Ask Siri this question: “What’s a healthy body weight?”
You’ll get countless answers, but odds are that the key words “BMI” or “Body Mass Index” are filling your screen. BMI represents the ratio of body weight to height. Medical doctors and clinicians alike often use BMI as a marker for health. In other words, varying ranges define whether a body classifies as “underweight,” “normal weight,” “overweight,” or “obese.” According to this paradigm, using BMI as a tool to measure health follows a J-shaped curve where increased disease risk falls on both ends of the spectrum (underweight and obese).
Though it’s a common tool, BMI as a measure of one’s physical health is misleading and inaccurate.1 This is because BMI doesn’t take into account body composition.
What is body composition?
Body weight, as a measured number, encompasses a spectrum of components including the weights of:
- Muscle mass,
- Body fat,
- Organs, and
So when reading that number on the bathroom scale, you’re actually reading a number that represents multiple components (both controllable and uncontrollable) of body composition. BMI does not factor the physical weights and physiological roles of each of these elements.
Let’s break it down further. Since we have no control over the weight of our bones and organs, we’ll focus on the three (somewhat) controllable constituents of body weight: muscle, fat, and water. Water is the body’s most basic medium needed for all biological reactions and makes up to 60% of the human body. You’ve heard it before, but let me repeat it: hydration is essential to health.
This leaves us to discuss the dynamic duo fueling diet culture: muscle and fat. Diet culture conditions us to believe that building muscle and losing fat are the most prominent goals for achieving health. In our fat-phobic culture however, we forget about the important roles that fat upholds in the body. From hormonal regulation and reproduction to the health of our brain, bones, and even skin, body fat is a key player alongside muscle mass. Lastly, diet culture often ignores the simple fact that muscle weighs more than fat and when you engage in strength training activity (like dancing), your body weight is naturally higher.
In our fat-phobic culture however, we forget about the important roles that fat upholds in the body
Without measuring body weight, how can we objectively define health? For starters, focusing on changing body weight is not the answer.
A healthy body weight is one that can be maintained without constant dieting or without restricted food intake. A healthy body weight is a weight that can be accepted by YOU. Yes, YOU are in charge of your body and therefore, YOU need to feel good in your body. When we allow cultural norms to define our individual ideal body shape or weight, we risk the weight (pun intended) of body dissatisfaction.
A healthy body weight is one that can be maintained without constant dieting or without restricted food intake.
At this point, I usually hear, “…easy for you to say Rachel, you’re thin…”
I cannot deny that, by society’s standards, I am thin. I am aware that I experience thin privilege as a result of my body type – by bearing a close-in-size resemblance to most of the media’s depictions of “wellness.” Yes, it is arguably easier for me to move through the world than for someone whose body type is not as celebrated by the mainstream. I do not know how it feels to live in a bigger body, and I do not know how it feels to be on the outside of diet culture’s social standard that unfortunately glorifies thinness. I will be the first to say that I do not know how it feels to walk into a store that doesn’t carry my size, and although body shaming happens to all types of bodies, including us “thin” folk, I by no means equate the shaming that I feel on the same level as the systemic, fat-phobic, and epidemic of shame placed on larger bodies.
That said, I know how it feels to be judged about my body type and ironically, I get targeted because I happen to write about the power of food freedom and intuitive eating. I am passionate about my platform’s messages around eating, and to be judged about the way my body responds to food feels unfair because my body type is out of my control. I recognize that being shamed for being thin holds a different social stigma than being shamed for having a larger body, and again, I don’t claim to understand that experience first-hand; but despite my size, I know how it feels to live life with a chronic dissatisfaction over my body and, more often than not, I still have days when I don’t feel good in my skin. Years of restricted food intake, years of over-exercising, and years of self-imposed “rules” did not feel like a privilege to me. They did, however, inspire me to find another way to view food, and those difficult years fueled my passion for my life’s work.
Years of restricted food intake, years of over-exercising, years of self-imposed “rules,” did not feel like a privilege.
