What does fat or obese really mean?

Ashley has expressed concern that, in the process of fighting fat-hate, there could be sneering at the skinny. This would, of course, be wrong. Women are, as Fokkerites KarenB and Becky noted, fabulous and beautiful in many different forms.  But it is undeniable that only ONE form of beauty is considered beautiful in our culture, and that makes all women vulnerable. I, personally, have yet to meet a woman who didn’t want to be at least a “little thinner” or it’s colliery, “more toned/buff”.  The media has restlessly drilled subtle messages into people’s skulls that ONLY thin is beautiful, and the uber-thin white woman is the ideal.

What does it say when even the ideal women must be photoshopped to look even thinner? How will women ever, ever be thin enough?

That’s why I use the terms fat/obesity interchangeably; people who are merely overweight often consider themselves fat. I also prefer the word fat, since obese carries a negative health connotation that is complete bullshit in a lot of cases.

Obesity is a defective term and the obesity ‘epidemic’ is artificially constructed. In actuality people are not as fat as statistics make it seem. Some good information in Health at Every Size by Dr. Linda Bacon (p.140-155) is that the shift in the percentage of Americans considered obese (23% in 1991 and now at 30%) is really a difference of an average increase of 7-10 lbs since 1991.  In 1998 the NIH changed lowered the BMI scores that would be normal, overweight, or obese. 29 million Americans became overweight once the numbers changed, even though there was no clinical reason to change the figures. However 7 out of 9 people on the committee worked for or owned weight loss companies. Motive much?

Moreover, the obesity rates for women have leveled off since 1999 and men have been the same percentage since 2003, so the epidemic isn’t even “growing” anymore!

If obese is going to be used as a health term, then actual scientific data doesn’t correlate fat with poor-health until a BMI of 40, so that’s where obese should start. However, thanks to the NIH shift, you are obese with at BMI of 30 or more. That 10 points is a LOT of weight difference.

For example, a person who is 5’5″ who weighs 180 has a BMI of 30 according to the NIH. That means they are obese with all the scary things that implies. They need to lose weight “for their health” … not so they can look hotter by cultural standers, right? Har. Yet to have a BMI of 40, where the real health correlation starts, you need to be 5’5″ with a weight of 240. That’s a difference of 60 lbs between ascribed and ‘real’ obesity! I wonder if they would have as many people lined up at Weight Watchers if people knew that weighing 200 pounds was only dangerous to their social life? Would there be more fat activists if the nay-sayers didn’t have the standard “it’s for their health!” as an excuse for discrimination and condemnation?

It does make one wonder.

About Betty Fokker

I'm a stay-at-home feminist mom.
This entry was posted in fat hating, Feminism, I've been thinking too much, shit I think y'all should know. Bookmark the permalink.

46 Responses to What does fat or obese really mean?

  1. Fokker, amen!! I hate this BMI bullshit! I’m heading to the Kindle store right now to purchase a digital copy (if available) of Health at Every Size. Right before I kick some treadmill butt and possibly have some bacon and chocolate after that!

  2. Ashley says:

    When I mentioned the “fabulous looking” comment, I didn’t really have weight in mind as much as I did with the overal photoshopped image which is often not just making a model appear thinner, but also with smoother and clearer skin with no blemishes or appearance any of physical blemishes, lines, wrinkles, etc. . But either way, I shouldn’t have worded it like that because I also agree that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes. I think I was more thinking about what society deems as good looking.

    • londonmabel says:

      What’s actually even funnier about the other things they photoshop out, is that’s where the real alienation takes place. Because while there are some women (like yourself) who are as thin as the photoshopped images, there probably aren’t any women on the planet Earth who don’t have, say, pores. ;-)

  3. Kate George says:

    Yes, indeed, it makes me wonder too.

