Obesity in adults is described as having a Body Mass Index or BMI of over 30, but what does that actually mean?
Healthism is the perceived belief that a person’s overall health and wellness are indicators of a person’s worth, and that health is solely determined by individual choices. This perspective turns wellness into a moral responsibility that does not account for social, systemic, or genetic factors and perpetuates stigma around chronic conditions, mental health diagnoses, and body size. Furthermore, healthism and the acceptance of ideal body types fuel issues with self-esteem, disordered eating, and body dysmorphia where a person becomes obsessed with a perceived flaw in their appearance.
Healthism is based on the concept of the ‘ideal body’ which then becomes the standard that every person is compared to despite being largely unattainable. Ideals are what we consider to be ‘perfect’, but perfection doesn’t exist.
In fact, the creation of the ideal body type in America is directly tied to anti-black racism and the beginning of fatphobia. Body size, like race, became a justification for the enslavement of Black people and many of the stereotypes that were created then still reverberate in modern times. Having a slender body was considered an indication of superiority whereas fatness became evidence of ‘savagery’ and racial inferiority. For more information check out Fearing the Black Body by Sabrina Strings.
Discriminatory Health Indicators
The current measure of body size that we use to determine a person’s overall health is largely inaccurate and misleading. Body Mass Index (BMI) is calculated using a person’s weight and height but does not account for waist size, muscle mass, bone density, body type, or genetic factors. Studies have shown that some individuals classified as ‘obese’ by BMI have lower risks of cardiovascular (heart) conditions, high cholesterol, and diabetes than previously thought.
Additionally, these studies also found that some individuals categorized as having a ‘normal BMI’ were found to be at increased risk of chronic conditions and even mortality, proving that BMI is not a good indicator of health or well-being.
Body Positivity and Body Neutrality
Since the 1960s there have been several movements for fat acceptance, including the reclaiming of the word fat by self-advocates. Body positivity was one of the early movements that sought to fight against anti-fat bias by embracing self-love and acceptance of one’s body. It involves acknowledging the beauty found in all body shapes and sizes.
However, body positivity has been co-opted by corporations who now use it as a marketing tactic to sell their products and services. Critics also note that body positivity places the responsibility of resolving fatphobia on the individual and does not address systemic anti-fat bias and discrimination.
The body neutrality movement was created as a response to the criticisms of body positivity and involves maintaining a neutral stance around one’s body. Body neutrality places focus on body function, emphasizing what each person’s body is capable of and what it does for them. It includes having neither hate nor love towards your body and just being at peace with the skin you are in. Body neutrality embraces function rather than aesthetics and what is considered beautiful or lovable.
Fat Justice and Body Liberation
Health at Every Size (HAES) is a more recent social justice movement that features support for people of all body sizes while centering those with bodies who are most likely to experience fatphobia and anti-fat bias. It acknowledges that health outcomes are influenced by many social factors known as social determinants of health and embraces a more holistic view of health. Health at every size focuses on overall health enhancement instead of weight loss and body size.
The movement for body liberation involves the intentional work of destroying oppressive structures that perpetuate fatphobia and systems that determine what bodies are viewed as worthy or desirable. It includes not only ditching harmful indicators of health like BMI but also redefining health and how we perceive overall wellness. The body liberation movement acknowledges that we must first achieve fat justice before we can achieve liberation for all bodies.
We all deserve to have medical professionals who listen to our actual concerns rather than focus on our body size. Take control of your healthcare by finding a provider near you!