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Gaming Your BMI Score

I'm getting settled in in my new place just west of Sydney, so the three of you who read this blog regularly may notice posting is a bit slower than usual for the next few weeks.

I the meantime, have a look at the latest installment of Ampersand's ongoing argument against the culture and industry of weight loss. The take-home message: eat healthy food, get a moderate amount of exercise, and whatever size you end up -- even if it's in the "morbidly obese" section of some BMI chart -- is a good size for you to be.

I think my interest in the anti-anti-fat position is in part due to the fact that it can be framed as one of my "favorite" fallacies in social organization -- the overreliance on a crude proxy indicator. I talk about this phenomenon most often with respect to gender. People take a (possibly) true statement about the small average differences in men and women's abilities or inclinations, and use it to justify a social system that establishes distinct roles for each and every man and woman, regardless of whether they match the averages. In the case of fat, our culture takes the presumed correlation between fatness and poor health, and proceeds to treat weight as the quintessential indicator of health (and consequently of morality). There's no room for the idea of healthy fat people or unhealthy skinny people.

It's interesting to note that this phenomenon of overreliance on a few crude indicators is a characteristic pathology of the Hierarchist way of life in Cultural Theory. Information about the activities of other parts of the hierarchy is reduced to a few summary numbers (dollars spent or bushels of cotton grown or SAT scores, etc.). These few numbers become all-important, creating an incentive to "game" them in ways that make the indicator look good without actually improving the underlying facts that the indicator is supposed to be measuring. One of the key problems in the Soviet economy -- a quintessentially Hierarchist system -- was just this sort of number-polishing. This is exactly what the weight loss obsession does -- instead of addressing the underlying issue (health) in a holistic way, it sets up a single quantity as a measure of success, and then focuses on "fixing" that indicator. So Weight Watchers is like the Princeton Review of the medical world (and I mean that as an insult).


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