Are Big Legs a Sign That You Have a Serious (and Seriously Misunderstood) Disease?

People make weird assumptions about my big legs.

Nobody has ever said that my legs are beautiful. That’s fine. I don’t need beautiful legs. Nobody has said my legs are ugly either. People have suggested that my legs are unfeminine. Fine, when I want to look feminine, I wear dresses/skirts with hemlines below my knees.

When people see my legs, especially my calves, they assume I’m a buff muscle-builder. This is false. I’ve never consciously tried to build large muscles. Yes, I’ve done a fair bit of hiking, but people told me I had ‘hiker legs’ before I started hiking. People find it a little odd that I, as a woman, have calf muscles which many men aspire to. Heck, some men have expressed envy over my legs, as in they wish they had legs like mine.

Calf muscle size is primarily determined by genetics. (My thigh muscles are also large, but they get less attention). This has been obvious to me ever since I understood what genetics are, since I saw no connection between my physical activity (or lack thereof) and my calf size, whereas there is an obvious similarity between my legs and my father’s legs.

Suggesting that I’m hardworking/virtuous/achieved-something-major because of something which is beyond my control (I didn’t choose my genes or to have muscular legs) feels weird. But I can’t say it’s bad, or at least it’s not a problem for me as an individual. Large leg muscles are in some ways healthy, and in some ways unhealthy, but again, it’s beyond my control, so I don’t sweat it. To me, it’s neither a blessing nor a curse.

What this has taught me is that I shouldn’t judge other people’s lifestyles based on what their bodies look like. People who make assumptions about my lifestyle based on my appearance are often wrong. Therefore, assumptions I make about other people’s lives based on their appearance are also likely to wrong. Not making assumptions is the safest course.

Though people react weirdly to a woman with big, muscular legs, at least they don’t mistreat me over it. For women with big, fat legs, it’s a different story. I don’t have to explain that. If you interact with society at all, you know how people treat women with legs that look like they are full of fat.

People of all sizes are due the same level of respect.

I’m opposed to moral healthism. I have no objection to people doing ‘unhealthy’ things as long as those ‘unhealthy’ things present no ethical problems. Smoking tobacco around others who don’t want exposure to tobacco smoke is unethical because of the harm to other people. Smoking tobacco in a way which affects nobody other than the person who chose to smoke tobacco is not unethical.

If someone lies on a couch all day and eats lots of potato chips and candy, that’s not unethical (unless they did something unethical to get the potato chips and candy, such as rob a convenience store). I won’t disrespect someone because of that. And that’s even if I assume it was all under their control.

And many people are fat because of things beyond their control.

Let’s go back to fat legs. Recently, I’ve learned about lipedema and lipo-lymphedema through Shannon Ashley’s essays. To make a long explanation short, it’s a hereditary hormonal disease which causes a buildup of diseased fat tissue which resists changes in diet and physical activity, it’s a progressive condition, and in the later stages it causes intense fatigue and mobility problems. On top of all that, since many people with lipedema are obese, social bullying causes them psychological problems on top of their physical problems. The most effective treatment for lipedema is pulling out the diseased tissue i.e. surgery. Few surgeons are experienced in treating lipedema, and in the United States insurance coverage is horrible. Though I don’t know what health coverage lipedema patients have in other countries, nowhere in the world is lipedema treatment widely available.

There is so little awareness of lipedema that both of my spellcheckers flag it as a misspelled word.

For decades, when Shannon Ashley sought help from medical professionals, they told her she was lazy and needed to eat less and exercise more. That’s why her diseased progressed to a stage where expensive surgeries (totally over 60,000 USD) are her only option for avoiding permanent fatigue, inability to walk, and premature death, and no insurance covers this type of surgery.

Since she explains it better than me, I’ll quote her:

I’m also amazed at the lack of empathy many people have because they see fat. The folks who see fat and seem to think “fault”—that it’s my fault. Or the folks who weigh in to claim (lie) that I feed my daughter garbage and leave them vile replies, or that I’ve made my lipedema worse by being lazy or eating sugar…

…A person who loses over 100 pounds twice and still can’t get their lipedema under control is not lazy. And the thing is… there are other people like me. There are other people suffering from lipedema and lipo-lymphedema who don’t know they have a disease, and like me, they developed serious eating disorders…

…Because do you know what nobody ever asks me?

They never ask how my doctors let things get this bad. They never ask why the medical community didn’t do better. Why did my doctors think my symptoms were normal? Why didn’t they think I needed more than diet and exercise? Why didn’t they recognize that I have a real disease and needed treatment decades ago before it progressed?

A lot of people out there like to blame those who suffer from chronic diseases. Maybe it makes them feel better. Maybe it makes them feel safer. Maybe they feel like less illness can touch them that way.

Therefore I’m blogging about this. Maybe you have lipedema and don’t know it. Maybe someone close to you has lipedema and doesn’t know it. The sooner your become aware, the more likely you or someone close to you can get care before it reaches the stage where expensive surgeries are the only treatment… or permanent fatigue and inability to walk… or premature death.

Even if you and the people close to you don’t have lipedema, you should at least know that some people are fat because of hereditary disease.

I have donated to Shannon Ashley’s fundraiser. If you claim that donating to a top GiveWell charity is a more effective use of your money, I won’t argue with you, I’m also in favor of improving the health of children in sub-Saharan Africa. I donated to Shannon Ashley’s fundraiser not so much as an act of charity but to thank her for educating me about this disease. Whether or not you give to her fundraiser, I urge you to become more aware of lipedema and lipo-lymphedema.

2 thoughts on “Are Big Legs a Sign That You Have a Serious (and Seriously Misunderstood) Disease?

  1. I can really relate to the first part of your story. I’m congenitally skinny; I basically don’t gain weight no matter how much I eat. Like everyone, I’m aware of the way skinniness is valued and associated with good health. I’m also very aware of how ridiculous that is. I’ve never been particularly “healthy” in my lifestyle. When I was a teenager I ate like a teenager. Now that I’m an adult, I try to eat a balanced diet, but I’ve never limited my calorie intake. And I’ve never been into sports or exercise. In contrast, I have friends who are fat despite being much more physically active and eating less than me. So I know from first-hand experience that it’s wrong to make assumptions about people’s lifestyles based on their body-type.

    As for the second part, I’d never heard of lipedema before, so that was very interesting. Thanks for sharing it.

    • Yeah, it was silly (and a bit sad) to read ‘Men’s Health’ articles which explain that calf muscle size is primarily genetic (unless one includes calf augmentation surgery) and then say ‘but maybe this fitness regime will increase your calf size anyway, and if doesn’t work it means you didn’t try hard enough.’ Personally, if someone wants big calves that badly, I think surgery is the way to go; it actually works, and is less likely to cause injury than an extreme exercise regimen.

      Fortunately, Shannon has got most of her medical expenses covered, including all of her surgeries. Her descriptions of the process of treating late-stage lipedema are fascinating, and underscore why it’s better for medical professionals to diagnose and treat lipedema in the early stages rather than gaslight patients.

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