One of the most intriguing news items this week reported on a six-year study that measured what happened to the contestants who lost dramatic amounts of weight in Season 8 of the reality TV show we here at Fit Is a Feminist Issue love to hate: The Biggest Loser.
For those of us who have gained and lost, lost and gained, and lost and gained again, the most obvious result wasn’t a shocker. The contestants are heavier than they were when the show ended. The season’s winner, Danny Cahill, went from 430 pounds to 191 pounds over the seven month period of the weight loss competition.
We are at war with so many things. And our voices are hoarse from yelling about things that we can’t believe we still need to yell about. And yet we are still at war with our bodies.
I am becoming acutely aware of where I sit in this space. My race, the gender I identify with, the way my body is put together puts me in a particular position. I acknowledge my journey the past year and a half has been one of more fun movement, less punishment, loving food and full-belly breaths (no sucking in!) – but I also recognize how lucky I am that my journey looked that way, that I was able to explore those avenues.
But now it’s time to listen. I can’t tell you to celebrate your body (as much as I want to because you’re awesome). As a beautiful friend of mine said, it’d be like me saying you don’t need face creams when I’ve never had a zit (as an example – I’ve had plenty of zits in my day). I do hope that while we are looking at this world around us that seems like it’s growing increasingly unfamiliar, we also take time to examine where our goals around our bodies are coming from (there are correlations between a lot right now).
Many of us are stuck in this endless loop of self-improvement and striving, without knowing the roots of where that striving might actually be coming from (race, privilege, patriarchy, colonialism, etc.). And what I have taken away from it right now is that I need to be, open, on my own path and there for others.
So I will listen. And be there. And I hope you will be too. Because while we share many similarities as humans, our differences are still making a big difference in the way we are each able to experience life and our bodies.
Jessica Ireland thanks all of her friends who increase her awareness on her privilege and how she can help others, while still validating and giving space for her own life experiences. She chooses to be kind to her body by being fortunate enough to move it often (often there is smiling involved), not eating animals, getting rest and choosing not to qualify food. She hopes others find ways to be kind to themselves and others that work for them. We may have a long road ahead of us – please listen and take care of each other 🙂
In my Advanced Physiological Assessment class the other day, we conducted a body composition lab which measured body fat using a variety of clinical assessment tools including bioelectric impedance analysis (BIA), underwater weighing (UWW), and DEXA scanning.
These tools use either electrical currents, x-ray scans, and Archimedes’ Principle to measure body density which is then converted to body fat. The conversion formula is then selected based on race, age, and gender, with many groups that are underrepresented.
As a white, 21-year-old female, I was privileged in that there was a formula that was representative of my body. While the methodology is a little different, all of these tools rely on the principle that fat is less dense than water, muscle (which has a lot of water), and the other components of fat free mass, like bone and soft tissues. Some of these are pretty good assumptions, while others, like bone density can be highly variable.
On lab day, I was pretty excited. I am a 21-year-old competitive cyclist and triathlete, and as an exercise scientist, I am genuinely curious as to how my numbers compare to population norms and other athletes (to give you an idea, I voluntarily did a lactate threshold test which involves having your fingers repeatedly pricked during a graded exercise test just for funsies #nerd). I followed the protocol as best I could, holding my arms straight out and standing tall during the BIA, exhaling ALL of my air during two trials of underwater weighing, and laying perfectly still during the 7 minute DEXA scan.
I will note that I was not able to follow all of the BIA protocol which includes no eating or drinking four hours prior. After running the numbers, I was completely astounded as to what the ACSM, the American College of Sports Medicine, that is, classified my body fat % to be. Turns out, depending on the method used, I’m either “good,” “fair,” “poor,” or “very poor.” Here’s a brief breakdown of the results:
Height: 170 cm
Weight: 64 kg
BMI: 22.2 = normal
Hand-Held B.I.A. Body Fat % -regular: 22.3% (Fair, 42nd percentile)
Hand-Held B.I.A. Body Fat %- athlete: 22.2% (Fair, 42nd percentile)
Scale B.I.A. Body Fat % -athlete: 24.3% (Poor, 31st percentile)
D.E.X.A Body Fat %: 24.7% (Poor, 30th percentile)
D.E.X.A. Bone Mineral Density: 1.103 g/cm^3 (Normal)
Underwater Weighing Body Fat %: 19.2% (Good, 62nd percentile)
The rest of the classifications are “very lean”and “excellent.” There are so many problems with this that I hardly know where to begin.
