{#TransparentTuesday} Let’s talk about body fat.

Editor’s note: These posts were written back when my brand name was Remodel Fitness. I’ve decided to include them here without editing them, in the interest of…well… transparency. 😉

Today I want to talk about body fat percentage.


“Body fat percentage” is more or less exactly what it sounds like– it’s the percentage of your body that is made up of fat. The term has become popular in the last few years as fitness has become trendy, as the “ideal body goal” for most women started to include being toned instead of just skinny.

When someone begins a fitness plan with the goal of “losing some weight and toning up,” more often than not what they really want is to change their body composition- they want to lower their body fat percentage. This can be done by either losing fat OR by adding muscle, since it’s simply a ratio of fat to other stuff in your body. That’s why your size might remain the same, but the shape of your body might look completely different after a few months of lifting weights.

Unfortunately, most of the ways we have to measure body fat percentage are completely inaccurate, despite what every personal trainer and gym owner wants you to think as they try to sell you on training sessions. Unless you’ve ever done hydrostatic weighting, odds are pretty good that you don’t know your accurate body fat percentage.

But that’s ok. The exact number really doesn’t matter. For most people, if you’re getting in shape and start to look and feel better, odds are pretty good that your body fat percentage is dropping.

For a lot of people who get into the fitness game, body fat percentage becomes a point of fixation.

They try to get as lean as possible, so that they look as tight and defined as possible, and they want to maintain it forever. Which is what I want to talk about today.

1. It Still Fluctuates.

I realized recently that even though my size is still exactly the same, my body’s shape is quite different than it was a year ago. I was significantly more muscular then. I was solid and dense and strong and powerful; I weighed a bit more, and I ate a TON of calories to maintain it.

But then my lifestyle (and my exercise and nutrition habits!) changed dramatically when I left the city and started traveling full time. This year I paid far less mind to what I ate, I stopped following hardcore strength programs, and I all-around put fitness on a back burner. I have much less muscle now, I weigh a bit less, and I eat less because my metabolism is lower.

Just to be clear, I’m still perfectly healthy and happy with how I look. I’m just observing that while my size is the same, the shape of my body is different. Which means that my body fat percentage is higher now than it was last year. Probably not by a ton, maybe like 3-4%? Let’s say I was around 16-17% last year and I’m around 20% now. Overall I’d say the big difference I look and feel softer and lighter than before, things aren’t quite as perky, and I jiggle more.

When your habits change, your body changes.

And your habits, god willing, will never stay the same forever. You are an interesting creature with an interesting life, and your nutrition and exercise habits will fluctuate with your growth, interests, priorities, and surroundings. They’re supposed to! Your body will always follow suit. Nothing is permanent. Nothing is better. It’s always changing. Embrace it!

 2. Achieving and Maintaining a Low Body Fat Percentage Takes Work

Getting and staying lean (aka having a low percentage of body fat) requires a certain level of dedication. It’s different for everyone, but it will almost always take effort, thought, and dedication. I don’t know a single person who maintains super leanness without prepping most of their own food, limiting or cutting booze, prioritizing sleep and recovery, and following a very dedicated and intense workout plan. Those things might come easily to someone because it ties into their values, but that doesn’t mean they’re not putting effort into it.

There is a big old myth out there that some people have these lean, fit bodies without any effort, and it’s just not true. Granted, effort doesn’t need to mean unhappiness! I loved lifting and eating the way I did before, because it felt so damn good. I never felt unhappy or deprived- but I was putting in work.

Leanness is earned with lean habits over the long term.

Is it worth it? I don’t know, you’ll have to decide that for yourself. I think each of us needs to find and strike our own balance between “taking care of our bodies” and “enjoying our lives,” and that will look different from person to person and situation to situation. Sometimes you might want to prioritize one thing, and other times your priorities are elsewhere. That’s life, and that’s ok. (See #1)

3. Lower is Not Always Better

Technically for a woman, a “healthy body fat percentage” is around 20-25%, although most of the female bodies we tend to idealize are significantly lower. Athletes tend to be muscular and lean, and are allowed to go down to around 14% and still be considered healthy, but below 14% we’re looking at sometimes irreparable damage to the body.

Having at least 13% of your body made up of fat is considered essential for a woman, meaning when you go below that, shit starts to fall apart.

We tend to celebrate and cheer for people as they get leaner and commend them for “getting so healthy,” but leanness and health are NOT always linked.

It’s very important that we start to recognize that having a low body fat percentage is not the same thing as fitness, and it’s not the same thing as health.

 4. Fat Makes Us Unique.

You ever notice how all physique competitors tend to look so similar when they’re standing on stage in their bikinis? That’s not just because of the spray tans- it’s because fat helps determine our unique body shapes, and they don’t have any.

All the celebrities and models have similarly angular faces for the same reason. We all look much more similar with low body fat percentages. So if you wonder how come everyone you envy seems to look the same and you look different, this is likely a big part of why.

Our culture’s obsession with pursuing extreme leanness feels to me a bit like we’re pursuing homogenization. Your body fat is a big part of what makes you you.

So now what?

As always, I believe in individual autonomy and doing things consciously. If you’re purposefully pursuing leanness right now, awesome! If you’re purposefully rebuking it, awesome! As long as you feel good about your choices, I support you. But I do think when it comes to topics as sensitive and loaded as body fat, that the more we can open up the conversation, the better.

Come on over to Women Who Empower Other Women, Unite! to share your thoughts and experiences with body fat with a supportive community of women who are also working through this stuff for themselves.

Yours always, <3 Jessi Kneeland Get strong. Feel confident. Look amazing.

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