  4. Annie says:

    SERIOUSLY loving your blog! I didn’t know half the stuff you post…oh all right I didn’t know any of it. :P Makes me feel better about chasing after a “healthy weight’ for myself instead of a number (which, even at the manufactured “ideal” for my height is still ten pounds under where I feel good)

  5. Um, thank you…thank you, and while I’m at it, thank you. I spend a lot of time confused about this, since by societal standards and the BMI, I am considered morbidly obese. And in the midsection, I am fluffier than I would like to be (thanks be to my 8 yo son and 4 yo daughter and I would rather be fluffy with them here than skinny with them not), and I am carrying around a set of what I heard once described on the show Scrubs as “bangin double Ds.” Didn’t pay for them, they’re just there and my husband absolutely adores them. Here is the catch that most of society would not guess by simply looking at me or be able to figure if someone just gave them my measurements: I work out on average about 6 days a week. I do zumba at least 3-4 times a week (sometimes more than once a day), I do a strength and conditioning class twice a week (it was called Strictly Strength and it was modeled on Les Mills Body Pump until Jonathan, the trainer, got ambitious and now it’s called Power Hour and mostly involves push-ups, crunches, squats, jump roping, jumping over things, pushing and pulling heavy weights, and whatever other psychotic things Jonathan dreams up for the day), and once a week I go to a combined spin and strength class. Basically, the fluffy girl can whup your ass a lot of time. My trainers love me, because I’m strong and I don’t quit. My BP runs around 124/80, which if you go by my BMI should not be possible (don’t have diabetes either). But to someone who has never laid eyes on me, they would judge my weight and call me unhealthy. Cool. They can attend my zumba class and see how they feel afterward and then deal with the fact that I do that all the time. I want my kids to grow up and see that health is beautiful and sometimes healthy looks very different than what is in the magazines.

  6. I fit into the obese category even with the higher BMI. Guess what? I’m much healthier than most of my thinner counterparts. I have no medical diagnosis attached to me. I don’t have to take one single pharmaceutical.
    I have some insomnia that may be indirectly weight related. I have some leg/ankle/foot pain, swelling issues that are definitely weight related. I have allergic reactions to some chemicals that is controlled pretty much by taking Airborn and is not weight related.
    Otherwise I’m healthy at 53 years of age having been fat to obese all my adult life.
    I would be the happiest of campers if I weighed 180. I’m 5’5 1/2″.
    You can know how much the weight loss industry is making and how invested they are in keeping the status quo if you realize that Jennifer Hudson has accepted an offer of 2 million dollars to write her weight loss story after losing 80 pounds with weight watchers. 2 million dollars to tell how she used weight watchers to lose 80 lbs. Someone is expecting to sell a lot of books. Rip off!

  7. KarenB says:

    Heh! I’m a Fokkerite! I’m sitting here smirking with pleasure. I’ve never been a Fokkerite before!

    As you may know from seeing me spring out of nowhere in the Bettyverse, I’ve been reading through A Year and Change. (Am up to Christmas which feels weird when I look out at the green leaves and abundant sun.) But, my point, and I do have one, is that reading that blog has made me reflect on myself and my weight issues. Yes, I am heavy. Yes, I probably should lose some pounds to be healthier. But, I realized that I have spent far, far, far too much time thinking about how much better my life will be when I am “thin” instead of appreciating what I have and am now. That realization has been oddly freeing, in that I am now walking more, doing Pilates again and enjoying what I am eating. I am actually making healthier choices now that the psychological weight of that impossible goal is gone. That, I do believe, is what we all should be doing. Making healthy choices. Enjoying life, including food.

  8. Legally Betty says:

    I have nothing to say about today’s post, I just wanted to say hi. I am getting ever closer to finishing my reread of the Year and Change and I love you just a teeny bit more every day. I wish I could just sit at your feet and bask in the wonder that is you. Also, play with the girls. I have several pink tiaras I could bring! And now I sound like a stalker. Which I’m not, I promise. That red Prius driving back and forth in front of your house is so not mine….really!

  9. Betty Fokker says:

    Hey! Vital information for y’all. 1) If you read my blog you are a de facto Fokkerite and are thus in the the non-asshat zone. 2) Don’t stalk … ring the doorbell and come in for tea! 3) Disagreement is always welcome, provided it is civil, since it stimulates the blogging lobe in my brain.

