We’ve all been through it.
We’ve all sat in a dreary waiting room, anticipating the calling of our names. We’ve all undergone routine tests evaluating our visual and auditory capabilities. We’ve all climbed up onto a bulky scale, a nurse standing by to balance the weights and record the result. We’ve all sat alone in a harshly lit office, listened to that flimsy white paper crinkle beneath us with every fidget, awaiting the doctor’s return.
For some patients, this return has led to a barrage of questions about dietary and exercise habits. It has led to the presentation of a chart indicating the “healthy” weight range, the “unhealthy” weight range, and the patient’s own weight in relation, glaring at them from the less desirable section.
And the doctors have said: you’re overweight. They have talked about the Big Bad BMI and the dangers of not conforming to it, even if the “normal” spectrum is missed by only a mere point or two. But what if they were wrong in their analyses? What if weight is actually not that simple?
Body mass index, or BMI, is a measure of body fat, calculated by inputting an individual’s weight and height . . . and nothing else. It ignores other factors such as sex, waist size, muscle mass, and bone density. This means that someone whose weight is comprised of very little body fat and very high muscle mass would likely be classified as overweight or obese. Most people don’t consider Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, for example, to be the face of obesity — however, according to his BMI, he is.
Even the creator of BMI said that the formula cannot measure the level of fatness in an individual. Just like all rectangles are squares but not all squares are rectangles, similar logic can be applied here: All overweight or obese people have a high BMI, but not all people with a high BMI are overweight or obese. This statement is a mouthful, but it is one that underscores the lack of logic in using BMI to determine a person’s health. Dr. John Dempster is one professional who has expressed his contempt for BMI, stating, “BMI is a waste of a test, it’s very old school. All it looks at is height and weight, so your BMI can be falsely elevated for a large number of people; it can also be falsely negative for a large portion of the population strictly based on your height and your weight. It doesn’t look at anything to do with intracellular body composition; it is strictly a ratio.”
It is strictly a ratio.
This basic, one-dimensional ratio that can be applied to any given individual is far from holistic and obviously not an accurate indicator of overall health. But how, then, should we approach the subject of weight instead?
Dr. Yoni Freedhoff believes that each individual should embrace their own personal “best weight.” In regards to BMI, he says, “So why do we place such a premium on the notion of that perfect, healthy weight? Why isn’t “trying our best” enough when it comes to weight loss? A brief review of the history of dieting suggests that our personal best has never been enough. We seem bent on bouncing from dietary extreme to dietary extreme, serially adopting—and ditching—truly traumatic diets.”
This ideal of shifting the focus to our own personal potential is similarly employed by the Health At Every Size movement, which advocates positive body image, a “no diet” policy, and the idea that healthy behaviors should be of greater importance than weight. Encouraging healthy lifestyle choices rather than shaming and guilting people for the only body they have is certainly the more positive route in terms of both physical and mental health. The latter approach is centered around physical appearance and thus (1) disregards the fact that weight and health are not always correlated, and that in many instances, an overweight person can actually be healthier than a thin person, and (2) is more likely to catalyze issues such as depression and eating disorders. The former, however, encourages people to be their best selves, aware of the fact that our society’s standard of physical attractiveness neither proves nor disproves good health in an individual.
Reddit user daclamp shared her own experiences with body image and BMI. She wrote on Reddit, “For the past several months, the person I see in the mirror is a big fat fatty. This picture was taken last weekend. Self-image is a sonofab—, I look damn good!” The image she is referencing is a candid shot taken during one of her belly-dancing performances, and can be found in her post. She also explains in the post that WebMD classifies her as overweight, and this played a contributing role in the development of her negative body image. But upon seeing that photo of her body, taken in real time, she realized that the “big fat fatty” she saw in the mirror was nothing more than an illusion conjured up by her own mind. She went on to express, “Why am I beating myself up? I’m healthy, I look good . . .
The moral of the story: Your mirror and the sh— voices in your head are in cahoots. F— that.”