Thunder thighs may be good for you

It's like Christmas! Unless you're someone with naturally thin legs. Or Serena Williams

Published September 4, 2009 2:05PM (EDT)

When I read the BBC headline "Large thighs 'may protect heart,'" my first response was, "Holy crap, Christmas came early!" I'm always excited to see the media reporting on studies that acknowledge the potential protective value of what's usually referred to as "excess weight", since most people can't imagine that fat could be good for anything -- but I never dreamed I'd see the day when scientists suggested big thighs might be a boon! As someone who's naturally pear-shaped and quite generously thighed, who advocates trying to be healthy in the body you've got rather than fighting to change its size, and who spent nearly 20 years despising the shape of my legs, reading a sentence like, "The team at the Copenhagen University Hospital found that those with the smallest thighs -- below 55cm -- had twice the risk of early death or serious health problems" warms my possibly somewhat less vulnerable heart.

But the key word in that sentence is "naturally." When I dieted myself down to the lower end of a "normal" BMI, I was still pear-shaped and generously thighed, proportionally, even if my thighs fit into much smaller pants. The most ardent diet evangelist would have to admit that all the working out and calorie restriction in the world are not likely to change the way your body distributes fat, only how much of it there is. But history has shown us that once a connection is established between body size/shape and disease, few people stop to wonder if it's really possible for individuals to change to the more desirable version -- they just start telling us to "get off the couch" and do it. Indeed, the lead researcher on this study, Professor Berit Heitmann, says, "The nice thing is that if you have a small thigh you can do something about it through exercise." Sigh.

To be fair, in this case, he's sort of right: The researchers speculate that lack of muscle mass might be the real culprit here, and building muscle mass is a reasonable goal. But A) since they're talking about thigh circumference, not the muscle-to-fat ratio, people blessed with enough fat to clear the 60 cm mark would apparently be left alone, and B) in all other ways, this sounds just like the hype over waist circumference and abdominal fat as risk factors, which led to a bunch of recommendations that apple-shaped people somehow work toward changing how their bodies naturally store fat. (OK, specifically, it led to recommendations to lose weight until you get your waist circumference below a certain number. But in addition to the fact that permanent substantial weight loss is impossible for the vast majority of us, people who carry their weight out front were being asked to lose a hell of a lot more than people who don't -- making the goal yet more unrealistic -- just because of their genetic bad luck.) So sure, I'm having fun saying, "With these thighs, I will live FOREVER, suckers!" But if the research showed the opposite, I'd be S.O.L. Because, regardless of whether they're good or bad for me, these thighs simply aren't going anywhere.

Having said all that, what's most interesting to me about this study is how starkly it puts western beauty standards and medical findings into opposition, for once. "Health concerns" are so often used as a justification for reinforcing those standards, people actually think it's rational to argue that Serena Williams's body size and shape makes it "impossible to imagine that she has done anything that even remotely resembles routine fitness training and self-policing when it comes to her diet," and rank her on a list of the top 10 "worst conditioned athletes." Serena fucking Williams! Could it be any clearer that we equate "fitness" with "thinness" way beyond all reason? And do you suppose that if further research bears this study out, the news that bigger thighs are good for you will affect our notion of what acceptable female legs look like one little bit? I'm not holding my breath.

For more evidence that I should keep breathing, just have a look at the photo the BBC chose to illustrate this story: A thin model in her underwear, with a tape measure wrapped around her smooth, hairless, cellulite-free, not very big thigh. Said thigh might be larger around than 60 cm, for all I know -- but even if it is, putting that photo next to a headline about "large thighs" is absurd. And more importantly, tell me again why I'm looking at a woman wearing nothing but lacy panties alongside an article about heart disease? Yeah. Not holding my breath.


By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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