state, but that's another post for another day).

While I believe that this is a real step forward in understanding this vastly complicated issue, I believe that this complexity goes even further. As I read the blogs of people living with overweight (whether they are "fighting" it, accepting it or maintaining a thinner outer shell), I am constantly struck by the huge difference in how men and women experience and react to their weight.

On a physiological level, body fat is completely different ball game for men and women. While a more or less "average" man can live comfortably with 17% body fat, an elite woman athlete (someone who is far from "average") may have 20% body fat, and average woman can easily carry 25% body fat without being considered "fat". While an elite male athlete can have as little as 3-5% body fat, a woman with that level of fat would be seriously anorexic, if not already dead.

Putting aside the issue of polycysitic ovarian syndrome which causes an excess of fat and a drop in fertility, women need fat (and certainly a higher level of fat than men) to be fertile. I believe, therefore, that the female body is much more recalcitrant to losing fat than the male body and will "fight" (if you'll excuse the expression) much harder to regain it than a man's body will. Recently, my husband lost a small amount of weight. He did it by tweaking his eating habits in such a minor way that no one in the family noticed. He did not increase his exercise. I asked him recently if he'd lost any more weight and he told me that, no, his weight has remained stable. Now, ask any woman you know how she managed to lose even a few pounds (AND KEEP THEM OFF) and she will produce a list of rules that she follows to the letter, perhaps a food diary, an exercise regimen, a calorie counter (in book form or on the Internet), the latest book on weight loss that's changed her life, her WW membership card...And then she'll tell you that it's a constant battle that she wages literally minute by minute.

Now, ask a man why he has become overweight. Some may actually admit to psychological factors but most will merely shrug their shoulders and mutter something about a couple of extra beers and the fact that they stopped playing sports once they left school. Most don't feel particularly unattractive due to that extra weight (generally, extra poundage has much less of an effect on a man's love life than a woman's) and will probably take no action unless advised to do so by their doctor (and even then). Ask a woman about her weight and she will pour out her heart about her binge eating, addiction to sugar/junk food, inability to identify the "full" signal, need to drown her sorrows in a bag of chips or a pan of brownies, lack of "willpower"...

So please, let's add gender to the mix and not close our eyes to its effect on weight management.


  1. But the powers that be MUST close their eyes to the effect of gender differences on weight (and so-called "weight management") because otherwise they have to concede that their entire paradigm is WRONG. It's like having to swallow the unpleasant reality: Everything I think I know about this subject is based on false assumptions and crappy research, and therefore I am in the dark, without a clear vision of reality--not just in this area of knowledge but in all areas of knowledge that are also shaped by the same forces that shape my questionable knowledge about weight and weight management. So. Hmmm. Nope. A no brainer. I'm just gonna keep going in this direction, not looking at that other stuff, that stuff that causes massive anxiety FOR ME and by definition, then, must be irrelevant..."

    Of course, this isn't some conscious effort, but nevertheless represents the unconscious defenses of people whose entire life-worlds (to borrow weirdly from Habermas) are controlled by forces they cannot identify as real...

    Lovely place, this. Planet earth.


  2. Rebecca, I love you.

    I really need to be communicating with people like you. The weight loss community is just too insane. I keep wanting to reach out to the dieters but when I do, I realize that they are so far gone as to not-understand-my-words. Truly, I might as well be speaking a foreign language.

    Yes, the forces at play go far, far beyond our petty concerns with back fat. It's just that the diet insanity is such an incredible microcosm of how lost we are as a species.

  3. What a great post. Gender is definitely a large part of the whole weight loss/gain issue.

    I am within a few pounds of my recommended weight, yet I agonize when I gain a pound or two.

    My husband about 50 lbs overweight, and although he wants to lose weight to be healthier, his weight doesn't affect his "self esteem" at all.

    Doesn't seem fair! :-)

  4. I'm going to throw this out there and see what happens: women are more concerned about their appearance than men. They work harder. Ever see a woman in worn out clothing? Or a big food stain down the front? Me neither. Ever see a man wearing a scarf around their neck knotted appropriately? Or a guy spending a hundred dollars every 6 weeks at a hairdresser? Ok, maybe such a thing happens once in a while.

    Given that men are just as overweight as women, I don't think that the mechanics of weight loss are different, but I do think that women have a higher emotional aspect around food than men.

  5. Hello Me,

    What you say is perfectly true, however, as I pointed out in my post, there are very significant physiological differences that make weight loss (and keeping the weight off) much more difficult for women.

