“Overweight” still doesn’t mean “unhealthy,” and related fantasies

by Cara on November 12, 2007

in beauty myths, class and economics, discrimination, fat-shaming, objectification, patriarchy, stereotypes, women’s health

A new study has just been released that shows, yet again, that those who fall into the “overweight” category on the BMI scale are actually the healthiest. Or, at least, they live the longest:

Two years ago, federal researchers found that overweight people had the lowest mortality rate of any weight group. Investigating further, they were able to link causes of death to specific weights. Obese people had more deaths from heart disease, they reported last week. And thin people? They had more deaths from everything but cancer and heart disease.

But there were 100,000 fewer deaths among the overweight than would have been expected if those people had been of normal weight. This is what might politely be called the chubby category, with body mass indexes (a measure of weight for height) of 25 to 30. A woman, for instance, who is 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighs between 146 and 175 pounds.

About a third of Americans fall into that range, defined, less politely, as “overweight” by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Interestingly, I am in the demographic that the article cites. Not just overweight according to the BMI chart, but I’m actually 5’4” and in the provided weight range. So that’s reassuring, I suppose.

[Side note: actually, I would much rather be called "overweight" than "chubby." WTF, Times?]

I will admit that I take glee in this study. No, it’s not because I think that I now have some ability to cheat death (I wish!). And it’s not because I want to see skinny people suffer. I don’t. And one of the things that pisses me off most about the weight discussion is when fat-pride takes the form of thin-hate. I understand where those feelings can come from, certainly, but I don’t think that it does us any good. And, believe it or not, thin women have body issues, too — like the fact that “pretty” not only equals skinny, it also equals big boobs, and it’s pretty rare to naturally have both. So, no, thin people, I don’t want you to die before I do. In fact, I’d like to find ways to help you, and the rest of us, live longer and healthier.

The reason I’m happy is because my point that the BMI is an absolute crock of shit has been proven yet again. I’m happy to know that I’m not unhealthy because of my weight (if I’m unhealthy, it’s because I don’t exercise enough). And I’m happy to have something to throw back in the concern trolls’ faces when they start whining about how “worried” they are about everyone’s health.

. . .

Now, of course, many of the fat-shaming concern trolls will claim that they’re not talking about the overweight so much as the obese. Of course, we know that’s absolutely untrue. We also know that the “concern” has very little to do with health, but with the fact that fat (in any amount) is seen as unattractive.

I have to commend the Times for actually pointing this fact out in the article — that beauty as pertaining to weight is actually an artificial construct that has changed with social values over time. Good for them. I mean, they’re just doing their job, but we’re at a point where I feel like we have to jump up and cheer and give journalists a million pats on the back when they actually write a fair, balanced and complete story. Maybe then they’ll start doing it more often. And in any case, I can’t remember the last time I read anything about “the obesity crisis” that was not on a feminist blog and dealt with social views towards weight and sexual attractiveness. I’d go farther than they did and suggest that weight is used against women as a tool of oppression, but hey, baby steps. Especially since the article also included the current link between obesity and poverty (due to unhealthy food being either less expensive or more accessible) — it seems like they’re on a roll.

The study proves another thing, that many have been arguing all along: you cannot tell how healthy a person is by looking at his or her weight.

I mean, gee, how can all of the “chubby” people be healthy and live longer? They have all of that “unnecessary” fat on them! Mhm — surprising, I know. But just think, if we couldn’t tell that the chubby ones are statistically the healthiest by looking at them, maybe, just maybe, we can’t tell how healthy anyone is by just looking at how much “extra” fat they are or are not carrying around. *Gasp!* Maybe we’ll have to stop judging people!

Wishful thinking, I know. It’s unlikely, but it’s also logical. I also personally think that this kind of reaction is absolutely necessary. I imagine that it will be a long time before the medical establishment catches up to this news and alters their recommendations accordingly. And I think that it will be even longer before society then restructures its ideas of health and beauty — if that ever even happens.

But when and if it does, I also don’t want to see what we currently consider to be overweight shifted to what we see as necessarily healthy, and for the current “normal” to be considered unhealthy. Because, again, it’s not necessarily true. Sure, it can be, if they’re not eating enough. Just like being overweight can be unhealthy if your diet consists mostly of potato chips and ice cream. That’s what we need to be looking at here: not telling people to lose or gain weight based on what the scale says, or based on what they’re height is, but based on how healthily they are actually living their lives. We should also be solving the problems that are causing obesity in poor communities, since in this demographic high weight is strongly linked to eating foods with low nutritional value and therefore to poor health.

