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I Don't Think You're Ready for This Belly: My Body's Not Bootylicious

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A response to Mark Sisson's August 21 post, Gender Differences in Fat Metabolism

I'm more body-conscious than ever, but less self-conscious, self-assessing, or self-hating than I've been in the past. I've lost about forty pounds in the last year and a half, and I used to be unhappy with my shape, but when I think of myself and my physicality, my looks have little to do with my frustrations anymore. I lost the weight I set out to lose. I look good.

Still, things aren't quite right. Although I am 5'6", I have the long, skinny legs of a great blue heron, so long in proportion to my torso that I must carefully modify my squats to keep from toppling over in the middle of the gym (it happens); my hips are angular and unpadded, no butt to speak of; I keep my fat around the waist, less now, but still present, a cauldron full of so many ingredients: lack of sleep, a mix of stressors, hormonal imbalance, genetics, unknowns, all leading to fat storage. The area often bloats up to an alarming size, a sign of some distress my doctor works to fix, but I am still puffy and internally rebellious.

In a recent blog post, Mark Sisson discussed differences in fat metabolism in men and women. It's a great post, and I appreciate his attention to the sex-based differences at play when it comes to fat storage. However, by the post's end, I was wondering where my form fit in. Sisson writes that "when women store fat, they do so in different places than men. They’ll preferentially store fat in in the hips, butt, and legs, whereas when men gain weight, it usually goes to the upper body (hence why you see massive beer bellies atop stick legs)," and "the research outlined above suggests that classically feminine patterns of fat deposition are healthier than classically male patterns." (My favorite line in the article is, "Men - most of the fitness and health literature is geared toward you, so I’ll just suggest that you take this information on gender differences in fat metabolism into consideration." Truth!)


As I've lost weight, I haven't been able to choose where it disappeared from. My skinny legs got skinnier; my narrow hips got narrower. People ask me if I'm ready to stop losing weight, and I'm just not sure what to say, because I wish I could choose where to lose it from. No more from my stick wrists; no more from the flesh over my skull. How do I lose weight like a woman? Am I keeping on weight like a man? I want to whisper to my thighs to hold onto their remaining flesh so the belly can burn.

I know that whatever's going on in there is the key. My many food intolerances point to inflammation, inflammation gestures toward midsection fat gain. My doctor and I are working on it. While my doctor and I work to figure that out, although I am impatient, I feel that it's okay, this swollen spot on my ruler shape, a shape handed down to me, a shape from a family of tall, slight-on-the-hips women. No matter the health benefits of carrying fat elsewhere, I wouldn't trade my shape for any other. It's a good attitude to have, because no amount of work or wishing would put junk in this trunk.

I admire Stefani Ruper's take on body image issues, as stated in "How Perfect Is the Perfect Body?" at Whole9. "Optimal health does not demand achieving the ideal body," Ruper writes. "True, holistic, radiant health instead demands nourishment and care. It demands prioritizing the needs over the body over the way that it looks, and it demands dropping any kind of warfare mentality. True health begs of us to work with our bodies, in partnership, and to nourish and nurture them in our health and weight loss journeys rather than try desperately to cram them into shapes they are not designed for."

Ruper writes that we might seek optimal health by improving fitness, blood markers, and stress levels. This approach is similar to what I have been working toward these days: work toward eliminating the physical ailments, and the rest will fall into place later. It's important to me to keep in mind the fact that even though I may be sick, I can still have a positive body image. Actually, being sick may mean it's even more important to like myself, because it will help me want to work harder to get well.

I don't know what to do with the fact that the shape I see when I look down, skinny legs and all, the shape I've had my entire life, is not the shape that I'm reading and hearing from the paleo community to be the healthy female shape—to my ears, in that context, female translates to feminine. I'm a girl who wears skirts. I like my shape the way it is, for the most part, and it's neither the shape of a boy nor the shape of a girl who has yet to become a woman. Maybe it's not the optimal shape for reproductive health, but I can live with that.

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  • Juanita Monday, 27 August 2012

    Good post, Elissa. You have a similar shape to the rest of the women you are related to. I, too, have long skinny legs and arms, small ankles and wrists--and no waist. I believe it is part of our Native American heritage. When I attend tribal meetings where there are a lot of women, few of them have a waist, or a butt, but most have ample bellies. I enjoy knowing this is part of my genetic makeup, even though clothes designed for women with "European" bodies don't fit me very well. Thank God for elastic waist pants...

  • Elissa Monday, 27 August 2012

    Thanks for this comment, Aunt Juanita. I have noticed this as well when looking around at tribal gatherings, and I've started looking into the genetic factors at play in fat storage.

  • Marisa H Thursday, 30 August 2012

    When you mention "many food intolerances" and show how skinny you are everywhere except the belly, it shouts "fructose intolerance" to me, as I had much of the same problem in that I thought I had a lot of belly fat but I was just bloated all the time. I stopped eating low carb, high insoluble fiber veg, fructose containing fruits, veg, and (paleo) sweeteners, and now just mostly eat meat, eggs, raw dairy and starchy (glucose) carbs. My belly thanks me mightily.

  • Elissa Thursday, 30 August 2012

    Hi Marisa--thanks so much for the comment! It's so great to hear that you were able to tinker with your diet and find something workable.

  • Darlene Stroyan Wednesday, 19 September 2012

    Thank you Elissa for the wonderful info in your blogs. And regarding Paleo, I am going towards a full 30 days of hard core Paleo eating, exercising and ( I hope ) better restful sleep. I devoured everything I could find regarding how our hormones work with one another and against us at times, and I am surprised at how little I knew of my own body workings!

    So thank you again and I am passing info on to others in my circle of friends and foe as we all are aging and having new pains and such to compare and share!


  • Elissa Wednesday, 19 September 2012

    Darlene, thanks a bunch for your post! I'm glad to hear you're going to try paleo and are looking forward to it--I hope it works for you. We had talked about coffee over the summer--good luck with whatever you choose to do regarding that, and what you put in it, as that's always been a pain in the ass for me. If you ever want to talk about anything, you know where to find me.

    Regarding sleep, I recommend checking out Robb Wolf's site and book. When I follow his protocol to the letter--blackout curtains, waking without an alarm, 9.5+ hours, no caffeine--my sleep is amazing.

    I just started listening to The Paleo View podcast and highly recommend their autoimmune paleo episode, for when "strict paleo" isn't enough.

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