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Weighing In On Weight

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There has been a lot of talk about weight in the media lately. How could you not notice? There’s always talk about weight, I know, but this past week it’s been all about former supermodel Tyra Banks, her recent weight gain, and current fashion models and their skeletal bodies.

It’s everywhere. Who’s fat? Who’s thin? Who’s lost weight? Who’s put on a few extra pounds? Who cares? Obviously many do or our media outlets wouldn’t spend so much time (and therefore money) on this topic.

We are a people obsessed with weight. It doesn’t matter if we are talking about fat or thin, obesity or anorexia – we are talking about it. Not to mention spending money on it: over $30 billion a year on diet products.

It’s all about image. We don’t want to buy into it. We remind ourselves we should know better than to try to size up to the images that we see on television and in the movies and magazines, but still we do. We look at these images and then take a good look at ourselves, only to be left feeling insecure and inadequate. It’s not like I’m making this stuff up by projecting my own personal issues onto the page. By the time American girls enter into their teenage years, over 50 percent of them are not happy with their bodies. Within five years, that number grows to nearly 80 percent.

As a mother of a young girl, I am constantly reminded that a child’s mind is greatly influenced by what they see, hear, and experience. It doesn’t help that my daughter, at the mere age of four, has a collection of Barbie dolls that would rival any serious connoisseur (her grandparents’ fault) or that the bodies of every princess and female cartoon character she adores have not one ounce of fat on them (Disney’s fault). To her, these images are perfect. But what is perfect, and who got to decide that they were perfect in the first place?

Where are the images of the average person with the body type that we want our children to emulate? More importantly, what does the healthy body type even look like?

Believe it or not, Tyra Banks is a good example of someone with a healthy body type.  At 5-foot-10 and 161 pounds, using a Body Mass Index (BMI) calculation — which, while far from perfect, is the best measurement we have these days — she has a BMI of 23.3.   She is well within her healthy or "normal" weight range.  When she was perfect enough to grace the covers of magazines worldwide (a time when she has said she weighed 30 pounds less) she had a BMI of 18.8. Considering that anything below 18.6 is underweight, I'd say she was pretty darn close to being unhealthy. And that's a woman who claims that she always weighed 20 to 30 pounds more than the other supermodels.

There is nothing average about the thinness we idealize. Today’s models weigh 23 percent less than the average woman. Runway models average 16 years of age, are 5-foot-11 and weigh 120 pounds. The runway model has a BMI of 16.8. The average American 15-year-old girl on the other hand is 5-foot-3.8 and weighs 134.5 pounds. She has a BMI of 23.7. The average American girl has an ideal weight, the model does not. The average girl is healthy, yet still, she wants to be model thin.

The biggest problem I have with the most current media attention on weight is that, while there is talk about obesity and anorexia, about what constitutes being overweight, and what’s classified as an eating disorder, we hardly ever hear reports, read articles, or see images focusing on what’s “normal” or better yet, what's healthy. Instead we are bombarded by images of overweight children when being warned of the prevalence of obesity and pictures of skeletal models when being lectured on the problems of anorexia. 

We should stop focusing so much on the extremes — let the doctors and experts handle those — and start focusing instead on promoting healthy bodies, healthy living, and healthy images.

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About nicolemarie

  • Wonderfully put. This is exactly the attitude we need, and in fact this focus on the extremes actually leads TO the extremes.

    The talk about obesity causes people to restrict their food intake in puruit of the emaciated extremes. Restricted diets lead inevitably to binge eating. The cycle begins.

    Laura Collins
    author of “Eating With Your Anorexic”

  • Nancy

    We shouldn’t focus on looks at all, not just weight, for a person’s worth; but people being what they are, we all do make snap judgements based on weight, dress, skin color, etc. Studies by Goodall & others have shown that all primates living in social groups do so, so it may possibly be a hard-wired trait.

