So there’s a fascinating new study out about how women perceive their weight, with the results being that a significant proportion of women who were deemed “overweight” by the BMI did not view themselves as such. Cue the body-shaming, junk reporting, and photographs of fat1 people with their heads cut off.
Nearly one in four women who is overweight perceives her weight as normal, according to a new study.
The study also shows 16% of the normal-weight women studied had weight misperceptions, considering themselves overweight, says researcher Mahbubur Rahman, PhD, MBBS, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology and a senior fellow at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research in Women’s Health at the University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston. [...]
“The fact that people misperceive their body weight was already known,” says Rahman, so the new research echoes some previous information. But in his study, he also wanted to see if the body weight misperceptions influenced health behavior.
Rahman obtained height and weight information from the medical charts of 2,224 women, ages 18 to 25.
The women answered questions about healthy weight-related practices in the 30 days prior — including eating less, eating differently, or exercising. They also answered questions about unhealthy behaviors, such as the use of diet pills, use of diuretics, vomiting, laxative use for weight control, cigarette smoking, or skipping meals.
For the study, Rahman used the standard definitions for normal, overweight, and obese, with BMIs below 25 termed normal, those 25-29 overweight, and 30 and higher obese.
The women also answered questions about education, ethnicity, marital status, household income, employment, and Internet use.
The women were divided into four categories:
- Overweight women who thought they were normal or underweight
- Overweight women who knew they were overweight
- Normal-weight women who thought they were overweight
- Normal-weight women who thought they were normal or underweight
Interestingly, they didn’t have a category for “Women who knew their bodies were fine just the way they were and thought we should go fuck ourselves.”
Less sarcastically, I think it’s incredibly damaging to have a universal weight category defined as “normal” when for a whole lot of “overweight” people, being “overweight” is normal. The same goes for those who are described as “underweight” (notably a group that was seemingly not studied here). “Normal” is relative. Trying to define and impose your definition of normal on other people — whether it be in relation to gender, sexuality, physical ability, neurological workings, weight, or some other category entirely, is alienating, damaging, and oppressive. There’s no way that defining people in opposition to “normal” and telling them that they must become normal for their own good is not harmful.
But, of course, this is the very basis of the entire BMI — to build a neat little box, tell everyone that they need to fit into it, and then shame and admonish those who don’t, usually through the even more abusive practice of telling them that it’s in their best interest. And that’s also precisely what this study is about. This research was explicitly done to see how self-perception affects behavior. When the results came in, the question became how to better inform those poor fat people that they’re fat. As if fat people don’t generally get enough of that.
Mistaken notions of one’s weight status can have implications for behavior, and perhaps health, the researchers noted. For example, women who were overweight but thought they were normal size were less likely to try to lose any excess weight by dieting or other means. On the other hand, women who saw themselves as fatter than they were, were more likely to use diet pills or diuretics, to induce vomiting or to smoke cigarettes, often as ways to control or lessen their weight.
“Unfortunately, women can’t do anything to lose weight if they don’t perceive themselves as overweight. It does start there,” said Keri Gans, a registered dietician based in New York City and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. “If they don’t perceive themselves as overweight, they’re not going to adopt healthy behaviors to lose weight and prevent disease. Meanwhile, the normal-weight people who don’t recognize they’re at normal weight are engaging in behaviors that put them at risk for illness.”
Here’s the thing: in a society where fat is almost universally vilified, a woman proclaiming that she does not view herself as overweight may indeed be doing nothing more than making a statement of self-confidence. On the one hand, I find this really sad — one should not find fat and bodily pride to be mutually exclusive, and “overweight” should not be synonymous with “bad” or “unattractive.” At the same time, I’m also unwilling to outright reject women’s expressions of satisfaction with their bodies, wherever I can find them. Such expressions are much too rare for us to have the luxury to pick and choose which ones we celebrate, even if we should critique some means of celebration.
Further, the fact is that some of these women who don’t “realize” they’re fat might not be fat at all. Fat is socially a pretty subjective concept to begin with, but it’s not as scientifically concrete as we might think, either. The BMI has all kinds of problems and lots of people are amazed to see how simultaneously rigid and inconsistent its standards are, yet the metric is used in this study. Indeed, the study authors and most of the articles make a big deal out of the fact that Black and Latina women were a lot more likely than white women to say they were not overweight in spite of falling into the BMI’s “overweight” category. These women are treated like they are sadly and pathetically ignorant, without it ever being considered that they might be right. What do women of color know about their own damn bodies in the face of white-biased scientific institutions? Clearly nothing, so it’s best to just forget the fact that there have been critiques of the BMI system as racist for years, and the studies showing that these claims very well might have a lot of merit.