  6. Grace,

    I'm just curious. What makes your "recommended" weight recommended? Is it the BMI or something else?

  7. This area does merit more study. No question about it. Men have distinct advantages physiologically and culturally. And I bet their endocrine is more cooperative than ours too. Grrrrr.

  8. Hi New Me

    I do use the BMI as a rough guide for a recommended weight. Because of my history of eating disorders I also take the advice of my therapist so as to not get too obsessed about continuing to lose weight. So I "allow" myself to have a goal of 162. I know that sounds weird, but if I don't limit myself to a rational number, I'll continue to try to get down to 152 or 142…etc.

    I'm 58 years old, 5'9" with a medium to large build, and I currently weigh 169. I'm am also a bit more muscular than the average 58 year old woman because I have worked out almost my whole life.

    So my BMI currently is 25. I'd like to get around 23.9 which is in the high-middle of the BMI "normal" range. Once I get down to 162, I will get my body fat tested again. Last time I had it checked, it was 35 percent and I'd like to get down to 27.

    I really believe fat percentage is the best measure of health as it relates to weight.

  9. Hello again Grace,

    You seem to be treading a very fine line. Congratulations on being aware of the kind of traps that you can fall into.

    I would posit that there are other numbers that are important too: blood pressure, good and bad cholesterol (don't let the doctor give you one number; you really have to know both); blood sugar. I'll bet you dollars to donuts (lol), that you're doing just fine on all these fronts, not to mention the fact that you work out, which is a real plus.

    Is it all that necessary to keep plugging away at these numbers--because that's all they really are, when you seem to be quite a healthy person already? How about focusing more on other things, like singing in a choir or working for world peace? You seem to be a great person with lots more to offer the world than a BMI of 23.9.

    All the above is said with the utmost respect.

  10. Dear New Me

    What a wonderful response, and I do take it in the spirit which it was given!

    I am indeed trying to find the balance in my life. I spent my early life totally focused on my weight and appearance. I experienced life with anorexia, bulimia, compulsive eating, and a combination of all at the same time. I've never really been very overweight (probably the most I've been is 25 lbs overweight...maybe) but I always thought I was fat even when I was extremely thin.

    Unfortunately, I am a type A personality with perfectionist tendencies, which I recognize. I do have issues surrounding my weight, and I'm a bit obsessive about that. I can tell you exactly what I weighed at any point in my life, because I keep detailed records. My BP is great, I know my LDL/HDL/Total Cholesterol, the ratios, blood sugar, triglycerides (yes, all the numbers are fabulous). So my way of dealing with this is to "allow" myself a certain amount of thinking about my weight, with a focus on health (rather than weight itself). I'm much much better than I used to be, even 5 years ago.

    If you read my blog, you will find that I am employed full time in a great job, which also gives me the opportunity to give back to the community (I'm am in the fire service). I have a wonderful husband. We travel. We entertain frequently. We are active in our church and I usher. On my own, I collect antique jewelry. I spend time with my dog and with friends who also have dogs.

    Believe me, with my voice you would not want me to sing in the choir. And I would work for world peace but I don't have the time! :-)

    Anyway, love your blog. You are very insightful. Thanks for the thoughtful responses that you give everyone.

  11. Oh Grace, you've made my day!

  12. I really like your response to Grace.

    It reminds me about how I used to be obsessive about food and weight and so on, which eventually developed into full-blown binge eating disorder for which I had to seek treatment. I remember telling my therapist that if I could have channeled the time and energy I spent calorie-counting and obsessing over my weight into something else, I could have accomplished something great, maybe written a novel or something.

    Now I am losing weight slowly and healthfully, without counting calories, with the guidance of a dietitian. I have lost 65 pounds over the last two years, without becoming obsessed or ceasing to enjoy food. Now I am just a few pounds over the healthy BMI range, but I have not really lost any weight since Christmas. I have been wondering whether I should stop trying to reach an arbitrary goal and just focus on staying healthy and active, because I am worried that if I push too hard I could cross the line back into obsession and disordered eating, and I so do NOT want to be there again.

    I need to remind myself that losing weight and becoming healthy is not the end goal for me, but only a means to an end. The actual goal is to take that health and DO SOMETHING with it. Live the life I want to live. Which could be singing in a choir or working for world peace -- or anything worthwhile.

    So thanks for helping me keep this in mind.