Weight and Health – The Dehumanization and Degradation of Those Who are “Overweight”

I don’t know about you, but I want to be healthy, and I want my friends and family to be healthy!  It’s super important to me.  More and more I find myself reading labels on food packaging, trying to find the products with the fewest, simplest ingredients.  I find myself trying to cut back on fatty foods while eating more nutrient-dense foods (Yeah Kale!).  I find myself thinking a lot more about the amount of exercise I am getting.  I also find myself encouraging those I love to keep an eye out for their health as well.

As I have conversations with friends about healthy living, though, so often I find that the conversation comes back to one thing: lbs lost or gained.  When the conversation turns to weight, I definitely start to feel uncomfortable.  After all, I have always been taught and felt that health has a lot more to do with how you feel and how you live than how much you weigh, yet our society seems to focus almost exclusively on dropping those pesky pounds.  I had never paid much attention to the array of weight-loss television shows (The Biggest Loser, Dance Your Ass Off, Weighing In, Celebrity Fit Club, etc) until I received an email from a family member, asking if I would like to join a local version of “The Biggest Loser” where we would weigh in at the beginning, commit to working out and eating regularly, and then win prizes for those that lost the most weight.  I thought this weird, so I started to look around, and I started to notice it everywhere!  My apartment complex is even hosting its own version of “The Biggest Loser!”

Now, this is troubling to me on the base level that weight loss can, in most cases, be a really crappy way of measuring healthy living, especially as different people gain or lose weight differently in ways that can be both healthy and unhealthy based on their lifestyle choices, their body type, and their family histories.  In fact, someone can be making an amazing transition to a healthy lifestyle (eating really well and exercising regularly), but their weight may not change – as they build muscle which weighs significantly more than fat or because they have a genetic constitution that does not lend to weight loss.

In turn, the focus of healthy living should be on feeling happy and healthy rather than on weight loss or even looking a particular way.  After all, if you are exercising well and eating well, your body will find a comfortable medium, the place at which you are healthiest, but in that medium, you are not likely to look like the standard of beauty our society has created, and that medium is in no way going to reflect a specific number on a scale!

Now, I know that some of you are thinking, “Wow . . . this is new.  Change From Within is not a healthy living blog, per se, so what does this talk of eating well and of exercise have to do with the usual theme?”  Well, in the past I have written about the realities of “weight hate,” or prejudice and bigotry toward those who are overweight or are perceived as overweight according to our unrealistic standards of beauty, and I have addressed some issues of body image, particularly as I tried to understand what are the larger issues at play when I am objectifying women.  In addition, lately I have been having a lot of conversations with friends about the connections between gender, sexual violence, self esteem, weight, exercise, and healthy living.

As I mentioned in my post about “weight hate,” I have had to be reminded that the way people are treated based on weight is surely a social justice issue.  For some reason, though, in our culture, we find it acceptable to disparage and treat poorly those who are considered “overweight.”  I think that we do this and that it is more socially acceptable because we perceive obesity as an issue of personal choice.  “People should take care of themselves!  How could they let themselves get that fat!?”  After all, it is not a bad thing to want others around us to be healthy, whether because we care about them or because health care costs in this country are affecting everyone, but very rarely do we approach these issues from a place of health and love – instead we approach them by comparing those who are overweight to an absurd standard of beauty and by telling them that they need to lose weight.

To demonstrate how absurd weight and body mass index (bmi) calculators that many use to determine “how healthy they are,” consider my little case study.  I am 6’0″ and weigh 185 lbs.  I eat pretty well (though I could probably use to cut down on my sugar intake slightly), and I exercise regularly.  Do I look “fat” or “overweight” to you?

Well, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute‘s body mass index calculator, I am overweight.  It doesn’t matter that I am happy with my current health and the way that my body looks.  By this absurd scale, I am overweight!  Now imagine that an insecure middle school student who is healthy finds the same scale and it tells her that she is overweight.  That’s the problem with going strictly by the scale (or the bmi scale) to determine one’s health.

Why, though, is this a social justice issue?  Well, whenever a segment of our population is dehumanized, treated as less than normative or valuable, because of their physical appearance, we have a serious problem of social justice, and frankly, it’s pretty darn socially acceptable to dehumanize those we deem “overweight.”

To characterize those who are overweight (even morbidly obese) with such contempt, calling them “not normal people” is far from helping people find a healthier state of living!  In discussing this issue, my friend Sheila pointed me to a Runner’s World article about the show The Biggest Loser, the author, Ginny Graves, describes the show as follows:

They bully and browbeat the lumpish contestants to run faster and farther every day, forcing them to dig deep not just for the strength to keep going but also for insight into how they let themselves get so appallingly fat in the first place. As a result, contestants expose more than their sagging flesh to voyeuristic viewers; like it or not, they bare their souls.

The way Sheila put it was, “As someone who is new to running as a way to feel healthy and good about myself and my body, to hear someone described as ‘appallingly fat’ and ‘lumpish’ is not going to encourage me to keep running or to feel good about myself as I run.”  To better understand why The Biggest Loser is “bad for its contestants, the millions who watch the show, and the culture in general,” I strongly encourage you to check out Golda Poretsky’s piece in Jezebel about a Biggest Loser contestant who developed an eating disorder after her experience on the show.

