The BMI Problem: A Linktastic Post

I recently read Body Drama (2007) by Nancy Redd (for my Young Adult Literature and Literacy) class which, in some ways, I did like. I think it’s really valuable because there is this weird stigma or shame about talking about your body–especially when you’re a girl.

(Although I don’t know that teens who are too timid to talk about such matters are likely to pick up this title. I am in many respects a prude and have been for many years. I know that I would have had the nerve to be seen reading this book no matter how valuable it is. Once an aunt bought me a copy of Our Bodies Ourselves for teen girls and I almost died of mortification just from looking at the book. I don’t think I ever opened it.)

What I didn’t like about the book was the focus on the Body Mass Index (BMI) as a way to gauge healthy weight because, frankly, BMI is bogus. The idea is that by plugging your height and weight into a chart you can find your BMI number and compare it to the range of “healthy” BMIs for people with your height and weight. The thing is, it doesn’t always work out as neatly as all that.

I didn’t know anything about BMI until I read about it in a New Yorker book review by Steven Shapin. I appreciated that Shapin took the time to debunk BMI as a means to measure healthy weights (according to BMI some famous athletes would be obese–while in peak playing condition).

Still, in a society that’s already obsessed with the idea of being thin it’s hard to hear that you’re overweight or obese. Even from a chart. I have never been underweight, but I imagine that would be an equally frustrating thing to hear from a chart. Especially one that is widely acknowledged as a flawed system of measurement.

Even with that knowledge, a strong/supportive family environment, and a fair amount of self-esteem, it took years to convince myself that the BMI was wrong and I was not obese. Honestly, I spent a lot of time thinking I was fat–and that’s with knowing full well that BMI isn’t always accurate and that there are all different healthy weights. It’s only been recently that I’ve started to understand that, while I’ll likely never be a size two or whatever, I am not that overweight. In an era where Marilyn Monroe–the sexiest sex symbol ever–would probably also be considered fat, I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that way.

If you want to see what I mean about BMI, check out Kate Harding’s BMI project at http://kateharding.net/bmi-illustrated/. The project consists of a slide show showing real women and their BMI classification. I can guarantee that none of the labels will be what you expect.

Books like Body Drama are doing a lot to show that women come in all different shapes and sizes–all of which are normal. But until other measurements like BMI (and obviously unattainable expectations set forth by the media) are replaced with something more realistic, there will always be perfectly normal, healthy women stuck thinking there is something wrong with them.