    Hugs and kisses (medium tongue) — Fokker

  10. lunarmom says:

    I went to the little calculating dealie… and what a shocking surprise…. I’m obese, BMI of 30.1. And yet, my water movement class people want ME to instruct. I see something very wrong here, and it ain’t me. Or my spherically shaped fabulousness.

    • londonmabel says:

      Yes I read about your water classes, and your rather balanced life, and water drinking, and look at your lovely self in your photos, and then shake my head whenever you say something about how you need to lose weight. If I had a penny every time a Betty said she needed to lose weight… I wouldn’t be worried about getting a job. :-)

      Y’all iz killing me. Dead. X-(

      • lunarmom says:

        No no Dearest Mabel… this time it was NOT me! The test thingie said it! (I, on the other hand, am doing MUCH better these days, in accepting my fabulously spherical shape.) ;)

      • londonmabel says:

        lol Sorry, I wasn’t referring to this time! I meant: In the past when I’d read about you wanting to lose weight, and yet you were doing the water class, and looked so cute and elfin, etc. I was all “What? What?”

        Today, however, I felt like your sense of self (“They want me to teach a class! Take that BMI Foolish Thing!”) aligned with how I’ve always seen you.

        Spherical. LOLLLLLLLL

  11. spherically shaped fabulousness

    @Julie that just made me snort coffee!

    Fokker, as usual, you have it completely right on! The BMI has always been a joke, so are weight charts; you cannot put 10 people of the same gender, same age, and same height into a room and look at them, then guess correctly who weighs what, who has high blood pressure or diabetes…..and the list goes on. We are individuals and those things should never be used for more than guidelines to help you get healthy. If there were real, unbiased professionals making these guidelines it might be one thing, but we all know there are agendas and “money” involved so…ignore the asshats.

  12. Robin S. says:

    May I complain from across the street?

    I have spent my life toothpick thin (Thanks dad, and grandma, and great grandma…). I have a metabolism so high I could give hummingbirds a run for their money. ( And it means never leaving the house without food or you risk getting sick while you’re out.) Because of this concept of what is ‘beautiful’ and the pressure to conform to it, my thinness has caused reverse problems for me. People who actually were over the ‘accepted’ weight and people who just thought they were have said the following things to me:

    “I hate you. How can you be so thin and eat so much? It’s not fair.”
    “I don’t like standing next to you. You make me look fat.”
    “Why won’t you tell me what you’re taking? Seriously, you have to be taking something.”

    And on and on. With about half of them dead serious. While the so called ‘fat’ people get avoided for being ‘fat’, some of us ‘thin’ people (I’m not the only one with this issue) are avoided by the ‘fat’ people because we are “depressing to be around”. What a mindset. This whole industry concept of ‘beautiful’ just screws with too many lives. I’d like to pitchfork the lot of them. (Have I mentioned there isn’t a fashion magazine of any kind to be found in this house? Ever?)

    On a hopeful note, there is some change. At the practice where I take my kids to, the ‘newbies’ take one look at my son (who, poor boy, takes after me) and start talking about the fact that he is underweight, skinny is not healthy, and he needs to gain weight. I sincerely hope this is not a random event.

    Complaint over. Thanks for listening.

    • KarenB says:

      Gotta laugh at that one. My daughter, who takes after her father, is very thin. She was an extremely scrawny baby and little girl. I used to have to safety pin her stretchy pants to get them to stay up. Soooo, the doctor had me adding butter to everything I fed her, feeding her ice cream, yadda, yadda, yadda. At age 6 she got tested for high cholesterol, because of her skinny father with high cholesterol. And, lo and behold, it was high (210). Panic in the doctor’s office! Skim milk! No butter! Low-fat cheese! One year later, her weight had still continued on in the 5% for her age and her cholesterol had dropped a whopping 4 points. I gave up. I cook healthy meals, I pack healthy lunch, she exercises. A different doctor, when weighing her at her check-up, just laughed and said, “Well, someone needs to hold down that end of the chart!”

      • Robin S. says:

        God Bless You! Someone with common sense! Here are a couple of things to help you stand your ground.

        Did you know that research has shown that children need fat in their life for proper brain development? And the arguments have begun over whether childhood cholesterol levels are even indicative of adult levels? Too many grey areas. My pediatrician doesn’t even test for it. (If fat wasn’t needed for our dear children, then why does mother nature put it in breast milk?)

