The relationship between BMI, body positivity

Jade Critchfield

Weight in kilograms divided by height in meters squared.

That equation determines how “healthy” a person is to most doctors. It also determines a person’s body mass index, or BMI.

One person who was negatively affected by her BMI is Naomi Finkelstein, director of programs and communications for The Body Positive, a non-profit organization with a mission to help people have a peaceful relationship with their bodies, so that they can pursue their passions and live a fulfilled life, Finkelstein said.

Finkelstein hasn’t gotten weighed at a doctor’s office, or weighed herself, in about five years because of her history with eating disorders. Weighing herself can be a triggering experience.

During a recent appointment at her gynecologist, Finkelstein received a new packet of paperwork that she needed to fill out and make any changes to. One of the sections was a list of problems that were specific to her.

There were a few health issues that Finkelstein knew about; however, she came across something that startled her. One of her problems was that she was “class three obesity due to excessive calorie intake with serious comorbidity and a BMI of 45 to 49.9.”

All of this information was assumed by her body appearance because she had never been weighed in her current residence in California.

“There is a beautiful diversity of human beings on our planet,” Finkelstein said, “and this idea that everybody is supposed to be in this certain range on the BMI chart, that we’re all supposed to have these same dimensions just wholly denies the diversity that is present.”

BMI calculations are used by doctors to determine whether a patient is overweight or underweight; however, it doesn’t measure overall fat or muscle content, so it’s not always accurate.

“It’s not a perfect science,” said James Crowley, a nurse practitioner at Kent State. “Let’s take Arnold Schwarzenegger; he’s huge. He probably weighs like 250 pounds, but he’s nothing but muscle. So, his BMI would be higher, and it would say that he might be overweight or obese when he’s really super lean and just much heavier.”

A BMI of 18.5 or lower is considered underweight, while a BMI between 25.0 and 29.9 is considered overweight and a BMI of 30 or over is considered obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

During four years of college, the percentage of students who were overweight or obese rose from 23 percent to 41 percent, according to a 2017 study from the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.

Many people are negatively affected by the BMI chart regardless if it puts them in a range that is ideal, Finkelstein said.

“Certainly, the BMI chart is something people have been taught is ‘be all and end all’ of health,” Finkelstein said. “Even for people who are in the ‘normal’ range or ‘underweight’ range, I think it can be a point of pressure for them as well as far as wanting to make sure they can stay in the ‘normal’ range.”

People who report higher levels of body image dissatisfaction are more likely to develop an eating disorder, according to the National Eating Disorder Association, or NEDA. About 10 to 20 percent of women and 4 to 10 percent of men in college battle an eating disorder, according to the NEDA.

If a patient is fat and loses weight, they’re usually celebrated for the weight loss, but they aren’t asked how they lost the weight. This allows fat people with eating disorders to be ignored and eating disorder behaviors are encouraged in people who are fat because it is not conceived as an issue, Finkelstein said.

“When people are concerned with a number, then they will do whatever they can in service of this number,” Finkelstein said.

The Body Positive, and the body positivity movement, focuses on the physical health of its supporters, but it also encourages them to have a strong mental health foundation through loving themselves.

“We believe that most people want to be healthy,” Finkelstein said, “and The Body Positive, with the movement that we push and the work that we do, is about helping people to love their bodies so they can take the best care of them.”

Even health practitioners, like Crowley, support the body positivity movement. However, they don’t want people to completely disregard their BMI, because it is a tool that can help them determine certain risks associated with being overweight.

“People should care about it,” Crowley said, “because, if it’s high, we’re worried that you may be a risk for elevated blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, diabetes, certain cancer. That’s the main reason we look at it and overall heart health.”

Jade Critchfield covers health and fitness. Contact her at [email protected].