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May 1 2013
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Sex & Low Beach
Courtesy of Adipositivity
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“So, who do you want to look like?” The question catches me off guard. She smiles sympathetically, folds a stray piece of honey blonde hair behind her ear, and rephrases: “I find it's helpful to have a goal in place—a physical role model.” She grabs a dog-eared People from behind her desk and opens it.
“What about Kate Winslet? She’s pretty healthy-looking, don’t you think?” I’ll admit, when I entered this nutritionist's office I was hoping for something a little different—given that none of the previous three had produced lasting results. Despite layers of meticulous meal logs and food pyramids camouflaging my fridge, I remained a significantly overweight (and therefore significantly distraught) 13-year-old—weary of feeling socially inferior to my classmates because I was physically larger.
So when the doctor brought out her pictures of Kate, I smiled back and nodded and prayed silently that this plan, please, would stick. Thinking about it today, I wish I could somehow travel back there and, with some well-placed righteous indignation, save myself from years of yo-yoing scale-readings and roiling emotions. Still, I hold no personal grudge. This doctor was simply playing her part in a familiar American contradiction: the ever-rising numbers on our collective bathroom scale marching hand-in-hand with the ever-slimming waistlines of those we’re asked to idolize.
But I now believe that her attitude—and, indeed, our national outlook on weight loss—is in need of a fundamental makeover. We need to remove the concept of “looking healthy” from our collective vocabulary and focus instead on truly being healthy.
A Problem of Epidemic Proportions
Since Surgeon General David Satcher coined the term “obesity epidemic” in 2001, the phenomenon has only continued to swell. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each of the 50 states had at least a 20 percent instance of obesity in 2010—up from 1985, when the highest reported range, found in only eight states, was 10-14 percent. Moreover, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey shows that today 33.8 percent of American adults are obese. They’re joined by approximately 17 percent of children: 12.5 million, aged 2-19. With statistics like these, it’s no wonder that Americans recoil from the bathroom scale. Or that Michelle Obama aggressively campaigns to reduce childhood obesity, proposing that compulsory weight loss initiatives be integrated into public education. But these numbers do not tell the whole story. As it happens, they’re based on a very suspect criterion: the Body Mass Index.
The BMI was developed in 1832 by Belgian mathematician Lambert Adolphe Jacques Quetelet. It's a number derived by dividing one's mass (in kilograms) by one's height squared (in meters). Today, an index from 25 to 30 is considered "overweight," and above 30, "obese." As Jeremy Singer-Vine noted in his Slate article “Beyond BMI,” Quetelet’s goal was only to “define the ‘normal man’ in terms of everything from his average arm strength to the age at which he marries. This project had nothing to do with obesity-related diseases, nor even with obesity itself.” Quetelet was just recording norms.
Astonishingly, BMI fails to take into account the type of mass being measured (e.g., muscle vs. fat) and where fat is located on the body, a factor that can play a major role in determining health risks. Even the CDC’s online BMI calculator hedges significantly, saying “BMI provides a reliable indicator of body fatness for most people”—the key word being “most.”
The quest to debunk BMI is at the heart of documentarian Darryl Roberts’ new film, America the Beautiful 2: The Thin Commandments. In its predecessor, America the Beautiful, Roberts investigated the many facets—and the many dangers—of the industries sprung from our obsession with good looks, including fashion, makeup, and plastic surgery. This time, though, he’s zeroed in on weight, especially on its most dubious quantifier. For example, in one particularly revealing sequence, Roberts scrolls through a series of images of trim celebrities from pop icon Mariah Carey to seven-time Mr. Olympia winner Arnold Schwarzenegger, revealing each one to be, by the standard of BMI, obese.
The adoption of such a flawed index seems baffling when one considers how many crucial bureaucratic determinations are based on it. Not only does BMI lie at the heart of the “obesity epidemic” claim, it also plays a deciding role in most insurance companies’ rate and risk calculations. In the film, Roberts’s sister explains that her doctor refuses to proceed with in vitro fertilization until her BMI drops under 25—below the standard for “overweight.”
Indeed, BMI’s inadequacy ultimately affects people of all shapes and sizes. As Ragen Chastain, international dance champion and “Health at Every Size” activist, explains to Roberts: “[BMI] doesn’t just do a disservice to fat people—by creating a lower class of people who are seen as unworthy and without self-discipline, etcetera—it does a disservice to unhealthy thin people... [suggesting that] it doesn’t matter that all you eat is fast food and you never exercise, because your body is thin and therefore you’re healthy.”
Chastain points out that medical studies linking obesity with life-threatening illness are correlational, not causative: though high percentages of those who present with certain health problems are “obese,” the data don’t prove that body mass itself is to blame. “I, personally, am 5’ 4”, 284 pounds. I’m type 3 Super Obese: I’m as high as you can get on the BMI chart. You can’t get fatter than me,” she reveals, matter-of-factly. “But, I’m metabolically in perfect health, I can do the splits, I can press a thousand pounds with my legs, and I dance at a professional level.” By declaring weight a suitable proxy for health, we end up condemning athletes, from Chastain to Schwarzenegger—and, even in pursuit of our best intentions, condoning damaging and ultimately counterproductive trends.
