Back at Binswanger, Savard is advising her charges on recommended plans of action for their body shapes. “If you’re a pear-shaped woman who’s overweight,” she says, “your doctor shouldn’t give you a hard time and tell you to lose weight. If you’re healthy, if you’ve got a small waist size, don’t worry about it; it’s good for your bones to be a little heavy.” The pear-shaped women in the group can hardly believe that someone is telling them it’s OK to be overweight.

In her book, Savard explains that the biggest harm done by pear-zone fat is the damage it causes to a woman’s self-esteem. This subcutaneous fat is nearly impossible to shed, unyielding in the face of any combination of squats, lunges, and fad diets.

“However,” she continues, “a woman who’s slightly overweight with a big waist, the doctor shouldn’t say, ‘Oh, it’s a touch of sugar, no problem.’ He shouldn’t say, ‘Oh, the cholesterol, it’s borderline, no problem. Instead he should be saying, ‘Wow, you have an opportunity to do some things we know will change your chances of getting all of these different diseases.”

After the talk wraps up, most of the women thank her and leave to return to their work. A few hang around to nibble on the fruit provided in honor of Savard’s appearance. Doree, a “luscious pear” in apple-and-pear parlance, nibbles on a slice of cantaloupe. “I went to my doctor and told her I’d lost eighteen pounds,” she says. “And she said, ‘You still have a long way to go.’” The women standing around the office kitchen shake their heads. These are the kind of stories that drive Savard crazy. “For what?” she’ll ask herself later, thinking back on Doree. “At what cost? What is the goal? Does she feel good about herself? Is she healthy? Are her blood parameters all good?”

Her message continues to be bolstered by new findings. In the months since the book came out, researchers have continued to reinforce the message that butt-fat is harmless and gut-fat is not. In May, the University of Colorado published a study linking abdominal fat with damage to the arteries. In April, the University of Pittsburgh reported the results of a five-year study of 90,000 obese women—they found that apple-shaped women had higher health risks than pear-shaped women, even if they weighed the same. “People think of obesity as a single thing, but your risk can be modified within that,” lead researcher Dr. Kathleen McTigue told the American Heart Association when she presented the results. February’s issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published the results of a study of 10,000 people that concluded waist size was a better predictor than body fat of heart disease.

Savard is excited about her colleagues’ findings. She can’t deny that her timing is good—Apples and Pears seems to have come out just as the gut-versus-butt message is reaching a tipping point. What’s most exciting for Savard is when she sees evidence that she’s chipping away at the predominant mindset in women that prioritizes weight issues over good health. She saw this in Doree’s frustration with her doctor and in Jenn, a young, ample woman in an orange T-shirt and snug black pants, who is scooping sliced fruit onto her plate. “My doctor always tells me, ‘You’re really healthy for a heavy person,’” she says, reaching a hand around to give her butt a resounding slap. “I say, ‘Hey Mama, thank you very much!’”

Imagine that—a woman thanking her mother for passing along her big-butt genes. Dr. Savard smiles. It’s a start, but the scope of her mission is far wider than educating a single roomful of women. Later that day, she hints at that scope by suggesting what her tombstone might read: “She truly was one of the pioneers in putting patients at the center of their healthcare,” she starts, “and she was one of the pioneers who gave women the vision to look at health rather than weight as their measure of who they are and their self-esteem and value.” An appropriate addendum to this already prolific epigraph might be the Ursula LeGuin quote that Savard recites at the end of every talk: “As a woman’s real power grows and her knowledge widens, ever the way that she follows grows narrower until at last, she chooses nothing but does only and wholly what she is meant to do.” She sums it up in her own words: “All of you have the knowledge. You have the power to choose what you are meant to do.”

 Caroline Tiger C’96 is a freelance writer in Philadelphia and the author, most recently, of The Long-Distance Relationship Guide.

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©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 07/02/05

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FEATURE: Fruits and Fate