“The Act With Love art collective collaborated with illustrator Jade Sarson (winner of Myriad Editions First Graphic Novel competition with For the Love of God, Marie!) to visualise the research of Oli Williams (Department of Health Sciences). Their comic tells the story of how stigma associated with bodyweight and size gets under the skin and is felt in the flesh. ”
I loved the section of the comic with the women in the pool. You get to see both their happiness at moving in the water and the anger of the lifeguards at their size. Stay in the slow lane and they are lazy fatties, not moving enough. Move to the fast lane and they are splashing too much and taking up space. Fat people just can’t win.
The news made the rounds of the health at every size (HAES) contacts I have in my social networks. I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that Weight Watchers was offering free six-week memberships to 13 year olds, and yet I was.
Shortly after that, I learned the makers of FitBit were launching a fitness tracker for children. According to TechCrunch, the makers of FitBit are targetting the eight- to 13-year-old market because as the Telegraph noted, we need to do something about getting “couch potato kids” off the couch and into the gym.
Because child obesity y’all. (Insert eye roll here.)
I’ll admit I’ve been on diets, and I also have used a FitBit (see this post for how I use mine). I went on my first diet with WW when I was 14 and I needed my mom to sign for me. I can’t say it was a success because despite an endless variety of diet plans, I have continued to be my own fun-sized self and not the one society said I should be.
I stopped dieting when I reached my 40s. I read the literature, I looked at the research, and I considered the methodology of the studies. These days I try to eat most of my fruits and veggies every day, be moderate about my meat consumption, and add more whole grains, beans, pulses, and fish to my plate.
I still eat chocolate, potato chips and ice cream treats on occasion, but I am more mindful about my daily choices. And when I really, really want the chocolate bar, I go for the good stuff and thoroughly enjoy it.
Diets are all about deprivation, regardless of how they are marketed. And they don’t work. The problem with marketing to teens, especially teen girls, is they already have a decade of misdirection on what a female body is supposed to look like behind them. All those messages have been accumulating and Weight Watchers is stepping up to take advantage of the anxiety-fertilized soil to grow their market.
Ultimately, the only thing the plan will do is teach girls deprivation is the norm, their bodies at 13 are unacceptable, and it is on them to change their bodies rather than society change its expectations for the form expected for women.
At first blush, there shouldn’t really be an issue with creating a tool for kids. However, there are many people who see the number of steps reached as tacit permission to indulge. Weight Watchers for awhile had an exercise component that allowed users to collect food points through exercise and then spend them on either more, or fun type foods.
Many of these exercise tools track not only steps or other types of activities but also calories and weight. If you want off the diet train and onto the gym track, it can be very hard to find a gadget or tool that doesn’t link weight and fitness. In fact, it is one of the reasons I and my trainer make a point to track personal records that are strength based instead of scale based.
Whatever your size, age and body type, we are, at least in North America, a more sedentary society. Television, junk foods and in house gaming systems are factors in the higher weights we are seeing. But the problem with marketing fitness gadgets to kids is that after awhile the appeal is going to fade. While gamification of anything works effectively in the short term for setting goals, once kids and youth get where they want to be, there isn’t a point to doing it anymore and it stops being fun.
A co-blogger on this site shared with me some thoughts she and her sister had about the Fitbit and they echo mine: “My experience with fitbits with grown ups is they don’t understand the correlation between steps and food so it almost gives them more ‘permission’ to eat that piece of cake or whatever. I only know two people who use it in the way it was designed (make sure I get in my steps to stay fit) and they are both people who would be fit anyway. For kids, it’s a good awareness raiser and a ‘game’ but if it becomes the gadget it kind of loses its function.”
My co-blogger’s sister also made an important point that links to unpacking, resisting, or creating a new culture around fitness: “Fitness especially in kids comes from values, habits, home discussions, role modelling, fun activities, and doing things that don’t seem like fitness to the kid.”
Doing things that don’t seem like fitness are often more fun when you don’t have the “must” factor. Even I think it is more useful to say to myself: “It’s a gorgeous day out — let’s go for a walk!” instead of “I need to get 2500 more steps in to meet my time for today’s fitness.”
While I think the offer from WW for 13-year-olds is more problematic than FitBit’s plan to extend its market share by focusing on kids, I do believe we need to think carefully about how we look to change the behaviour of children when it comes to eating and moving.
Because in some respects is not how we change the behaviour, but why we feel it is necessary in the first place.
— Martha enjoys getting her fit on with powerlifting, swimming, and trail walking.
The exercise pill is in the news again. We’ve talked about before (here and here), as has Fit and Feminist (here). The pill made the headlines again this week because of new experimental results that the drug allowed mice to run on a treadmill for 270 minutes before exhaustion set in (compared with 160 minutes for untreated mice).