Less Food, More Problems
If you want an illustration of America’s backwards approach to weight loss, you need look no further than Maggie Goes on a Diet, a controversial picture book published last month. Over the course of the story, its fourteen-year-old protagonist goes from fat and teased to slim and popular, by virtue of calorie-counting and soccer. As author Paul Kramer explained on Good Morning America, he wrote the book “to have children feel better about themselves, discover a new way of eating, learn to do exercise, try to emulate Maggie and learn from Maggie's experience.” Though it seems Kramer’s heart is in the right place, the incentives he sets up are problematic: ultimately, Maggie diets to avoid the ridicule of her fat-phobic classmates, not because she genuinely wants the health benefits of good food and exercise. She may indeed be improving her health in these attempts to manage her weight, but her goal is mainly to fit into the dress she's holding on the book’s cover.
Recommending dieting to children is dubious—if only because, put plainly, diets rarely work. Roberts spends a good portion of his film subjecting himself to various dietary crazes (raw food detox, Weight Watchers, Lean Cuisine). But as soon as he ends each regimen, his cravings, heightened by the period of deprivation, drive him back into the arms of KFC. He regains every pound he lost, every time, following the classic "yo-yo" pattern. Data from the Renfrew Center Foundation for eating disorders backs him up: regaining lost weight is the fate of 95-98 percent of dieters. Worse, an interest in dieting can quickly transform into a compulsion.
According to the Renfew Center, up to 24 million people in the United States suffer from an eating disorder—either anorexia, bulimia, or a binge-eating disorder—and most report having used dieting as a gateway. Perhaps the most sobering scenes of The Thin Commandments are spent with Roberts’s friend Candi, a Chicago real estate agent who, in a quest to “get more dates,” develops such a fixation on slimming down that she visits the gym through blizzards, intent on getting in reps despite a debilitating flu. In another memorable sequence, Roberts interviews a group of young boys, some barely into their double digits, who have subjected themselves to lasting physical and psychological trauma—restricting, binge-eating, and purging in an attempt to “look good for girls.”
Worth a Thousand Words
Just as health isn’t a concern reserved for fat people, “body image” isn’t a concern reserved for teenage girls. Indeed, we may already be a nation of compulsive dieters. The National Eating Disorders Association estimates that Americans of all ages spend over $40 billion annually on products meant to help them lose weight. Though pressure to get thin certainly comes from this booming diet industry—manufacturers of products like SlimFast, for example, who profit off of consumers’ insecurity—at this point, the message has metastasized to every form of media.
Check out any curbside magazine rack: guaranteed, it’s a panoply of digitally slimmed celebrities accompanying headlines offering the newest secret method for shedding pounds. Shows like NBC’s cash cow The Biggest Loser and A&E’s morbid Heavy crowd out programming like Huge, a sympathetic teen drama set at a fat camp, which ran for only ten episodes on ABC Family. With public perception so thoroughly steeped in “skinny,” it’s hard to imagine what a viable fat-friendly media campaign would even look like.
At least according to photographer Substantia Jones, it looks like real, big women—“doctors, lawyers, artists, moms, writers, teachers, musicians, clerks,” even the occasional Columbia student”—“[dropping] trou” and posing for portraits in her ongoing photo series, the Adipositivity Project. The title—a portmanteau of “adipose” (“of or relating to fat”) and “positivity”—indicates Jones’s intent: “The concept was one of fat acceptance, but being a fat woman, it was also personal,” she explains. “Seeing myself in ways only visible to me through photographs made me realize photography—a tool often used in creating body shame—also had tremendous potential to impact one’s body image favorably. And perhaps even change the way fat people are perceived by others.”
The photographs revel in the very fat Americans are taught to fear—the curves and folds of each body celebrated where they would usually be covered by Photoshop or slimming pinstripes—the results are, strikingly, aesthetically beautiful. “Many have said they view posing for the project as a step toward physical self-acceptance,” Jones says. “One woman told me it was the first morning of her adult life that she’d not cried about her fat body. . . I think about her almost every day.”
Jones hopes to turn her online series into a gallery show and a book. Its underlying message: “Learn the role of happiness in health, and the importance of overall wellbeing. Learn to respect nature and embrace human variation. And most of all, learn that if you put your life on hold until you’ve attained the unattainable, you’re going to end up one pissed-off dead person.”
These last words ring all too true to people like me and Roberts's gym-obsessed friend Candi—we millions who too long have tormented ourselves before our mirrors in shame. However, with activists like Roberts, Chastain, and Jones making their voices heard, there’s a chance the tide is beginning to turn—that, gradually, Americans can lose our fear of looking fat, focus instead on being healthy, and perhaps even gain some traction on that seemingly Sisyphean path to self-acceptance. Even if we don’t look like Kate Winslet.
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