        Remember when eggs were ‘bad’ and margarine was ‘good’? Then they found out that the cholesterol in eggs wasn’t so bad after all and OMG transfats! (We quit using margarine in the 80’s when I couldn’t get a straight answer to why the fat numbers on the nutrition labels didn’t add up.) (don’t get me started on our food system)

        And now they are having to admit that sometimes high cholesterol doesn’t always lead to death in every person. That some people just happen to have high cholesterol naturally and it doesn’t affect them the same way as someone with normal cholesterol who gets high cholesterol. My husband has gosh awful cholesterol. Into the 400’s on a regular basis. He is now 57. My father-in-law has been in the 500’s and he is 78 yrs. old. Neither of them is athletic or even exercises as much as they should. High cholesterol just runs in the family.

        When it comes to my kids (and myself, actually), I refuse to jump on the band wagon every time the medical community comes up with a new ‘absolute, this is it’ life change. They have been wrong too many times. I think common sense and moderation are the key.

        So you go right on being a sensible mother!

  13. londonmabel says:

    Might I point you guys towards a great posting on another blog, it’s over here:


    It starts like this:

    Excuse me while I throw this down, I’m old and cranky and tired of hearing the idiocy repeated by people who ought to know better.
    Real women do not have curves.
    Real women do not look like just one thing.
    Real women have curves, and not. …

  14. Carol-Ann says:

    I’m in shape. Round is a shape. And it took work to get to where I am :)

  15. John Brane says:

    While I agree that the BMI change is bullshit, I wouldn’t trust the information if I was getting it from a blog made by someone who expressly states that they are a proponent of an extreme ideological view, such as feminism (which is not the same as gender equality). When the banner art says something like “don’t try to suppress me with your patriarchal values” all notions of an entirely objective and unbiased article that has been well structured goes out the window. I’m not saying that it can’t be, but it’s not going to be my expectation.

    • Betty Fokker says:

      Feminism, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary is 1: the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes and 2: organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests. Yes. I can see where the extremist ideology of equality between the sexes would skew things, especially since there is no systematic problems facing women as they bask in their world-wide freedom from overt or covert patriarchal establishments. I realize now that only non-feminist works can be objective about any topic! Thank you so much for mansplaining that to me!

  16. Corollary. A colliery is a coal mine.

  17. Frank says:

    This article is simply innaccurate.

    “If obese is going to be used as a health term, then actual scientific data doesn’t correlate fat with poor-health until a BMI of 40, so that’s where obese should start.”

    Where’s this “scientific data?” Because I know for a fact that the reason they changed the Obese category was because they were seeing a volume of studies which correlated increased health risks to those above 30 BMI. The Overweight category may be very flawed, for sure, but the Obese category is supported by scientific data. I can reference articles. Where are yours?

  18. Jerod says:

    While entirely legal it is incredibly irresponsible to make these suggestions without citing scientific sources of information. How are YOUR readers supposed to corroborate YOUR information?

    Despite appearing like a conflict of interest, I can easily imagine that the folks who adjusted the BMI definitions would have or be associated with companies promoting healthy weight loss. They have, after all, dedicated their lives to understanding obesity and extending that knowledge to the general public. If the community repeatedly and reliably observes a health risk associated with BMI>30 and the population is on average at risk then of course they would want to do something about it in the private sector (likely as a non-profit).

    I will say however that this critique is a bit unfair since you do not purport to be a scientist and you seem to be defending the right for a woman (and as an extension anyone) to be happy with themselves and that can only have a positive effect on quality of life in addition to life expectancy. Kudos for that.

    For a semi-interesting read I posted some pseudo-science on my blog that suggested, in terms of years of life lost, a BMI of 44 diagnosed at the age of 30 is equivalent to the diagnosis of HIV. Similarly, a BMI of 34 (quite close to 30) diagnosed at the age of 50. In other words, if you are 50 and have a BMI of 34 as well as HIV, “obesity” is just as likely to end your life. This is for life expectancy of HIV in 2000 which severely overestimates the potency of HIV in current times.