First, the 2010 ACSM Body Composition Table for Women developed these norms based on patients from the Cooper Clinic in Dallas, Texas. As my professor pointed out in class, people who have their body composition measured tend to be rather self-selecting- athletes looking to “cut weight” for sports or individuals on weight loss programs to see how much fat loss is appropriate.
The Cooper Clinic is a medical center that specializes in “comprehensive preventive exams.” By looking at this chart, I can only assume that they have a “very lean” patient base if the 50th percentile for a female between the ages of 20-29 is 21.0%. In fact, my most accurate number, which I will assume is from the DEXA scan, wouldn’t be exactly average until I was 40. Anecdotally, most of my female college of health sciences peers have body fat percentages around 25%, which is likely lower than campus as a whole. One would think that surely, this is the result of a small sampling base, but no, the listed sample size for my age group, 1360, with a total sample size of 12,116 for all females. If the average female wears a size 14-16, and I wear a size 4, it would make sense that I would be more towards the left side of the bell curve. The American Council on Exercise classifies obesity for women as having a body fat of 32% or higher. The ACSM chart stops at 38.9% for 20-29 year old females and 40.5% for 70-79 year old females as being the top (fattest) 1%. If 64% of American women are supposedly overweight or obese, these “norms” are clearly NOT representative of the United States female population.
The second problem with this chart is the very narrow classification ranges. I completed all four tests within 30 minutes of each other and got a wide range of results. On the 2010 ACSM chart, a difference of 2.6% moves you from the midpoint of “poor” to the midpoint of “fair.” I had a 2% difference between the scale and handheld BIA when they were both on the “athlete” setting. With such varied results, how can healthcare professionals make recommendations using this chart in good conscience?
Finally, the classification terminology is demoralizing and clinically meaningless. I would like to point out that essential fat, the fat that is necessary for normal healthy functioning for females is around 12-14%. Without it, your organs, central nervous system, muscles, and brain would not function. On this chart, values lower than that is not called “anorexia,” but “very lean”. Which, if you’ve listened to the health/fitness/diet industry lately, “very lean” is what we should all be striving for, right? I will concede that there is an asterisk next to the “very lean” classification that does state that body fat percentage less than 10-13% is not recommended for females. I will argue that “not recommended” doesn’t even touch the gravity of that lethal situation. That should be a call for medical attention.
Unfortunately, “very lean” is the only descriptive term used on this chart. “Excellent,” “Good,” “Fair,” “Poor,” “Very Poor” are completely subjective terms that have no clinical significance whatsoever. They are fat-phobic and encourage the orthorexic ideal that a lean body is the only kind of good body. I’d like to emphasize that this is the chart for the American College of Sports Medicine, the most respected medical organization that writes health and fitness recommendations for the general public. These are doctors, researchers, rehab professionals, professors, and trainers that rely on their information to make well-informed decisions regarding patient care every day.
There are other normative charts available, like the one mentioned above from the American Council on Exercise, although their terms, “essential, athletes, fitness, average, obese” aren’t much better. I’ve seen a similar chart where “average” is replaced with “acceptable.” I know many athletes who have body fat percentages much higher than mine. They are no less, perhaps even better, athletes because of it. I think that statement gets to the heart of the problem. What exactly is an acceptable body? Is it one that is healthy and functions as it needs to? Or is it just a thin body? If we rely on size as a quick indicator of good health, we’re not even measuring what is actually indicative of cardiovascular health- how the heart, lungs, and muscles work together. I know that my “poor” body fat percentage doesn’t mean I’m unhealthy- my other physiological markers such as blood pressure, lactate threshold, cholesterol and VO2 max all show that I have excellent cardiorespiratory fitness. My behaviors (which are perhaps even more indicative of long-term outcomes) like engaging in regular aerobic and strength training exercise, eating a healthy balanced diet (I like something similar to 80/20), taking time for self-care, not smoking, and getting enough sleep agree with that.
