Well Being

This Photo Is Why BMI Is BS (And Bad For Body Image)

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Over at Reddit's TwoXChromosomes page, it's “Image Fest Friday,” which has led to lots of awesome self-esteem and body image-themed threads that will leave you oozing with confidence. But one post in particular highlights another issue: Mainly, that BMI is bullshit…and terrible for body image. The post, from user daclamp, explains how bad she'd been feeling about her body…until she saw this photo of herself at a belly-dancing performance:

BMI and body image

“For the past several months, the person I see in the mirror is a big fat fatty. This picture was taken last weekend. Self-image is a sonofabitch, I look damn good!” she states. And judging by the flood of responses, a lot of other women feel the same.

belly dancer weight lossIt's not particularly surprising that so many of us struggle with body image, despite looking great. But a follow-up comment from daclamp explaining her body history gets into a whole other issue:

A little background: I am 5'7″ and fluctuate between 160-170. According to webMD, I am overweight. Lol. Last Spring, I changed my diet, started the insanity workout, and got myself down to 145. It looked pretty good [see: photo to the right] and I was happy with my body. I gained it all back since then, and then some. I've been feeling really shitty about it and have had no motivation to get back into exercising regularly. My clothes are snug and my stomach hurts towards the end of the work day. The pictures I saw and feedback I got from my performance last weekend got me thinking about it. Why am I beating myself up? I'm healthy, I look good. Deal with it. I still plan to get a regular exercise routine going. My mood needs it.

The moral of the story: Your mirror and the shitty voices in your head are in cahoots. Fuck that.

Other users have pointed out that, based on her weight and height, she was just hovering on the edge of being “overweight,” according to BMI (Body Mass Index) charts. But her photos (both before and after) and reported lifestyle are proof that, for a lot of people, weight and height alone aren't accurate measures of overall health. In fact, for a lot of us, they mostly just lead to confusion between “healthy” and “skinny,” and another way to knock down our self-esteem.

We've heard from doctors before that BMI isn't the best way to evaluate fitness or health. As Dr. Brooke Kalanick explained for a previous article:

BMI can be misleading if you are say a short, muscular female – you’ll appear “fatter” than you are, as BMI is merely a calculation using height and weight (weight not being necessarily a good indicator of “fat”).

Dr. John Dempster had harsher things to say about BMI:

BMI is a waste of a test, it's very old school. All it looks at is height and weight, so your BMI can be falsely elevated for a large number of people; it can also be falsely negative for a large portion of the population strictly based on your height and your weight. It doesn’t look at anything to do with intracellular body composition; it is strictly a ratio.

And while rationally, a lot of us are at least vaguely aware that all of this is true, it's easy to step on a scale and use the number there–or your BMI–to fuel a downward self-esteem spiral. Plus, despite the problems with BMI, it's still the measure of many studies that deal with obesity, and even the measure that many doctors use to evaluate their patients.

Just this week, Dr. Yoni Freedhoff wrote in U.S. News about the fallacy of BMI, and why it's more important for everyone to embrace their “best weight,” instead of the ideals dictated by fad diet authors and arbitrary doctors office charts. In a summary that echoes daclamp's experience almost exactly, he explains all of the failings of BMI, then asks:

So why do we place such a premium on the notion of that perfect, healthy weight? Why isn't “trying our best” enough when it comes to weight loss? A brief review of the history of dieting suggests that our personal best has never been enough. We seem bent on bouncing from dietary extreme to dietary extreme, serially adopting—and ditching—truly traumatic diets.

Freedhoff's answer to the problem of judging your health (and basing your self-esteem around) BMI is to remember a couple of basic truths: A) if you can't happily maintain a given way of eating, you won't, and B) if you can't happily maintain a given exercise routine, you wont.

What to do? Freedhoff says to get to know your “best weight”: The one (or ones!) you are when you're doing a good job of managing happiness with health:

If you truly want to improve your health, don't aim for perfection. Aim for what I like to call your “best weight.” Never forget that your personal best, even when it comes to weight, is always great. Don't let anyone, any chart or any doctor, ever tell you differently.

And if you need to restore your faith in the ability of women to feel good about themselves–despite what advertisements, magazines and, most recently, fashion week, would have us believe–then head on over to TwoXChromosomes and check out all of the encouraging comments on daclamp's post.

Photos: used with the permission of Reddit user daclamp