The obesity myth

An Apple a Day - Bridget Yard (Cara Smith/AQ)

I know aesthetics are highly valued in our society. I know what society sees as attractive is narrow in scope. I know that “thin is in.” I know obesity is looked down upon. What I seem to have missed is that obesity has turned into an epidemic. The obesity epidemic is the newest media and social construct peddled by health care organizations, drug manufacturers, and concerned celebrities. I’m not buying it.

The word epidemic’s been tossed around for the past decade when referring to obesity. The problem is, epidemic suggests disease. A Google search of “obesity epidemic” brings up more than three million results.

The World Health Organization’s Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health alleges that “obesity has reached epidemic proportions globally, with more than 1 billion adults overweight – at least 300 million of them clinically obese – and is a major contributor to the global burden of chronic disease and disability.”

WHO’s right. Obesity is a burden on healthcare. The organization defines obesity as a Body Mass Index (BMI) reading of 30 kg/m2. The reading is a ratio of an individual’s height and weight.

I, like so many others, took WHO’s information at face value. That is, until a Social Problems professor questioned BMI during a class lecture. So I questioned it, too.

The original formula for BMI was created in the 19th century by a Belgian scientist who used statistics from the French and Scottish armies to draw his conclusions. These armies most likely included young men and no women. As people in our society age, they commonly gain weight. Women carry more body fat than men. See a problem yet?

Alternative measures, like waist circumference or varied BMI guidelines for different populations have been thrown around, but neither have had the staying power of WHO’s favoured measure.

Organizations and media get it wrong, too. While “obesity” is often defined as a BMI of 30 and over, some define it as 25 and up, lumping those overweight individuals with the obese. Think of it this way: one day in the media, you’re considered moderately overweight and the next, you’re obese – another person lost to the “epidemic.”

BMI can be confusing. According to the measure, Hollywood hunk Will Smith is obese. My eyes must be lying, because he seems to be hard-bodied with a high incidence of chiselled muscle. Either the camera is playing tricks on me, or photoshop works wonders.
Female celebrities aren’t safe from the skewed lense, either. Beyonce Knowles, lauded as the curvy ideal, has a BMI of 21, reportedly. That’s smack dab in the middle of healthy weight. In a culture that takes “curvy” to mean overweight, it’s easy to see how the public can be mislead.

BMI isn’t the only problem I have with this “obesity epidemic”. The notion that carrying a few extra pounds makes someone diseased is ridiculous. Overweight people aren’t necessarily sick.

Often, an active person who looks overweight can be healthier than a very thin but sedentary person. The dangers of being underweight are barely publicized compared to the dangers of obesity. I would be far more concerned about a skeletal woman than a fat one.

Even though the fashion industry has publicly raised the age for fashion models to be featured in shows, the underweight, stick-thin and child-like ideal is pervasive. For Madrid’s Fashion Week last year, models with a BMI under 18 were banned. The sanctions changed little in the fashion industry. Models as young as 13 with dangerously low weights are repeatedly featured in the most popular shows.

I could say that the media is to blame, or culture, but I think the issue runs deeper than that. Taste-makers tell us that skinny sells, even if it’s unhealthy. WHO tells us that obesity is an epidemic. Hollywood expects us to give them a pat on the back when it lets a curvy woman or fat, funny man through its narrow gates. Still others try to sell us fat-burning pills with little to no science behind them. These ideas are all around us, and it’s no wonder most of us believe them. I’m just not buying it.

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