BMI ≠ Body Image

A recent article on Skepchick makes a critique of Ben Radford’s article on BMI, claiming it’s false that BMI is simply a diagnostic tool: “BMI is often used as a weapon by which to shame, judge, and oversimplify people’s health and wellness.” The author also offers an anecdote about feeling shamed by her doctor for making comparisons between BMIs, and therefore making judgements about body image standards.

The problem is that BMI is not a indicator of how fat you are or the specific measurements of your body. A high BMI is claiming that you are too heavy for your height and age, regardless of whether it’s fat or muscle making you overweight. Consequently, a new study showed that BMI was best, compared to other measuring methods, at predicting health risks related to weight.

Though excess fat is likely the most common cause of having a high BMI, this doesn’t mean the method is making a judgment about body image. Since BMI was a better predictor than body fat percentage or waist ratios, you could take away from the study that it’s being too heavy, rather than simply excess fat, that might place you at a higher health risk. You could have an aesthetically pleasing hip to waist ratio and low body fat percentage, but if you’re carrying too much mass (like muscle) for your frame (height and age), it may cause increased health risks. For example, obesity is now a bigger burden on healthcare systems than smoking.

BMI is a medical tool, and to claim that it is used to shame body image is a weak argument. We tend to judge people’s body image by looking at their waist to hip ratio and how much excess fat they seem to have, rather than their mass. Body fat percentage is likely to place more people in the obese category than BMI, since you could carry a certain amount of excess fat before being considered too heavy for your height.

20130105-162334.jpgI would argue that obesity is the only body image factor that has any scientific validity. Take into consideration the many other beauty standards women are judged by; long legs, waist-to-hip ratio, plump lips, cheekbones, perky breasts, perfect skin, hair, and noses—even plus sized women must meet these standards in order to be considered attractive. However, having thin lips, a big nose, blotchy skin, greasy hair, small or sagging breasts, or a number of other aesthetic critiques of a woman’s image, don’t carry with them the negative health consequences that being overweight does.

Your doctor telling you your BMI is too high is not a critique of your image or attractiveness, but a calculation that you are too heavy for your height and age. This is a valid health critique. Society and media judge women on their visual appearances, not on this calculation of mass, age, and height.

4 Responses

  1. Eshto Says:

    This is just silly. Nobody goes around pointing and laughing at people’s BMI’s.

    BMI isn’t perfect, the medical community is aware of its flaws already. Insurance companies use broad statistical trends because it wouldn’t be feasible or cost effective to evaluate each and every person on an individual level. Are people seriously expecting a personal touch when dealing with an insurance company? Ha.

    There are criticisms to be had, sure. But why does everything become “shaming” and victimhood? Like the rest of the world is out to hurt your feelings?

    For that matter when did emotions and hurt feelings become a valid argument in skepticism???

  2. jimmy russel Says:

    Feminists conflicting with science and reason. surely this is a first?

  3. Mike Flugennock Says:

    Actually, the use of BMI to judge whether someone really has a weight or health issue is already in the midst of being debunked, in light of recent reports revealing that people like professional football players or Olympic wrestlers had BMI’s that placed them in the “obese” category.

    Still, I hadn’t heard about people being mocked — or basing their body image on — BMI. It certainly doesn’t seem nearly as bad as what’s apparently a current dating fad: asking right off the bat — on a first date — what someone’s credit score is, and basing your decsion on whether or not to get involved in a relationship with him/her based on it.

  4. Sara E.M. Says:

    As I believe I stated in the post, being too heavy for your height/age seems to be unhealthy. So, if you’re a professional athlete who has enough muscle that you have a high BMI, and therefore are too heavy for your height/age, that can be a health risk as well.

    Check out Ben Radford’s article (linked in the Skepchick post). BMI is not “debunked” but another diagnostic tool whose weaknesses are well known in among health professionals.

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