Here’s a quick explanation of the experimental drug from The Guardian:
Scientists led by Ronald Evans at the Salk Institute in San Diego made the discovery after they set out to explore what endurance meant on the molecular level. “If we really understand the science, can we replace training with a drug?” he said.
They turned to a drug known as GW501516 which had previously been shown to improve stamina and burn fat faster. Through a series of tests with mice on treadmills, Evans found that the drug changed the activity of nearly 1000 genes. Many of the genes that became more active were involved in the breakdown and burning of fat. But other genes were suppressed, including some that convert sugar into energy.
The result is a pill that reproduces some of the effects of endurance training, with some other downstream effects, such as less weight gain and better control of blood sugar levels.
I listened to a discussion of the new results on CBC’s The Currentthis morning. The conversation inevitably turned to a discussion of who might benefit from the drug – athletes, folks with limited mobility who aren’t able to do endurance exercises, couch potatoes. At that point, the interlocutors chuckled at the notion of someone who could exercise taking a drug instead. LOL. Just imagine being such a couch potato that you would take an exercise pill!
That got me thinking about the ways in which we moralize health and fitness. I’ll be honest. I’m pretty sedentary these days, owing to advancing arthritis, injuries, and an out-of-control work schedule. (Really, I’m more of a desk potato than a couch potato.) And I feel guilty about that, as if it’s some kind of moral failing not to work out.
As I listened to The Current, I found myself both thinking that it would be great if I could take a pill and thereby acquire some of the benefits of endurance training, and feeling guilty for wanting to take a “short cut.” What the heck? Exercising is fun, and can support good health. But surely it’s not a moral duty.
I mean, we’re not opposed to short cuts in other domains: we take them when we’re driving, and we adopt tons of conveniences to make our lives easier (pre-fab food, dishwashers, motorized lawn mowers…). So, it can’t be the very notion of taking a short cut that prompts my feeling of shame when I think about how great an exercise pill would be. If there is a moral tinge to the notion of an exercise pill, that element must come not from the short cut part but from the exercise part.
But what makes exercise a moral obligation? Plausibly, the moral valence that we seem to attach to exercise and fitness is an side-effect of fatphobia. (Sam talks about similar stuff here.) Regular readers of this blog are well aware of the ubiquity of fat-shaming. When folks are pressed on their fat-shaming (and sometimes even when they’re not), they associate being fat with being lazy and therefore not exercising. Of course, no one makes corresponding judgments about skinny people who don’t exercise. They’re not lazy; they’re just lucky. This is pretty similar to the way in which a fat person with a milkshake is mocked (a standard trope on social media, alas) but a skinny person with a milkshake is celebrated for not being obsessed with dieting.
I don’t know if the exercise pill will ever make it to market, whether it will be safe, and whether it will be affordable. But I’m going to declare here and now that if there is ever a legal, safe, affordable exercise pill, I’m not going to let internalized fatphobia and accompanying moral double standards cloud my judgment about whether the pill is right for me. And neither should you.
Shannon Dea is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies at the University of Waterloo. Her research areas include (among other things) the metaphysics of sex and gender, and applied issues related to sex and gender. Before she became a desk potato, she was an avid runner.
They’re now marketing to children, offering free classes with parent’s permission. See here.
Rebecca Scritchfield writes,
“Weight Watchers this week announced its plans to offer free six-week memberships to kids as young as 13, beginning this summer. The company’s move is part of a bigger plan to grow revenue and a loyal customer base for life. (Start ’em young, right?) As a health professional and mother, I am appalled. With celebrity names such as Oprah Winfrey, who is on the board of directors, and DJ Khaled, the latest spokesperson for Weight Watchers, the company is on track to exert powerful influence on people far and wide. Kids will undoubtedly pay a heavy price for this “free” membership, in the form of body shame. It will not only affect those who participate, but also every other teen who is exposed to the message that some bodies are “problems,” and if you’re at a higher weight, your body needs to be fixed. Thus, kids of all sizes will have something to fear.”
There are many problems with this plan but even if you just care about weight, it’s a disaster.
Study after study shows that early dieting is a huge predictor of weight gain.
I’m one of those kids who joined Weight Watchers and attended with my parents’ permission. I’m not sure if and how that contributed to future weight gain but I do know that I wasn’t really that chubby when I started.
I also know it made me think of myself as someone whose weight, whose body, was a problem to be solved. Best tackle it while you’re young, people would say.
It did start the habit of dieting that persisted through my teens and twenties.
What do you think of Weight Watchers, diets, and weekly weigh ins for children?
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.