Skeptical Inquirer and Fatties, Part 1

Skepticism emphasizes science and facts over mysticism. I’ve blogged about fat acceptance within skepticism here and here, and about skepticism toward medicine here. While I like a skeptical approach when examining health claims, Skeptical Inquirer magazine, a leading outlet of the skeptical community, often sides against fat acceptance, as I’ll explain below.

The first fatty item in the latest (Jan/Feb 2014) issue of Skeptical Inquirer is in the “Skeptical Inquiree” column by Benjamin Radford. (An earlier but very similar version of the article is available here.) He presents the fat acceptance point of view in an overly simplified way, it seems to me, and addresses only the weaker arguments of fat activists, stating (in the newer, print version):

. . . suggesting that the measure is a “demoralizing standard by which to judge a woman’s health” is bizarre: The BMI is not a “standard [of] health” (for men or women); it is a measure of adiposity (fatness).

If only that were true in terms of how BMI is used in the field! Many of you reading this have heard a doctor say to you, “Your overall health is good, but you should still lose weight.” Yes, BMI is used to determine how fat a person is, but what Radford doesn’t say is that many (most?) doctors then go on to conclude that the fat person must lose weight, irrespective of how healthy that person is otherwise.

And then, how should one go about losing weight, when there are no weight loss methods that work for most people (certainly not dieting)? Radford doesn’t address that.

He also says (I’m paraphrasing) that BMI is not used as a tool for the oppression of women. I think what he means to say is that BMI should not (or isn’t meant to) be used that way. There’s a difference.

He says “BMI is useful [because] many people do not notice weight gain,” then goes on to say that a weight gain of 4.5 lb (2 kg) over six months went unnoticed in a study. How can he extrapolate not noticing such a slow and small weight gain to being generally unaware of one’s own fatness? Most fatties can report that there are plenty of “helpful” people out there to let them know that they are fat.

He concludes (in both versions of the article):

Many of the BMI critics’ complaints are straw man arguments stemming from a fundamental misunderstanding of what the BMI is and what it claims to do. It is not a tool used by the patriarchic medical establishment for oppressing women, nor pressuring them to conform to impossible standards of beauty. It is instead a generally useful, accurate guide to helping average men and women determine their weight status.

Oddly enough, he and I agree on what BMI is: a tool to determine level of fatness. What we disagree on is which group of people misunderstand it: not fat activists, as he states, but doctors. Instead of writing an article about how we fatties have it all wrong, why not try to educate MDs, who really are using BMI in a “bizarre” way?

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6 thoughts on “Skeptical Inquirer and Fatties, Part 1

  1. I would also argue that since the current BMI standards result in Johnny Depp being overweight, and in Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, and virtually the entire NBA being considered obese, it’s not a very helpful tool for measuring one’s weight status, either. And since it was developed to compare relative sizes of large populations rather than determine the adipose tissue of individuals, this is hardly surprising.

    • Thanks for your comment. Actually, although I didn’t include it in my post, the column addresses that issue. He states that (a) “most of us are not professional football running backs” (sounds a bit snarky to me) and are therefore “not in categories where the BMI’s validity is skewed”; and (b) “the limitations of the BMI are well known to doctors”. Again, if only point (b) were true.

    • Thanks for your comment. We are in agreement on this, and while the Skeptical Inquirer column admits the first part of your first sentence, they minimize the effect it has in the field. Worse yet, they don’t acknowledge that the BMI categories need to be changed to be in line with the science.

  2. Pingback: Skeptical Inquirer and Fatties, Part 2 | Fatties United!

  3. Pingback: Note about the Fatosphere | Fatties United!

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