Body dysmorphia is the preoccupation with body appearance and particularly refers to one’s dissatisfaction over a physical ailment that others cannot necessarily see.2 Though not entirely understood, body dysmorphia may stem psychologically alongside other mental health disorders such as anxiety. Body dysmorphia can also manifest environmentally, such as from a childhood inundated with excessive criticism about body types. Dancers often begin to train as young as six years old and therefore, are particularly vulnerable to the ostracizing messages surrounding body weight and body shape.
No matter your body weight or your body shape, body self-acceptance is hard when drenched in a culture that glorifies any one type of ideal weight. For dancers, the emphasis on thinness is exacerbated due to antiquated philosophies surrounding an “ideal dancer’s body.”
As a dietitian, I cannot tell a student to simply accept his or her body weight, shape, or size. Body self-acceptance doesn’t just happen overnight. What I can do however is help to dismantle the exhaustive lifestyle of body dissatisfaction. Upholding to a routine set forth to achieve an unrealistic lower body weight comes with MANY sacrifices! The biological and psychological costs of an energy deficit (such as that from dieting and/or over exercising) are vast. Maintaining a body weight that is lower than your body’s natural set point weightfights basic biology and therefore, is unsustainable.
FYI- set point weight is your body’s natural weight, which is controlled biologically and pre-determined genetically.3 The theory states that when the body’s fat stores are reduced to a size below one’s individual set point, the body attempts to restore its fat reserves to normal volume. In other words, when you follow a restrictive mindset, your body fights back.
When you follow a restrictive mindset, your body fights back.
In regards to low calorie dieting, we’re wired to resist unrealistic and extreme weight loss. We saw this a few years back, when contestants from The Biggest Loser proved the inability to maintain extreme weight loss long term. Despite our overabundant food supply, our body doesn’t know that food is (literally) available 24/7. Instead, we are equipped to survive famine, which is the biggest threat to survival. The body stores energy when it’s under-fueled (such as with low calorie dieting) and prioritizes its most basic metabolic functions. In doing so, hormonal shifts “mute” secondary processes (like reproduction) further impairing hormones like estrogen and testosterone (both of which play a role is bone health, among others).4,5
So how can we, as a society, redefine health? And how can we, as individuals, maintain a healthy mindset?
Encourage a Balanced Lifestyle
The mental and emotional aspects of health should be prioritized alongside physical health. Rather than using food as a tool to control body weight, enjoy food as an experience. Remember, the number on the scale is obsolete given the varying weights of body composition. Achieving a specific body weight will not be the answer to the mystical world we so often label as “wellness.” If you need help, a licensed Registered Dietitian Nutritionist is your best source for advice.
Strengthen Body Self-Confidence
Internal validation (self-confidence) helps us access full expression within our art and daily lives. First, set aside body weight and focus on food freedom. Discover the psychological freedom of a non-restrictive lifestyle. Realize that the pros of maintaining a healthy (set point) weight outweigh the consequences of striving for a lower controlled weight.
Small Steps Lead to Big Changes
The dance world is a concentrated version of our weight-obsessed culture. Movements like HAES® are working to change the industry, which is unfortunately deep-rooted in body aesthetics. Encouraging dancers to follow non-restrictive lifestyles that promote their set point weight, no matter the number, is the goal. Most importantly, dance and performance should never be denied to anyone; movement is a universal language that has room for all shapes, sizes, religions, ethnicities, ages, EVERYONE. Remember, “normal weight” doesn’t exist. Everyone is subject to body criticism and it’s our job to rewrite the script. For dancers, this means shifting the focus away from body and rather on to artistry.
- Rothman KJ. BMI-related errors in the measurement of obesity.Int J Obes (Lond). 2008 Aug;32 Suppl 3:S56-9.
- Schwartz MW. Brain pathways controlling food intake and body weight. Exp Biol Med (Maywood). 2001 Dec;226(11):978-81.
- Vanderschueren D, Vandenput L, Boonen S, et al. Androgens and bone. Endocr Rev 2004;25:389–425.
- Loucks AB, Heath EM. Induction of low-T3 syndrome in exercising women occurs at a threshold of energy availability. Am J Physiol 1994;266(3 Pt 2):R817–23.