At the start of last year, I decided to better myself. I resolved to study more, interact more with student organizations, and most importantly, lose weight. After all, during the first year of university, I had gained a significant amount of weight, as many students do. But while I have succeeded in my first two goals, weight loss has admittedly been a failure. Between the social isolation caused by COVID-19 and my bad habit of stress-eating, I think I have come to understand how Sisyphus felt, struggling to push the boulder up the mountain. In retrospect, the task I gave myself looks somewhat absurd now, as COVID-19 is simultaneously a stressor and a cap on outdoor exercise. Still, from WebMD to The New York Times, multiple sites are strangely focussed on tackling weight loss during this pandemic. This emphasis on weight during an unprecedented point in global history is fundamentally misguided and shows how much society overemphasizes weight as an aspect of health.
Society has not always prioritized weight as a determination of health. The body mass index (BMI), a common measurement that determines obesity using a table of height and weight, is a relatively modern concept. The creator of said index, Belgian mathematician and statistician Adolphe Quetelet, developed it in the mid-1800s simply as a formula to link weight and height. Moreover, it was not popularized until the early 1970s, when it was proposed as the best formula relating those two values.
There are a plethora of issues associated with BMI. Because BMI as a model came from data taken from Belgians, it does not apply to all people equally and is Eurocentric in nature. The original index misrepresents most ethnicities. Furthermore, it is most useful when studying populations as opposed to individuals, as it does not distinguish between fat and muscle. Despite this, many doctors still use BMI as a measure of individual obesity. More disturbingly, the vast majority of funding for obesity research goes towards genetic studies, which echo eugenics instead of focussing efforts on human behaviour.
Society overemphasizes weight’s role in health culturally as well. The fat acceptance and body positivity movement has some reasonable arguments regarding how weight is viewed in the West. Advocates believe that the perception that overweight people are laughingstocks or even pitiable has led to a social stigma against them, one that can lead to psychological problems such as eating disorders (EDs) as a result of self-loathing. A markedly feminist critique also calls out diet culture’s role on Western women, which idealizes a Eurocentric, perfect body that is not attainable for most. Though not without its critics, who view it as promoting a dangerous lifestyle choice, the movement brings to light several problems with how Western society regards weight and weight loss.
For example, while ED rates have increased in non-Western, developed countries in recent years, Western countries still have higher rates overall. Likewise, a comparison of EDs along gendered lines shows that EDs are far more prevalent in women, indicating that the cultural link is quite possibly present. Thus, while it is fair to criticize a small niche of the body positivity movement if they seek to normalize obesity due to the health problems that can accompany it, it is unfair to dismiss all of the points they wish to make.
While focussing on weight loss, as in my case, is nothing to be ashamed of, there is also nothing wrong or shameful about your body changing during what is sure to be an extremely trying period in the lives of many. In a time of great stress, there is something to be said for taking a step back and being more lenient on oneself. I, for one, am happy to stop rolling the boulder for now in order to wait for the burden to shrink to a more manageable size.