The point here is that encouraging a healthy culture and encouraging people to become healthier individually is not an excuse to dehumanize people and degrade those who are overweight or obese on national television.  Further, in almost every high school in which I work, I hear from young people – most often young women and often young people who seem to me to be pretty healthy from first glance – that one of the issues I need to make sure I address in helping the school build a more inclusive environment is the weight bullying that constantly occurs.

As we publicly humiliate anyone who does not fit into our absurd standard of beauty, do we even have to wonder why this is the reality?

– At age thirteen, 53% of American girls are “unhappy with their bodies.” This grows to 78% by the time girls reach seventeen.
– Five to ten million adolescent girls and women struggle with eating disorders and borderline eating conditions.
– According to The Center For Mental Health Services 90 percent of those who have eating disorders are women between the ages of 12 and 25.


In closing, I want to tell you about my friend Sheila.  In both my personal life and in my work as a sexual assault survivor’s advocate, I have spoken to far too many women who hate their bodies.  Some hate their bodies because of the hurt that was inflicted upon them by a man, and some hate their bodies because they feel like they are constantly told by those around them and by society that they are ugly and inadequate.  Undoubtedly with all of this cultural baggage, it is hard for women to have a healthy relationship with food and exercise.  Thus, I find Sheila’s story inspiring.

When Sheila was young, she had what she describes as a “rock star” metabolism.  She was actually underweight until she was about 18, eating whatever she wanted and still never gaining any weight.  The women in her family always commented on her weight, saying how great she looked.  She even told me a story about the time when she, still underweight as a young teenager, had her grandmother pinch the skin around her waist and say, “Looks like someone’s getting some love handles!”  That stuck with her, and so did the comments about how small she always had been, and as she moved into her early twenties, she gained some weight and felt more and more unhealthy (both physically and emotionally).  She struggled with dieting, yoyoing between her more “ideal” weight and the weights at which she felt unhealthy.  Her family would often comment about those old days when she had been “skinny.”

In the last year, though, Sheila has taken a different approach to her health.  She decided that instead of wanting to lose weight, she wanted to simply change her lifestyle to feel healthy and happy.  She decided that she wanted to run a half marathon (despite never having run much in her life), so she started a training program.  Her approach to food has been that she wants to try to make sure she is eating healthily, but she shouldn’t really deny herself the things she loves.  If she wants some carrot cake with cream cheese icing, she’s going to have some carrot cake with cream cheese icing.  Though it was initially hard, the training and running has helped her to feel healthy and to have more energy as she goes to school and works full time.  She stresses that in all of this, the feeling healthy part has been the most important!  She has no weight goal in mind.  Instead, she wants to exercise and eat pretty well and let her body find its ideal equilibrium, the place where it is healthy and where she is happy, regardless of what that equilibrium may look like or weigh.  What inspires me about her is that she is working against the culture that is telling her that she must look a certain way or weigh this particular amount, and she is simply striving to be healthy.

Last weekend Sheila completed the Surf City USA Half Marathon in Huntington Beach, California.  When I had lunch with her today, she was glowing . . . she is happy and she is healthy, and she attributes it to the love and support of friends and family and to her new approach to her health.  I could not be more proud of her.


2 thoughts on “Weight and Health – The Dehumanization and Degradation of Those Who are “Overweight”

  1. Respectfully, the treatment of the BMI in this article is slightly less complete than I might wish. With that said, the article also describes a very real and damaging tendency of our culture with regard to all things scientific. Since I am a rough sort of public health person, I’ll try to explain my objection:

    Let me begin by saying that the BMI is a limited measurement. It is a simple formula (weight in kgs divided by [height in meters squared]), without much fine-grained control. More specifically, it does not account for the balance of muscle mass and fat in a person’s body (see Mr. Utt’s case study for a good example of this problem), it cannot account for pregnancy and it does not account for population genetics (unless specifically re-scaled to do so). However, when properly used, it can be a highly accurate predictor of malnutrition and attendant mortality risks.

    In that way, the BMI is a very useful measurement. It can adequately and quickly predict malnutrition without the need for lab equipment, frequently unavailable in emergencies and in the developing world. Combined with other measurements and assessments of a person’s health, it provides a valuable perspective on a person’s nutritional status.

    The problem (and the “absurdity” to which Mr. Utt refers) does not arise in the BMI itself, then. Rather, it arises when we apply the BMI without considering its limitations: Mr. Utt’s “absurdity” appears in force when we consider the BMI a holistic predictor of good health, or even of good nutritional status. It is neither of these things, and to employ the BMI as if it were is to misuse the tool. It is roughly analogous to trying to drive nails with a screwdriver, and will give equally erratic results.

    However, Mr. Utt is absolutely right to point out that people frequently do apply the BMI as if it were something more universal and more holistic than it is (“going strictly by the scale”, he calls it). Very possibly, we are tempted to mis-apply the BMI by our cultural bias in favor of statistics and numbers: The BMI seems to offer an empirical, quantifiable tool for measuring of nutritional health. However, it must be handled with care because, like so many supposedly empirical, quantifiable things, the BMI (with its several blind-spots, some of which I have mentioned above) is both more complicated and less absolute than it appears at first glance.

    In short, the BMI is not an absurdity in and of itself, but must be handled like any other scientific tool, with proper accounting for both its capabilities and its limitations.

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