Beyond BMI: Why Black Women Need Fairer Measures of Health

November 21, 2011  |  

My coworker came into the office noticeably flustered after visiting her primary care physician one day. It didn’t take much to pry what was wrong out of her — the doctor had warned her that she was in danger of becoming obese and she was outraged. The Miami-Cuban accent that came out of her was priceless as she told us how she explained to the doctor that while she had gained a bit of weight, she was still 30 pounds away from falling into the obese category and certainly didn’t appreciate his insinuation.

Being Latina, my coworker deals with many of the same body issues as black women — full thighs, wider hips, bigger butts, pudgier waists — and pressures to tone what genetics has already dictated as irreversibly thick. I’m sure the doctor’s intention was to prevent my coworker from having weight-related complications down the line, but his words had just the opposite effect. The way she saw things, if at her current weight she was almost obese, there was no way she could ever get down to an acceptably healthy size — and therefore she wouldn’t try. I think the same type of thinking rings true for many black women as well.

When you consider it, the concepts of overweight, obese, and morbidly obese are arbitrary, taking into account nothing more than height, weight, and age. These measurements have been standardized into something called the body mass index, and it is a dubious tool with deleterious effects. Documentary filmmaker Darryl Roberts (who happens to be an African-American) attacks the validity of these notions in his latest project, “America the Beautiful 2: The Thin Commandments.” The film is a follow-up to his first award-winning documentary, which centered on the oppressive aspects of beauty in our culture such as rampant plastic surgery. In part two, he addresses dieting.

In an interview with CNN, Roberts explains that the original intention of the body mass index (BMI) was to show the average sizes of populations, not diagnose health or establish someone’s ideal weight. He adds that the current use of BMI to predict health didn’t come into play until the 1970s. When the government obliged Weight Watchers’ request to lower the BMI range for those considered overweight in 1998, the dieting powerhouse suddenly had a slew of new customers. Basically, a lot of people became “overweight” over night.

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