Weight loss is more in the public consciousness than ever. Perhaps that's a good result of shows like "The Biggest Loser." I've bashed that show, but I do owe those responsible an apology for a couple of things: when they had an episode showing that former winners had regained weight, they corrected something I disliked. Eric, who had won by losing more than 200 pounds and then regained almost all of it, said he thought he had to go back to the stringent regimen that led to his weight loss; his trainer (Bob Harper) responded with something like "No! That didn't work for you. You need to learn how to lose gradually and fit it into your life." Amen! That would be a show - but no one would watch it, because Jillian screaming at people until they cry makes for good TV.
Runners commonly fixate on their weight (especially female runners). Things like maximal oxygen uptake are dependent upon it - it's measured in milliliters of oxygen per minute per kilogram bodyweight. Top distance runners tend to be very thin - until you get to ultradistances, where body types vary more. The question is: how thin is too thin? The simple answer is that, if weight loss is causing you to slow or to be constantly fatigued, you've lost too much. In practice, it's more complicated.
The standard measure currently used is the body mass index (BMI). As most readers of this use inches and pounds, the formula is BMI= 703 times weight in pounds, divided by height (in inches) squared. One tends to hear about the higher end (obesity starts around BMI=28), but I'm going to discuss the bottom end. Medically, a BMI under 19 is considered underweight and means you'll be paying higher medical insurance premiums, even if you are winning marathons.
Some people are just naturally lighter than others. I come from a thin family and I have a very small frame: I have to put lady's wristbands on my watches and I can reach around my ankle with the fingers of one hand (try it!). At my best in running, my BMI was 17.9. It's currently 21.5. I'd like to get back to 19.5, but I wouldn't diet to get there; the faster I run, the less I weigh (most people think the less they weigh, the faster they run, but it works the opposite way). The number of miles run has no effect on my weight; I've weighed about the same the past few years, but run less every year.
Some elite female marathoners get down to a BMI of 17.5 (a few go much lower), but 18.5 seems to be common. That's 95 pounds at 5 feet tall, 133 at 5'11". Tegla Laroupe, the smallest champion marathoner, was 4'7" and 74 lbs (BMI=18.5). 18.5 seems to be a bare minimum, healthy for a few with small frames, running extremely high mileage... and young.
18.5 is model-thin, but swimsuit-model thin, not haute-couture "heroin chic" thin. Some fashion houses will no longer use models below BMI=19, but it's an arbitrary number. Models tend to be teenagers and the gawky "all arms and legs" growth spurt look looks youthful and is acceptable at that age. For a 30-year-old, it always looks wrong.
Why am I making a big deal of this? Because easting disorders and body image dysphoria are all too common among runners. I was once engaged to an anorectic; I loved her despite her (lack of) weight, not because of it. She, however, was fascinated with the thinnest people on record.
Last creepfest of 2009!
Circuses used to have sideshows with fat ladies and these commonly added men who were "living skeletons." The reasons behind this could take an entire post. The first famous starving artist was Claude-Ambroise Seurat (late 1700's), whose height and weight has been reported variously from 5'7 1/2" and 78 pounds to as little as 5'4" and 36 lbs (BMI=6.2-12.0). The last was Edward C. "Eddie Masher" Hagner, whod ied in1962; he was once 5-7 and 48lbs (BMI=7.5). The lightest woman ever was the Mexican dwarf Lucia Zarate, who was left to starve nearly to death before being adopted by a convent and was accurate measured at a low of 26.5 inches tall and 4.7 pounds (BMI=4.7); the only photo of her is after her recovery and more than twice that weight.
That leaves Rosa Lee Plemons. She was displayed in a Texas museum of curiosities in 1892 at the age of 18 and was accurately weighed at 27 pounds. No record of her height can be found, but reports are she was about 4 feet tall. Records of her don't exist beyond 1894 and she probably died that year or the next. She was believed to have Simmonds' Disease (aka hypophyseal cachexia), a condition that presents differently; she undoubtedly had a form of muscular dystrophy and also voluntarily starved herself (this was denied at the time); it was reported that she was unable to bend some joints and a mouth malformation made eating difficult. There's one photo of her (apparently topless to best show her physique), poor thing:
Eat up! It's New Year's Eve!