There are categories of people whose bodies we label as public property. Bodies we can comment on, talk about, harass, own, label, criticize, and categorize. Bodies that are no longer people, just…bodies.
How often have we heard commentary on women gaining or losing weight? Aging? Getting pregnant? That’s this kind of public body issue. Why do we feel like it’s not just acceptable but appropriate? Complimentary to tell a woman that you’ve noticed she’s slimmed down, insulting to say she’s put on a little weight, but still within rights to comment on!
Disability makes a body ‘public’, too. Questions from strangers about why you have your mobility aids. Comments (often quite rude) about why you’re using the disabled seat on public transit or the disabled parking spots. Don’t get me started on what they say about people using electric wheelchairs or scooters. People feel like they have a right to assess whether your disability is real or if you’re a ‘faker’, with no more information than what they can see when they look at you.
And then there’s size/weight. I’m not sure how many of you are familiar with the recent fracas with Lincoln University. They have added a new ‘fitness walking and conditioning’ class that is required for anyone with a BMI of over 30.* Lots of things to say about this – firstly, BMI is an inherently flawed measure. It was never intended to be a measure of health, only to show where the average ratio of weight to height falls. That’s it. And it only showed what average was at that point. The equation for BMI dates back to the 19th century – back far enough that for people who were poor, periods of starvation/undernourishment when crops weren’t good were a regular part of life. That kind of skews your averages, don’t you think?
Anyhow, enough about the history. So what we have is a measure that shows what the average weight to height ratio for men was in the 1800s. Sounds pretty irrelevant to me, what do you think?
Further, BMI doesn’t differentiate between muscle mass and fat. Serious athletes tend to test with very high BMIs even though they are in almost impossibly good shape because all it assesses is weight-to-height ratio.
Okay, so we’ve talked about how BMI is useless. Now let’s talk about how this measure at Lincoln University is a bad idea.
Now, let’s get something out before I say anything else – I think encouraging people to exercise and eat healthy is a good idea. However, I think that ACROSS THE BOARD. Some of the most unhealthy people I know happen to have metabolisms that keep them skinny. The fact that they are skinny does not make their lack of exercise and their poor diet any better!
However, the way this is being done at Lincoln University – targetting people who are fat – is discriminatory. We’ve had studies show that people don’t actually have long-term control over their weight. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/08/health/08iht-snfat.5614611.html?_r=1 Our bodies change their energy use to reflect the amount of energy we’re taking in, leaving us with bodies about the same size whether we eat more or eat less. https://content.nejm.org/cgi/content/full/332/10/621
Dieting, we’ve seen, works in the short term but every study I’ve seen suggests that the vast majority of people who diet or make ‘lifestyle changes’ find themselves as heavy or heavier 5 years later. And that’s people who stuck with the change, not people who tried to just diet a bunch of weight off and go back to their old eating habits.
Furthermore, dieting is HARMFUL. A metastudy* by UCLA came to the conclusion that “The benefits of dieting are simply too small and the potential harms of dieting are too large for it to be recommended as a safe and effective treatment for obesity.” The study also noted that weight cycling – also known as the yo-yo effect of dieting – increases all cause mortality. I wonder if perhaps this increase is part of why we have this idea that fat people have higher rates of certain diseases. Among other things, this study connected weight cycling with increased rates of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and strokes – all diseases we say are caused by being fatter. Maybe they’re caused by being past dieters more often than they’re caused by body size! (http://mann.bol.ucla.edu/files/Diets_don’t_work.pdf)
Okay, so I’ve talked a lot of the problems with the actual requirements…but what about the media coverage of the issue?
When the articles include pictures, they pull the usual trick of dehumanizing fat people. They are either turned away from the camera or their heads are not included in the picture. Often, they are ‘artfully’ out of focus. Also, they’re a lot bigger than the minimum size a person has to be to get forced into this new class at Lincoln University. A BMI of 30 is a lot smaller than most people think. For example, I was at a BMI of 30 not long ago. I wore a women’s size large. Maybe an XL if it was cut on the small side. In numerical sizes, I wore between a 14 and a 16. The people shown in the pictures I have seen so far are probably 8 numerical sizes larger, if not more.
That’s part of the media’s obesity craze, you know. They represent obesity as being UNBELIEVABLY ENORMOUS when really the medical definition of obesity includes people we’d think of as just being not skinny.
Yeah, according to BMI, I’m about halfway between ‘obese’ and ‘morbidly obese’. That’s a clothing size 18, for those of you who’re curious. Between an XL and an XXL. I also exercise daily and try to maintain good eating habits.
BMI is just a number. It tells you little more about health than age describes disability. At extremes, perhaps it tells us something, but in ranges just outside of ‘average’, it’s pretty damn useless.
Here’s the real twist I want to suggest. Even if BMI was an accurate measure of health, or we used an accurate measure of health to base our judgement on, it be not right to discriminate against people because of their bodies.
So here’s my question to you: why do we let our culture tell us that people have a right to judge the bodies of women, of PWDs, of fat people? Are you going to do anything about it?
*The Lincoln University faculty meeting minutes on their website confirm the existence of this new requirement:
The HPR 103 requirement can be satisfied/completed by doing any one of the following ways:
(a) Test out (earned a BMI of less than 30)
(b) Pass the “old” HPR 102: Lifetime Sports class
(c) Pass HPR 103: Fitness for Life
(d) Pass an approved “physical activity course” at another college (must be a transfer student to LU)
* A metastudy is a study that reviews the results of many other studies to see if conclusions can be drawn from the whole
…and yes, I’m aware I’m leaving out categories of people whose bodies are treated as public – people of color, homeless persons, politicians, GLBTQ folks (expecially trans people), and celebrities spring to mind. I’m limited here by the experiences I can speak from – a woman who is disabled and fat. I haven’t the ability to speak for those experiences I do not know, and I hope you will forgive me for not including them.
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