What our daughters need to know about ‘puppy fat’

MoonTimesMenarche, Menstrual Health, Musings

Did you know that a young woman’s body needs up to 25% body fat in order to kick start menstruation?

Did you know that’s why young girls get ‘puppy fat’ at puberty?

Don’t you wish you had known that when you were little?

Don’t you wish it wasn’t called ‘puppy fat?

I learned this nugget of information about body fat and menstruation during a physiology class at university when I was 32.  When the tutor uttered the above statement, my jaw hit the floor.  Why hadn’t I heard this before?  Why don’t all women know this?

What a difference it would make to our young girls if they understood that there is a reason they put on additional weight as they enter their early teens.  I can remember when I was that age ‘puppy fat’ was talked about quite a lot in girls magazines and books about growing up.  It was affirmed as being normal, and part of puberty, but there was no explanation as to why.

Who hasn’t seen the media reports of how our young women are starving themselves as young as the age of 8 because they perceive themselves as fat?

How many of us have spent years of our lives in a love/hate relationship with our bodies that pretty much started at puberty?

I remember my daughter gradually putting weight on from around age 9, she then started her periods age 11 and over the following few years the weight slipped away again.  She is now a normal weight for her body and is reasonably comfortable in her skin, but at the time she hated the weight gain and because I didn’t know any better (it was before the university class revelation!) I could only reassure her it was a normal part of growing up and would change as she grew older.

I’ve spent some time trying to research why we call it ‘puppy fat’ and I can’t find a definitive answer as to where the phrase came from and in fact online dictionaries have widely differing definitions regarding its meaning.  Some refer to it as fat gained in childhood that disappears by adolescence, some that it is fat that appears in adolescence that disappears by maturity.  The second definition certainly fits the understanding that for adolescent girls it is a necessary physiological transition to effect the start of the menstrual cycle.  Presumably once upon a time someone made a tenuous connection between how certain dogs look in their puppyhood and how young people look when they suddenly gain weight in this period of their life, trying to make it somehow ‘cute’.

The problem is its a dangerous phrase, and as my now teenage daughter said its also dehumanizing.  It makes light of something that many young women find quite distressing and they then fall into the body love/hate relationship thta many of us know so well.  It also risks that those children who possibly have other issues around health and weight will get ignored because ‘it’s just puppy fat’.

Imagine for just a moment that when you were 8 or 9 that your mother or another trusted adult in your life had said to you that over the next few years your body would change shape, that you would become curvy where once you were maybe more slim.  That you would gain weight around your hips and legs and lower tummy.  But that this would happen because your body needed it for your periods to start.  I know that if someone had told me this at that time in my life I would have had a very different perception of my body image growing up.

What if we explained to our daughters that they need to create fat in their bodies to start menstruating? Normalise it without making it something its not? Help our daughters understand their bodies rather than learn to distrust and hate them.  Teach them how to be healthy rather than worry about their weight? What if we celebrated the transition to womanhood for all girls? What a difference we might make.

rachael and girls SAC

(c) Awen Clement – May 2015

Please note: the information in this article should in now way be considered medical advice.  If you have concerns regarding your child’s weight then please seek the advice of a medical professional.