Fortunately, the ACSM has updated many of their exercise prescription recommendations as of 2015. Some updates are expected in 2017, but I am not sure if the body composition norms will be included. For now, I’m taking these results with a grain of salt. I know that despite what the ACSM has to say, my body is good, acceptable, perhaps even above average no matter how much fat I have.
When all the fashion magazines featured women with hands (their own or others’) covering their breasts, a thought flickered that hands are much more comfortable than the average bra. Hiding women’s breasts, one way or the other, is standard media fare, and of course in some places women aren’t allowed to go topless in public, a clear gender disparity.
It’s become really hard to find a non-padded bra, even for sports. Yet it’s seriously unpleasant to exercise with sweaty padding. Does anyone really believe in “breathable padding”? Sorry Victoria’s Secret, but my skepticism was well placed.
However, in recent years fashion has shown glimpses of the saucy braless 70s, including the bralette and bandeaus, all pleasant options for small-breasted women. The news even declares that bralessness is in fashion.
Many of us may sneer “how nice for you!” Bralessness and even lightweight bra alternatives are not realistic choices. Many heavy breasted women are simply not comfortable and even experience back pain without support from a bra. Sizes small, medium, and large rarely do the work we need them to do either. Sports bras tend to be sized that way and create a special kind of hell. We end up pinched and unsupported on top of being sweaty.
So I suggest the new move away from bras and padded bras may be good for all women. It marks a greater diversity in the types of breast support and sports tops available for women. The less women are expected to hide our breasts the easier it will be for us to demand comfortable functional support.
This is where we share stuff we can’t share on Facebook page for fear of being kicked out! Read why here. Usually the posts are about body image, sometimes there’s nudity but we’re all adults here. Right?
If you haven’t rolled your eyes at a mainstream news outlets’ list of body positive icons, then consider yourself lucky that you missed the frustration of seeing one of these stories come across your feed. Every few weeks it seems like another one pops up and not only are the majority of these icons above a size 8, but these lists usually include just one woman of color or sometimes none at all. I am so in favor of drawing attention to women who are challenging beauty standards but not if that list features women who all look the same.
It all begs the question: is a list like that actually challenging beauty standards or is it simply continuing to reinforce them?
In the press, the body positive conversation is being dominated by smaller white voices. Why does Amy Schumer saying she’s not plus size get covered by almost every news outlet while most remained silent on Gabby Sidibe’s sex scene on national TV? And when only certain bodies and voices are celebrated, this does a huge disservice to the community of individuals who worked so hard to get us here.
I have been catcalled exactly once. It was late at night, I was alone and waiting for my Uber outside the gates of LA’s Griffith Observatory, and I was already on edge. A group of guys drove past and shouted “cuanto?” at me, meaning ‘how much?’ in Spanish. I do actually speak some Spanish, but it was my first time dealing with ‘traditional’ catcalling, and I wasn’t thinking clearly. I couldn’t leave, but thankfully they did.
By contrast, I have been ‘fatcalled’ several times. ‘Fatcalling’ is a term I came up with to describe the abuse fat people, typically women, have hurled at them on the street. In my experience, the mainstream feminist narrative surrounding catcalling doesn’t allow much room for experiences like mine. Instances where I haven’t been objectified because the harasser considers me physically attractive, but instead where I’ve been denigrated because the harasser has decided I am not. Instead of “hey sexy”, I usually get “hey Jabba” (as in Jabba the Hutt, who is the boss of everyone so thanks for saying I’m powerful!!!) or “you’re a whale/hippo”, both of which are extremely cute animals that could crush a human being if they wanted to.