And lastly, as someone who was once blissfully unaware that she was fat and that her body was therefore socially perceived as gross and unacceptable, I say that whether someone already “knows” they’re fat or not, there’s absolutely no good reason besides shaming to tell them. As I once wrote elsewhere about my experience of being lectured on my weight for the first time by my doctor during a yearly physical:
“You’ve put on weight,” she said. “You’re getting kind of big. Here’s a BMI chart. See, you’re here, just hovering on the overweight category. You know that if you keep putting on weight, the other kids are going to start making fun of you.”
I remember sitting up on the table in my hospital gown and looking at the floor, unable to look anywhere else. I remember thinking that if the kids did make fun of me, it couldn’t possible be any worse than this. I remember feeling ashamed. Not just because I’d just been told that I was too fat. But because I hadn’t even noticed. I didn’t even realize. I was fat? And I was just going to keep getting fatter? How could I not have known?
Now, I think the much better question is what would have possessed anyone to look at my 10-year-old self and decide to tell me.
I concluded, “I don’t think I’ve been unaware of my body and its size, my fat and its shape, how big I am and what other people are going to think of it, ever since.”
Now, I don’t claim my experience is universal among those who are fat yet still possess enough thin privilege to not be told about it on a daily basis. It’s just mine. Personally, I’d prefer to live in a world where being told that you’re fat is not an awful thing, because fat is not an awful thing. I’d greatly prefer to live in a world where fat just is. But since we don’t currently live there, I say for the love of god — let those who have gone relatively un-shamed stay that way. Chances are that even most fat women who don’t view themselves as “overweight” still have tons of body issues, anyway.
Of course, lots and lots of people — they’re not difficult to find — would argue that it’s important for fat people to know they’re fat, because fat is so unhealthy. The problem is that, well, not really. And even if fat were universally unhealthy, dieting is, too. Not to mention, it doesn’t work.
Further, while scientists might ostensibly care most about health, most social fat-shamers use “but I’m just concerned for your health!” as a cover up for their moralizing and attempted enforcement of their own aesthetic preferences. And though scientists are supposed to care most about health, the fact that there are a whole lot more quotes from the researchers about the failure of fat people to diet — again, even though diets don’t work — than the fact that many thin people are engaging in really unhealthy activities in order to be thinner is pretty telling.
The findings have serious consequences for obesity prevention, the researchers said, as many women do not recognise they are overweight and so will not join programmes.[...]
Lead author Prof Abbey Berenson, said: “Weight misperception is a threat to the success of obesity prevention programs.
“Overweight individuals who do not recognise that they are overweight are far less likely to eat healthfully and exercise.
“These patients are at risk for cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and other serious problems.
“This is especially important for reproductive-age women because they are more likely to be obese than similarly aged men, often because they’ve had at least one child and have not lost pregnancy weight and find that their schedules make it difficult to exercise and eat healthfully.”
Of course, no one is also talking about the fact that lots of fat people are also engaging in dangerous practices like smoking, taking laxatives, or throwing up to try to be thin. Because, I mean, who cares — they’re still fat. And no one is talking about thin people who eat foods high in fat and don’t exercise, because who cares — they’re thin.
The point is, this clearly isn’t about health, or we’d be talking about unhealthy habits across the board. And if we want to talk about the unhealthy habits of those thin people who are trying to be even thinner, the problem isn’t that they don’t know just how thin they are. The problem is that thanks to this fatphobic culture we’re living in, they’re so terrified of being fat that they’d rather put their health at risk than be perceived as “unhealthy” and unattractive.
Which is to say that I’m extremely concerned about women’s health, probably a lot more so than most people. I just think that studies like this, and the kind of rhetoric and behaviors they inspire are making women’s health a whole hell of a lot worse.
- For those unfamiliar with the term “fat” as anything other than an insult, I want to be clear that I use the term here both to refer to myself and other people as an entirely neutral descriptor with no value judgment attached. I say that I’m fat in the same way that I might also say that my hair is brunette — or in the same way I might say that person is tall, or that shirt is blue, or that dog is large. ↩