This picture was posted on Dailymile.com today.
The picture drew a lot of attention. Several people did a virtual gulp and said they were heading out for a run RIGHT NOW. Others responded with skepticism, which led to a dialogue about healthy weight and perception:
“…The fat around the heart on the left is scary. Yikes!”
“You can even see how the ankles are not aligned (guessing) due to the fat on the inner thighs. They’ve obviously eaten a lot as well due to the big dark spots.”
“holy crap. is this a woman? is anyone actually 120 pounds? i am a slim girl and i still weigh 140. i’m a skeptic of this pic, but i like the message.”
“Unless she’s a really short chick, she can’t possibly weigh 120. People I know who weigh 120 are skeletons.”
“I’m 5’6 and weighed in at 118 this morning. The only person who says I’m too thin is my Mom. Everyone else says I have healthy BMI and great muscle composition on my frame. I don’t have big hips… any extra weight sits around my waist like an inner-tube.”
“I’m 5’4 and I look very healthy and fit at 115-120! I’ve gained weight and I’m now hovering at 127 and I look a little chubby, I can grab some fat on the waist and have a little muffin top going on now when I put on my jeans. I have a very tiny frame and a 5lb weight gain will show up like a 10 lb weight gain! New Year resolution, drop the 7 lbs and return to my normal 120.”
“wouldn’t mind dropping the last few pounds of fat, but I may need them for marathoning. Back up stores.”
“that visceral fat is scary. so is what the load is doing to joint alignment.”
Women started talking about what a “healthy” weight is. The ones who weigh more than 120 lbs scoffed at the idea that a woman can be healthy at 120. Women in the 120-lb range talked about feeling like they were the right size. Strangely, men were silent about the issue save one who iterated “You’d be surprised by what 120lb could look like in the right package.”
Even among athletes, weight and perception is an issue. Media would have us believe that wearing a size 0 is acceptable, but the Daily Mile conversation thread makes me doubt that any intelligent person believes this nonsense. And yet, if a weight is different (read: lower) than that attained by a self-proclaimed “healthy person”, anyone else is perceived to be unhealthy. End of story.
So, this dialogue is really about perception and judgment.
I had a conversation with a friend yesterday morning. She had just received 2-page email rant from her mom who had returned home after visiting for the Christmas holiday. The mom said my friend is unhealthy and anorexic, and is trying to melt away. My friend is 5’5 and weighs about 112 lbs. She is incredibly strong and can run 18 miles, bike 50 miles or tele-ski double black diamonds any day of the week. She eats about 2000 calories a day and has the tiny waist and robust hips that I always wished for. She’s not going to melt away, has a healthy relationship with food, men and her sexuality, menstruates regularly and embraces life each and every day. She’s healthy.
Her entire family is at least 20-50 pounds overweight. Her mom and sister both participate in “emotional eating”, which has contributed to their weight gain and subsequent losing battle to take off the pounds. Her mom perceives that because she does not fit the family profile she’s anorexic and unhealthy even though my friend is strong as an ox and has a BMI at the lower end of the healthy range. And therein lies the judgment based on perception.
Who is to say? Who’s right? For the vast majority of people who don’t have actual eating disorders, aren’t healthy and unhealthy weight and both perceptions? The woman who weighs 140 pounds and says she is at a healthy weight can be just as right as a woman of the same height who is 20 pounds lighter. The bone density might be different, the muscle mass might be different, there might be a different genetic composition happening… there are so many factors to consider that height and weight can’t possibly tell a complete story.
During marathon training I got online and messed around with a few calculators to try to figure out my “ideal” caloric intake and get a Body Mass Index reading of myself. Based on my height (5’6) and approximate weight (120 lb) I burn about 92 calories per hour during a training run. When inputting the marathon distance, the calculator said I’m burning approximately 2300 calories, give or take a few based on speed or exertion over a hill.
The on-line BMI calculator made me laugh out loud. The directions said to input my gender, height and weight, then take a measuring tape and measure the smallest part of the waist and then the largest part of the hips. I did both, and the results were astonishing. According to the calculation, I had about 30% body fat and was clinically obese.
Obviously I didn’t pay any attention to that calculation. I am not obese, either hypothetically or clinically. I have a thin frame, small breasts from breast-feeding my kids, and a waist and hips more suited to a boy. Recently I received a scale that calculates BMI based on a low electrical impulse that’s sent up through the soles of your feet. According to the scale, I have a BMI in the neighborhood of 13-14%. That’s a lot more accurate, and I’ll stick with it.
About a month ago I put on a favorite pair of corduroy pants. I wore them for about an hour before taking them off again; the thighs were too tight! I got a kick out of the fact that my body muscle mass has changed since I started training for the marathon. I still wear corduroy’s, but they all have that stretchy material in them to fit over my athlete’s legs.
Over the holidays I went to a gathering and saw someone that I haven’t seen since before marathon training began. She took one look at me, put her arm around my shoulder and quietly asked if I’m eating enough. I took her concern seriously, but told her that I actually never lost a single pound through the training process, and in fact gained muscle mass. I’m healthier now than I was this summer when I saw her last.
I’ve learned that there are slightly different BMI and weight standards for athletic people versus the average adult. Athletes have lower BMI, consume more calories per day, drink more water and often sleep longer. Their nutritional needs are different too; an athlete (defined as anyone doing more than 10 hours of athletic work per week) needs 60% carbs in their diet as opposed to a regular person, who needs about 30% (I found this out the hard way during marathon training; my protein-rich diet meant that I had almost zero glycogen stores for long runs).
Open dialogue about the topic of weight, health, muscle mass and activity level is essential for airing concerns about excessive exercise and the like. It’s good to check in with people now and again, and maybe even broach the question with a nutritionist, chiropractor or doctor. But this blatant judgment about weight based solely on height and how one’s own body looks has so many flaws in it. A woman running 10 miles per week will have a different BMI than a woman of the same height and weight who runs 50 miles per week. On the topic of health, weight shouldn’t be the end of the conversation, merely the beginning.