There’s a new report out today by the World Health Organization about global increases in diabetes. The news is bad: there’s been a fourfold increase in the number of people with diabetes world wide, and the incidence has increased from 4.7% to 8.5%. Those increases are especially concentrated in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
I’ll be blogging in more wonky detail about recent studies and reports on body weight and global public health concerns on Sunday. But one thing struck me about how this particular news outlet presented the information (thanks Samantha for sending me the article): the picture they chose to illustrate and identify the news story. It’s at the top of the blog and here.
In case you’re having trouble parsing the image, it appears to be a white woman from a well-resourced country being helped by a white female hospital staff member to put on a hospital gown in an examining room, WHILE WEARING A FAT SUIT.
What? Can someone explain this to me?
This ridiculous nonsensical image conveys the following messages to me:
Fat people are grotesque.
Fat people are passive, not able to do things for themselves.
Fat people need to be in hospitals.
In order to depict fat people we think it’s more effective to show a person in a fat suit.
The WHO report and other studies show that type 2 diabetes is affecting Asian and African and middle eastern populations severely, but the picture doesn’t reflect that message. Diabetes also strikes Asian populations at much lower BMIs than in, say, Latino populations. But we don’t see an Asian person or a Latino person at a diabetes clinic. Nope, just that white lady in the fat suit.
I suppose it could be worse– they could’ve depicted her with no head.
Okay, this may seem like just a rant. Well, it IS a rant, but for a reason. Images that represent fat people in these bizarre or scornful or pathologized ways have two bad effects:
1) they stigmatize fat people, causing all kinds of harm;
2) they distract us from the real and pressing global public health issues, like how to deal with increased diabetes globally.
So enough with the weird staged fat suit pictures. And while we’re at it, please put the heads back on those headless fat people– they need them. Thank you.
As Tracy wrote in a post a few weeks ago one of the great privileges that we have as professors in the Department of Women’s Studies and Feminist Research at Western is that we actually get opportunities to talk to smart students about fitness as a feminist issue.
Writes Tracy, “As we did last year, we got to guest tonight lecture in the Women’s Studies course, “The Body.” This time, our colleague Andrea Allen invited us.”
My half of the class was called “The Obesity Panic” and I talked about the social construction of the “obesity epidemic,” gender, the obese body, and normative thinness. The students had read an excerpt from Eric Oliver’s book Fat politics. The real story behind America’s obesity epidemic.
Oliver is critical about the characterization of obesity as an epidemic, “Such a characterization, however, has many problems: the average American weight gain has been relatively low (eight to 12 pounds over the last 20 years), and the causal linkages between adiposity, morbidity, and mortality are unclear.”
We also looked at Kathleen LeBesco‘s characterization of moral panic, as another way of understanding the social hue and cry about obesity. She writes: “Moral panics are marked by concern about an imagined threat; hostility in the form of a moral outrage toward individuals and agencies responsible for the problem; consensus that something must be done about the serious threat; disproportionality in reports of harm; and volatility in terms of the eruption of panic. “
Part of the answer is that no one–not even doctors–wants to believe it’s impossible. Certainly none of the students that day wanted to believe it. We all want to hold on to that dream.
Someday our Prince (or Princess will come)! Someday we’ll lose that 5/10/20/40/60/100 lbs!
I told the students that I sometimes looked at Oprah’s failures with a sigh of relief. If one of the richest women in the world can’t do it–with a full time personal trainer and her very own chef–what’s the hope for someone like me?
But my students were skeptical.
Maybe the women who want to lose weight but can’t aren’t trying hard enough?
Maybe, maybe we just don’t how to lose weight?
Some students had specific helpful food suggestions. Others thought maybe the women gained scale weight but last fat and they didn’t know that muscle is denser and heavier than fat.
It was one of the most fervent bouts of class participation I’ve ever experienced.
Of course, weight loss is hard work, they thought. But it’s not that hard. It’s not rocket science. It’s not brain surgery. I showed them the numbers. Their brows furrowed. Here’s hoping I got them thinking.