Weight over health- we have it backwards

I was refreshingly surprised when I saw this AP news article last night: Worry over weight: Poll finds health disconnect. It summarized what I've realized since the days of the Big Fat Loser contest over a year and a half ago now, that women say they're trying to lose weight for health reasons, but it's really all about appearance.

There's a big disconnect between body image and true physical condition, an Associated Press-iVillage poll suggests. A lot of women say they're dieting despite somehow avoiding healthy fruits and veggies. Many others think they're fat when they're not.

"The priorities are flipped," says Dr. Molly Poag, chief of psychiatry at New York's Lennox Hill Hospital.

She points to women athletes as much better role models than supermodels: "There's an undervaluing of physical fitness and an overvaluing of absolute weight and appearance for women in our culture."

Half don't like their weight, even 26 percent of those whose body mass index or BMI — a measure of weight for height — is in the normal range. But just a third don't like their physical condition, even though being overweight and sedentary are big risk factors for Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and other ailments.

The poll found women putting in a median of 80 minutes of exercise a week, meaning half do even less. The average adult is supposed to get 2 1/2 hours of exercise a week for good health.

And just 8 percent of women ate the minimum recommended servings of fruits and vegetables — five a day. A staggering 28 percent admit they get that recommended serving once a week or less.

The ladies I worked with (and most dieters I've talked to) might say they want to lower their cholesterol or blood pressure, but what they use for "thinspiration" isn't an image of an unclogged artery or a blood pressure reading of 120/80. They look at models, those size 8 pants, that skinny chick who works in the cubicle down the hall. Commercials are now telling us to "get in shape for summer" because it's "bathing suit season!" The "get in shape" message is really in the name of looking hot in a bikini.

Eating disorders aside, normal-skinny doesn't automatically mean healthy, stresses University of Houston sociologist Samantha Kwan, who studies gender and body image.

"Someone who is fat or even overweight can be healthy if they have a balanced diet and are physically active," Kwan says. "Our culture really does put a lot of pressure on women to look a certain way," taking precedence over health measures.

If we really want to focus on health, maybe we should take weight loss out of the equation.

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Sarah said...


Great post. I completely agree with you that it's refreshing that women are being honest about their motivation for their diet/exercise habits.

Something I am struggling to understand about myself right now is that I am the healthiest I have been in 4-5 years, primarily BECAUSE I am eating my daily dose of fat and NOT compulsively exercising, BECAUSE I have curves, breasts, hips, and muscles instead of bones. Those are the things that make me HEALTHY, not unhealthy, despite what our culture may convey.

My body midway through recovery was what I see in magazines and on TV; it was when I got the most compliments for my body and when fashionable clothes looked the best. But that wasn't healthy, and health is a better goal than simply fitting into some people's idea of beauty. I try so hard to remember that even if I look "bigger" than some of my friends now, I am unequivocally healthier--if you looked at my lungs, they are healthier because I am not smoking to stay thin; if you looked at my heart, it is used to more exercise than theirs because I actually make the time and have the energy to do it; and even though I eat more volume of food, it's healthier than skipping meals and saving calories for alcohol like they do. This is how my body looks when I am practicing the best set of habits I've had in years. Hence, this is what I need to get used to because health is what I value above vanity.

Thanks for this post; I wish we could scream this message even louder. Health is important--and beautiful, and I wish we could all recognize that!

Miss Keira said...

I don't set weight goals anymore, or even size goals. I think the one I'm working on now is getting up the killer hill from uni without dying (figuratively)...

Don't get me started on the bikini diets -thank goodness its winter here. What good is it fitting into a size 6-8 bikini if you don't have the strength/energy to strut along the beach in it ;)

Anonymous said...

I have mixed reactions to this, because really, "health" is often a euphemism for "weight control" even when coming from authoratative sources such as our doctors. "Health" of course can have many meanings: absence of illness is a good one. Eating "right" is not.

As for female athletes, I have a new pet peeve- what is it with all these ads for LOW CALORIE energy drinks such as Gatorade "G", targeted to athletes and using athletes to advertise? First of all, "low calorie" isn't going to provide any energy... because CALORIES are energy. Don't people see that? Are they really suggesting that Kevin Garnet should be drinking a LOW CALORIE beverage while resting on the bench in a 60 minute professional basketball game? Point being, even athletes are susceptible, or they would be if the diet establishment had its way.

Carrie Arnold said...


You're right- there's the idea that you can't be healthy unless you're in a narrowly defined spectrum of body weights. I'm not saying that weight is completely irrelevant to health, but that it's not the whole story. We need to stop using weight as a proxy for health.

Anonymous said...

Maybe people like to look at weight because it is a quantitative measure of progress? And I think even people without ED's like to see progress -- and dropping clothing sizes is definately noticeable for most people -- whereas dropping cholesteral, high blood pressure, etc, isn't going to attract comments. The person may not even notice and I think in this society we like instant and tangible gratification. It's unfortunate because you are correct.

A :)

Lissy said...

the trainer of the big fat loser winner was on the today show this morning. she, jillian michaels, was talking about how we need to stay away from "fat talk", putting our bodies down, etc. huh? isn't she the one yelling and screaming at people (nastily, i think) to lose weight?

all the confusing standards and mixed messages and weights and measures overwhelm me.

no wonder so many of us can't leave our bodies alone.

Carrie Arnold said...


I think there's a LOT of truth to what you are saying. Part of the focus on weight=health is because it's an easy measure to get and you're right- people do want to see results.


Oh, the irony! I love it!

Anonymous said...

wow. so true. my work is doing a "biggest loser" challenge right now and even though they're trying to emphasize getting HEALTHY not just skinny (mostly cause a couple of us spoke up), they still are giving prizes to the people who lose the most poundage at the end. it's hard not to get triggered (2.5 months into recovery) into thinking that really is the goal in that atmosphere.

Carrie Arnold said...


Go back to my archives and read in Jan 2006. Same thing at my work. The whole "it's about health" thing is bullshit. Sorry, but it is.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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