Thanks to Victoria's Secret models and the covers of every fitness magazine, it seems that having defined abs is one of the most coveted aesthetic goals of women everywhere.
As a personal trainer, I am consistently asked what exercises to do and what foods to consume to achieve this look. I am confident that I know the so-called secret to a six-pack, but I will never, ever recommend it to my clients. Let me explain.
It is very unnatural for most women to have six-pack abs while maintaining a healthy relationship with food and exercise.
This is because women generally need a body fat percentage of at least 20 percent in order to remain fertile and have regular menstrual cycles. This is in comparison to men, who can get to as low as 6 percent body fat and still remain in the "healthy" category.
Yes, there are some exceptions to this. Some women have a more muscular build or a naturally low body-fat level that allows for their abdominal muscles to be visible.
Unfortunately, the heroin-chic look of the '90s morphed into the equally unattainable "strong is the new skinny" and "fitspiration" trend plastered all over social media today.
Achieving visible abs as a woman is unfortunately seen as the "gold standard" of fitness.
How do I know?
I, too, once achieved this "gold standard" and received raving comments about my abs every time I wore a bathing suit.
People assumed I possessed tons of core strength and wanted to know my "secret." They assumed I took incredible care of my body and made envious comments like "I want your abs!"
I would smile and say thank you, a little flattered and a little embarrassed. Mostly, though, I just felt like a big phony. I often imagined the response I would get if I answered those envious questions with the truth.
What would people say if I told them that my "secret" to getting six-pack abs was running 6 miles every day on less than 1,000 calories? Or drinking Diet Coke to suppress my hunger? Or stuffing myself with fibrous vegetables until my stomach hurt so that I wouldn't have room for the food I actually wanted?
No one wanted to hear that. They wanted to hear about the green juice, and the farm fresh produce, and how "amazing" it felt to be so healthy.
Except I wasn't healthy at all. As a matter of fact, I was the least healthy I'd ever been in my entire life. I felt exhausted and weak, my hair was falling out, and my relationships were suffering. But the constant positive reinforcement I received from outsiders made it nearly impossible for me to regain true health.
I liked feeling powerful. I had found the one thing that I was awesome at. I harbored this secret out of shame but also because I wouldn't dare suggest anyone bring the same pain onto themselves that I had.
In my opinion, any fitness article that says doing one specific workout will give you a six-pack is lying.
Here's the truth
Having a six-pack is not necessarily a sign of health. Having a six-pack is not necessarily a sign of strength. Having a six-pack is not necessarily a sign of happiness, joy, ambition, or anything else besides having a low body-fat percentage and/or the genetics for it.
And while I'm telling the truth, here's what you should know about me
When I stopped running excessively and started eating (a lot) more, my six-pack became much less visible. Despite this, my core strength has increased significantly and I generally have good energy, sleep well, and don't get "hangry" anymore. I also know that I am infinitely healthier, despite the fact that random people don't comment on my abs or ask me for my fitness routine.
This is not to say that I think there is anything inherently wrong with wanting ripped abs or whatever aesthetic goal it is that you want.
In my experience, however, most people (myself included) believe that achieving six-pack abs will result in things like increased health, success, confidence, and love. I believe this is also the message that most health and fitness brands, products, and "fitspo" portray.
Sorry, but these messages are lies
I'm not saying this is the case for every fitness model, but in most cases those photos are the result of overtraining and undereating for months. Those models probably missed social events, friendships, and relationships to pursue their aesthetic goals. They are also spray-tanned, flexed, and Photoshopped to perfection. They are not real life.
Behind every pair of six-pack abs may be an ugly, unglamorous truth about what happens when the pursuit of "health" is taken too far.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to look and feel strong, and to each their own, but we must remove the "health halo" around women who achieve it and understand that this is not a realistic or healthy goal for most women.