I’m Judging You – Why do We Want to be Lean?


Trigger Warning

Within the bodybuilding world, Bikini competitors have the ‘softest’ look. Despite this, however, they are still required to step onstage with a body fat percentage that is significantly lower than the norm. Miami Pro’s Ms. Bikini class calls for competitors who are ‘lean with minimal body fat’,[1] while the UKBFF guidelines state that there should be ‘a decreased amount of body fat’[2] within the Bikini division. According to Muscle and Body Magazine, Bikini models often compete ‘with 8.5-14% body fat’,[3] which is extremely low compared to the 25-31% female average.[4]


This low percentage required by the fitness world reflects a wider cultural trend for lean female bodies. Feminist critic Roberta Seid argues that this trend ‘violates the anthropomorphic reality of the average female body’ since ‘[t]he ideal female weight…has progressively decreased to that of the thinnest 5-10% of American women.’[5] In recent years slenderness has become increasingly fetishised, with images of fat-free figures pervading Tumblr and Instagram. According to Susie Orbach, slenderness is no longer considered in terms of physicality but has been ‘abstracted from what it is – just one particular body shape.’[6] The lean body carries multiple and often contradictory meanings. The significance of a figure that is trimmed near to the bone lies not inherently within slenderness itself, but in what it represents.


The reason why slenderness has become a cultural obsession is addressed by Orbach in Fat is a Feminist Issue: ‘[w]e know that every woman wants to be thin…If we are thin we shall feel healthier, lighter and less restricted…We shall be the woman in the advertisements who lives the good life; we shall be able to project a variety of images – athletic, sexy or elegant…We shall be admired. We shall be beautiful.’[7] My research supports Orbach’s explanation by proving that slenderness is laden with moral judgement. In modern society, minimal body fat signifies beauty, will power and self-control.


Feminists such as Susie Orbach argue that slenderness remains a masculine representation of the female body. In accepting this ideal, women are subordinating themselves to an ideal which connotes thin with attractive and ‘good’, and fat with unattractive and ‘bad’. These associations are the internalisation of patriarchal forms, brought about by the prevailing norm of representation.


While examining the moral significance of slenderness, I asked research participants to suggest qualities that they associated with low body fat. The values identified included positive references to aesthetics, with a strong correlation between the lean female body and desirability. As well as being more attractive, slenderness was perceived to be more socially acceptable than a ‘softer’ look. Low body fat was also related to self-respect since thinner women were seen to be both ‘health conscious’ and ‘aware of their weight’. Ladies with trim figures were viewed as inspirational role models, with one participant remarking that she associated low body fat with ‘strong, healthy and self-loving women who are prepared to put in long term effort to get the best from themselves.’


The quality most frequently associated with slenderness  was self-control, especially with regard to eating behaviours. This was exemplified in the rhetoric of ‘discipline’, ‘motivation’, ‘determination’ and ‘focus.’ One competitor stated that ‘[i]t takes dedication and extreme self-control to maintain a low level of body fat, especially for women.’ This confirms the findings of feminist critic Susan Bordo, who states that ‘food refusal, [and] weight loss…have become cultural metaphors for self-determination, will, and moral fortitude.’[8] In contemporary Western society, the slender form has come to represent autonomy and regulation of desire.

[1] http://www.miamiproevents.co.uk/about_us.php [accessed 3rd Jan 2015]

[2] http://www.ukbff.co.uk/pdfs/bikini_category_rules.pdf

[3] http://www.muscleandbodymag.com/whats-the-deal-with-bikini-contests/ ACCESSED 3RD JAN 2015

[4] Exercise AC. Ace Lifestyle & Weight Management Consultant Manual, The Ultimate Resource for Fitness Professionals. American Council on Exercise; 2009

[5] Feminist Perspectives on Eating Disorders, ed. by Patricia Fallon, Melanie A. Katzman, Susan C. Wooley (The Guilford Press: London, 1994), p.8 From ‘Too “Close to the Bone”: The Historical Context for Women’s Obsession with Slenderness’, Roberta P. Seid

[6] Susie Orbach, Fat is a Feminist Issue (Arrow Books: London, 2006), pp.200-1

[7] Susie Orbach, Fat is a Feminist Issue (Arrow Books: London, 2006), p.68

[8] Bordo, Susan, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (University of California Press: London, 1995), p.68

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