Editor’s Note: This month, that is February 2020, FII’s #MoodOfTheMonth is Feminism and STEM. We seek to challenge the exclusionary biases in the field, by inviting various articles on the works of women, queer individuals, and people from marginalised communities in STEM, the ways in which the sciences are biased, stereotypes and misconceptions in STEM, and the experiences of people from marginalised identities in the field. If you’d like to share your story, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I am sure a lot of us remember the dreaded physical report schools provided once a year, with our numbers proudly displayed on the front AND back covers of the report. I personally, as a fat girl, hid my reports from my family throughout school and guarded the key to that one particular drawer as zealously as Gollum guarded his ‘precious’. It was only after leaving for college that my family finally got a hold of those elusive, almost mythical ‘Project Child‘ health cards.
The Body Mass Index (BMI) is a popular way of categorising individuals’ health based on their age, height and weight. Depending on said factors, one is labelled as being somewhere between underweight and obese. Such categorisation makes it child’s play to determine whether one is healthy or at risk for future diseases.
Or does it?
Not-so-recent critics have called out the BMI for overlooking a plethora of important signifiers of good health and for being racist, as well as sexist in its categorisations. The method of ‘measuring’ health using one’s physical characteristics was developed by Belgian Renaissance man Adolphe Quetelet under the label of ‘social physics’ which became the basis for the modern-day BMI. Quetelet applied statistics in social sciences and attempted to define the ‘average man’ not for health purposes but to understand statistical laws underlying social phenomena like crime, suicide and marriage rates.
Athletes, for example, who carry heavily muscled bodies are often displayed having ‘unhealthy’ BMIs while physically unhealthy people are termed ‘healthy’ merely on the basis of their weight.
The current weight categories were developed in USA in 1972 after an analysis of over 7400 deemed healthy men from five countries. Drawing on this to decide whether one is physically healthy or at risk is inaccurate and dangerous as it does not take into account the difference between fat and muscle mass, bone density, patterns of fat distribution in individual bodies as well as ethnicities, or variety in lifestyles and occupations. It confounds people who are not ethnically European men into believing dangerously ineffective labels about their bodies.
Athletes, for example, who carry heavily muscled bodies are often displayed having ‘unhealthy’ BMIs while physically unhealthy people are termed ‘healthy’ merely on the basis of their weight. Similarly, since the research subjects were male, the results failed to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy distribution of weight in women and also failed to take into account the changes female bodies go through during pregnancy. Moreover, it provides space for only a binary of two genders to be categorised and excludes everyone else who does not fit into either.
In the medical sciences, fat around the abdomen, also called visceral fat, is the dangerous kind of fat as it encases vital organs in fatty tissue and hinders their operations. Other than that, fat deposits in one’s arms, legs or pelvic region are nowhere considered as risk-inducing as abdominal fat. Because BMI was developed with a male subject population, and because females have a higher average body-fat percentage than males, it left out the consideration of differences in patterns of fat distribution (statistics have revealed male fat accumulation patterns centre around the trunk region, while female fat accumulation usually happens around the pelvic region and thighs).
Moreover, it does not make exceptions for pregnant and post-natal mothers who usually gain multiple kilos of weight during the process. Judging their health on their weight, height and age alone, expectant and new mothers are very likely to be termed as unhealthy even if they are at their healthiest selves. Moreover, BMI has proved highly inaccurate in ‘measuring health’ in ethnically Asian populations where fat distribution patterns are different from that in Anglo-Saxon populations. Healthy BMIs for Asian populations are found as being lower than their Anglo-Saxon counterparts who have a naturally lower average body-fat percentage. Increase in weight, therefore, put Asians in general and Asian women in particular at a much higher risk of developing weight-related diseases.
Even after multiple researches revealing the skewed nature of the BMI, it is still standard practice to use it as a marker of one’s health. It is still used to categorise children and adults – rather harshly at that – into weight categories but does not provide context for the results being in said weight categories would bring. It misses out on critical signifiers of health like physical activity, diet, environment, and leaves out conditions of mental health far away from its considerations.
It is a very superficial method of looking out for one’s health but which is unfortunately one of the simplest and most popular as well. Alternatives to BMI include waist-circumference measurement, relative fat mass (RFM) index, waist-to-hip ratio and hydrostatic weighing. While there are contesting views on the effectiveness of any of these against BMI, and of the alternatives in themselves, BMI still maintains its popularity owing to its uncomplicated and hassle-free method of calculating its numbers.
All the hype around BMI has put it on a pedestal it doesn’t seem to be descending from. As young children when we were told our BMIs held the secrets to whether we would live a healthy life or not, we believed it. Young Indian girls, Chinese boys, South African transgender children, and French boys and girls all were prey to the BMI’s considerations. What they did not know that it only showed a true (however flawed) picture of only one group of people it measured, and glossed over bodily differences of most of the world. It doesn’t matter if we feel healthy and are perfectly capable of performing all normal physical activities. If our BMI says we’re obese, we just are and we have to lose weight to reach our prescribed ‘normal’ weight.
With the general pressure to fit into certain expectations of gendered bodies, and the BMI, looming over us like a powerful judge ready to give us its verdict on our physical health, it is no surprise that people all over the world feel immense pressure to conform to White European-male derived bodily standards. Eating disorders have become commonplace in attempts to reach the ‘ideal body’. Only awareness of the BMI’s true beginnings and the lack of inclusivity in its derivation, along with knowledge of ethnic physical differences around the globe can help us climb out of the vast pit BMI seems to have shoved us all into.
Featured Image Source: Harvard Health