And even then, the goal shouldn’t be for the overweight person in the example to take off weight, or for the underweight person to gain it, but for both of them to start eating and exercising at more healthy levels. The weight loss or gain should then come naturally. And if it doesn’t? Well, for Christ’s sake, leave them alone. As we’ve already covered, a person’s weight does not determine their health.

Is such a system too much to ask for?

Probably.

But hey, I can dream.

Bookmark and Share

{ 8 comments }

1 Ran November 12, 2007 at 6:43 pm

In addition to everything you say (pretty much all of which I agree with), it’s silly for the article to treat an “overweight” BMI as indicating “chubbiness.” BMI only reflects mass and height. One of my best friends is categorized as “obese” by BMI, because his ingredients list includes a few hundred pounds of muscle. This might well increase his risk of cardiovascular disease (he thinks it does), but it doesn’t make him “fat.” Conversely, I’m considered normal-weight by BMI, but I’m definitely mostly blubber.

Conflating medical information — even scientifically dubious medical information like the BMI — with appearance is simply a bad idea, because it encourages people to consider their to be medically meaningful, which it simply isn’t. (Appearance might correlate with medically meaningful statistics, but it itself is not one.)

2 Kevin November 12, 2007 at 8:50 pm

Not the first study to show this. This specific study looked at specific reasons why the different groups were dying, breaking it down by causes of death, not just overall mortality. Some of the findings were not surprising, such as people who were obese having a higher rate of dying from heart disease (not a big surprise).

The overall death from cancer in the obese population was not greater than the regular population, which was a bit of a surprise, and contradicts some earlier studies, but the reasons for this was that some cancers which are higher in the obese population are balanced by other cancers which are lower for the obese population, so the net effect was washed out. It’s also not surprising that the underweight had a higher mortality rate; they died more from everything except for heart-disease and cancer. This obviously has a lot of significance for public health initiatives.

There’s been a lot of effort recently trying to reverse the trends of increasing weight in Western industrialized countries in general, and we probably still need to do that, considering that the number of obese people has been increasing over the last few decades which correlates with an increase in heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. However, what the new studies seem to show is that the healthy ideal isn’t necessarily the very athletic physique with very little body fat and six-pack abs – that perhaps the healthy ideal needs to be adjusted upwards 10 or 20 pounds.

3 RachelPhilPa November 12, 2007 at 9:26 pm

that perhaps the healthy ideal needs to be adjusted upwards 10 or 20 pounds.

Or, even better, using measures other than weight to determine health.

Despite my BMI being towards the bottom of the so-called “normal” range, it’s pretty clear to me that I am quite a bit less healthy (for a variety of reasons) than many, if not most, supposedly “overweight” people.

4 Ran November 12, 2007 at 11:59 pm

Re: “However, what the new studies seem to show is that the healthy ideal isn’t necessarily the very athletic physique with very little body fat and six-pack abs […]“: I’m not sure that’s true. The studies don’t compare different kinds of overweight people (e.g. by percent body fat), and I think most people with very athletic physiques, very little body fat, and six-pack abs were probably in this study’s “overweight” group.

5 Kevin November 13, 2007 at 4:50 am

I think most people with very athletic physiques, very little body fat, and six-pack abs were probably in this study’s “overweight” group.

how the hell do you figure that?

6 Cara November 13, 2007 at 8:57 am

Um, because BMI is figured out by weight versus height. It doesn’t take muscle mass into consideration. Muscle weighs more than fat. People with athletic builds are going to weigh more than unfit people with only moderate amounts of fat. “Built” guys and “chubby” guys can very easily weight the same amount, and the BMI doesn’t give a shit. Which is one of many, many reasons why it’s completely and utterly useless. Read Ran’s first comment.

7 Anna November 13, 2007 at 9:23 am

Now this interesting. You are exactly right that thin people (women) have body issues – yes, such as bust size. Which, of course, can lead to cosmetic surgeries, etc.

Another thought that occurs to me reading this is the very real problem of obesity in children. Largely due to diet & excersize (I can’t spell) issues. I hope parents won’t take this study & use it as an excuse to not address the problems of obesity with their children.

Just a thought.

8 misscripchick November 13, 2007 at 2:41 pm

“one of the things that pisses me off most about the weight discussion is when fat-pride takes the form of thin-hate.”

agreed, i can understand where the feelings come from as well but it’s important to recognize that thin women also receive a tremendous amount of patriarchial images regarding their body.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: