That stubborn bra bulge has always been an issue for me. My insecurity went away when I started working out, but not for the reasons you'd think
I started my research for this article in the usual place: Google. When I typed in "armpit," the search bar immediately auto-populated with "armpit fat why." Which pretty much sums it all up, if you ask me.
Why? Why, no matter how many hours I've been putting in at the gym, no matter how defined my abs are, how toned my biceps are, how cut my quads are—why does that little fold of skin between my armpit and my boob always pooch out? (Guys, these moves are guaranteed to blast that annoying bulge.)
As far as insecurities go, this one seems pretty silly and small. After all, we're talking about a few inches of skin here—skin that's mostly covered, except during tank top and swimsuit season. Still, it's been a huge source of angst for me, basically ever since I was aware of my body.
For at least that long, I've considered cap sleeves and halter tops "not my thing," solely because (in my mind, anyway) they highlight that weird little fold. I stood with my hands on my hips (in a precursor to the sorority girl chicken wing) whenever I donned a bathing suit at summer camp. I remember asking my mom why it was there. I don't remember what she said, but it was probably some variation of, 'Everyone has that, it's just there.'
What was the issue? I thought it made my arms look fat. Not just fat, but fatter—fatter than my friends' arms, which felt like a pretty big problem. In retrospect that seems kind of dark and sad. But it's also the truth. For a long time, when I looked at a group picture, one of my first reactions was calculating: How big do I look in relation to them? And armpit fat played into that. (A negative body image could actually be destroying your body.)
What's weird, though, is that I was probably most aware of the fold when I was, overall, happiest with my body. Besides a few periods of minor chubbiness (I didn't gain the Freshman 15, but I did gain the Junior Year Abroad 30), I've maintained a pretty average weight for most of my life. When I fell on the heavier side of that average spectrum, my attention was usually diverted to the fact that my jeans were cutting off circulation to my thighs. When I was on the lighter end, suddenly I was obsessing over the armpit.
So what happened? Honestly, I started working out.
I'm not saying that just because this is shape.com! And no, the armpit fat didn't suddenly melt away once I started doing bicep curls. (Spoiler alert: I still have it!) Learning to exercise did change my body, of course. But what surprised me was that it changed the way I thought about my body. The slow process of lifting ever-heavier weights (and bags of groceries), of running ever-farther distances, of literally watching my muscles grow stronger and more defined made me feel proud of the ol' bod in a way I never had before, even when I weighed whatever number of pounds I'd deemed "ideal" that week. (It's one of the 24 Inevitable Things That Happen When You Get in Shape.)
I don't know exactly why that pride translated into me being okay with wearing tank tops and bathing suits, or being photographed with my arm actually resting against my side (a total no-no before, since that would—god forbid!—accentuate the armpit fat). But it did. My thoughts about my body became much less about how it looked, and much more about what it could do.
Full disclosure: Something else that also helped was going to group exercise classes and realizing that at least half the women there had armpit fat too, regardless of their size. And they looked totally fine; the skin looked like it was just a part of their body, not something disgusting and offensive. (Did you know self-conciousness is the number one reason women skip the gym?)
Since I'm a journalist, I couldn't resist "asking the expert" about armpit fat. I got on the phone with Harley Pasternak, a celebrity trainer and the New York Times best-selling author of The Body Reset Diet. "There are two reasons so many women have armpit fat. Number one: It's near the breasts, so there are estrogen receptors in that area. That means women are just more prone to store body fat there than men are," he says. "Number two, women tend to have a more forward-rolling shoulder posture, also because of their breasts. As a result, their biceps turn in toward the body, and that creates a pinch point of skin."
What does that mean? First, my mom was right—everyone (every woman, anyway) has it. Second, in order to get rid of it, you'd probably have to get your body fat super, super low, which, to me, sounds like a pain in the neck. Third, if you want to minimize the appearance of it, you should stand up straight—which is the exact opposite thing I was doing all those years when I felt self-conscious about my upper arms. (This workout will also help you achieve perfect posture.)
All this is not to say I don't still discard tank tops that I feel make the fat bulge out a bit more. I totally do. But I also don't agonize about it any more. And this is an almost unbearably cheesy thing to write, but now when I take a group picture, the first thing I look at is everyone's smile, not the size of their arms.