    Unfortunately in Western cultures weight has become an obsession, aided & abetted by the multibillion-dollar industries of diet programs & products, fashion, & the MSM. Indeed it is in the interests of the diet industry that women & girls NEVER lose their sense of bodily insecurity; and even now they’re working on getting men & boys to think the same way, altho that’s an uphill battle because males aren’t so easily preyed on when it comes to self-image. A fat MAN is considered to be prosperous &/or jolly & easygoing; a fat WOMAN is considered to be a slob, period. And meanwhile all the little boys look like Pugsley Addams to me: little lardy pudgeballs well on the way to becoming walking heart attacks by the time they reach voting age, thanks to McDonalds, Hardees, Kentucky Fried, and dozens of others. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the fast food industry were in cahoots with the diet industry: ‘you put it on ’em, they become anxious, & they’ll pay ME to take it off!’ Surveys have shown that since the inception of western fast-food joints’ arrival in places like India, China, Japan & other places where formerly the population was typically UNDERweight if not on target, & occurances of cardiac diseases rare, the incidence among the general population of both obesity & heart disease has mushroomed suddenly. Before WWII, the average Japanese male stood about 5′ 7 or 8 & weighed about 140 lbs or less. In fact, during WWII, the media cartoons of Japanese showed them all as scrawny, wirey little men. Today the image is directly the opposite: they’re all little sleek, plump butterballs, thanks to the postwar influx in the 60s of the US fast food chains, & the increasing taste for greasy & fatty, high-calorie quick foods instead of the traditional low-fat, low-calorie seafood/vegetable diet. Interestingly, along with the advent of fast food chains there arose simultaneously & slowly but surely the Japanese media emphasis on weight; today while still less fixated than we here in the US, the Japanese are slowly becoming just as bad, & just as enslaved to the vicious circle of eat fast food – gain weight – diet.

    IMO the various corporate industries that dine off us & our image problems are the ones responsible for them, encourage them, & nurture them at an increasingly early age, regardless of the harm involved to individuals, in the name of profit.

  • The average American 15-year-old girl on the other hand is 5-foot-8.5

    While I agree wholeheartedly with everything you say in this article, I am extremely skeptical of this statistic. 5-foot-8.5 sounds awfully tall to be the average height for a 15-year-old girl. May I ask what the source of that figure is?

  • Lisa,

    You should be skeptical, the data is wrong. Thank you for pointing this out. I should have caught the error when I was editing. The actuall average height should read 5 feet 3.8 inches. I believe that I switched around the 3.8 to 8.5 when I was typing and then used that to calculate the BMI. I will have that changed. In the mean time, the new BMI, using the correct data is 23.7. This still places the average American 15 year old in the healthy weight category.

    All the data is from the following National Center for Health Statistics document.

    Again, thanks for pointing this out. I apologize for not catching it before it was published.

  • No problem — I’ve made the changes (I’m an editor here).

    Thanks for bringing some attention to this issue — I think that our current obsession with weight is also what contributes to the alarming rate of smoking among teenage girls, who I think often use cigarettes as a means to stay thin. All in all, a very unhealthy scene.

  • I think the ideal is changing. The gal who won Miss USA was ultra-curvy. I have seen other signs…

  • Aku

    Thanks for this article. I have a little girl and wory about this all the time.

  • I am pleased to tell you this article has been chosen as one of the Culture Editor’s Picks of the Week for January 29 through February 4.

    Diana Hartman
    Culture Editor

  • Betty Catalina Rostro

    Calorie fixation, anorexia, and bulimia are often signs of autistic behavior in females. Autism, especially high functioning autism such as Asperger’s is often under diagnosed in females. Most autistic females script behavior, are quiet, emulate behaviors, and remain mostly to themselves, yet are creative, and quite visually creative in fact. It would be reasonable to conclude that a number of fashion and runway models would actually be high functioning autistics diagnosed with Aspergers. Their calorie fixation, anorexic behavior and food aversions are more likely the result of their autistic behavior. This is quite normal in autistic people.