  19. NullOp says:

    There is not enough space on the internet to print all the lies that have been told in the name of profit concerning weight and health!

  20. Dane says:

    I wish you were a nun, so that I could call you Mother Fokker.

  21. Jon says:

    5’5 and 180lbs-yes, you are fat and unhealthy. Label it anything you want. You know you don’t eat healthy food, you just can’t stand to give up the things you love to eat, and you blame society for not accepting you when you don’t even really accept you. If you want to be unhealhty, be unhealthy, but don’t say 5’5 and 180lbs is healthy. Who are you fooling?

  22. Betty Fokker says:

    I would like to take a moment to point out that although this post has gotten more than 20,000 hits (mind officially boggled) there have been VERY few trolls. This is my first time with this sort of exposure, so I am really happy that people (even those who disagree) have been civil. Thank you.

  23. tambrosia says:

    When you say ““little thinner” or it’s colliery, “more toned/buff””, I think you mean corollary. Colliery means a coal mine…

  24. anna says:

    unfortunately as a medical student (in the UK so due to the NHS my potential earnings will not increase with more consultations about “weight gain”) I have actually seen the studies that contraindicate the arguments about a bmi of 40 being the limit at which health risk begins to increase that were made in this article.
    To make it clear I too do believe women are beautiful at every weight. and the social pressure of having to attain an ideal social weight can cause some people to feel as ill and affect their life with anxious feelings as much as any heart or diabetic state of ill health.
    However, as a medical student I feel obliged to state that there are health risks to being unhealthy. an overweight BMI is classified as a bmi of 25. this does not take into account muscle mass- however a person with a bmi of 25+ will know if they spend 7+ hours a week doing the intense (and what I personally consider insane) amounts of cardiovascular exercise to build the kind of muscle which would push them over into the overweight category on the bmi scale unfairly.
    Also in contradiction to what is stated in this artcile your relative risk of diabetes begins to increase with a bmi of 23 onwards, in view of this there are actually arguments to LOWER not increase the ideal bmi range.
    Increasing amounts of research (done by doctors with similar motivations to me- to see people living healthy lives for longer, and not to gain extra money, because we work for the NHS we get paid either way) have also shown that over 5 years people who were classified as obese (as in 30+ not the old 40+) reduced their chances of developing diabetes by 40% if they lost 10% of their body mass.
    These people would not be in the ideal bmi range of 20-25 but they would report increased levels of life satisfaction, and joy at being able to be more active with children in their lives.
    some people have even reversed their diagnosis of diabetes by exercising regularly. more than loosing weight, exercise is the best health intervention you can include in your life for yourself. in most clinical trials for every disease, exercise as a single intervention works better than a single drug (though often drugs + exercise work best- speak to your doctor if you have a medical condition before changing any routine) Though in relation to this article regular exercise does also often have the side effect of weight loss, even without major weight loss exercising shows huge health benefits.
    Other healthy living tips. not drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, not smoking, eating a fruit or vegetable portion with every meal and choosing them as snacks too, (I found that if I force myself to eat 5 fruit and vegetable portions a day I physically cant finish all the unhealthy foods that I would normally reach for) and ensuring you exercise for 30 minutes every couple of days or so. anything that gets you slightly out of breath, even if that is just taking the stairs (taking the stairs was murder for me when I first started to get healthy)
    none of these things have to be expensive. and as a woman who used to be on the borderline of obese myself I have gone through the difficulty of adjusting to a healthy diet with very little money (think the equivalent of $20/week food budget) and also having very little time. yet living healthy is possible. I feel healthier now. I have more energy, My mood doesn’t crash as often, carrying heavy bags up stairs no longer seems like an incredibly daunting task, I don’t get embarrassed by getting out of breath anymore or find I have to sit out on activities because I am just not healthy enough to take part.
    whats more since cutting back on sugar my polycystic ovary disease has improved (which is linked to insulin sensitivity and diabetes) and on ultrasound scans the size of my ovaries has reduced hopefully improving my chances of having children.
    Women are beautiful at every weight, but there are health risks to being beautiful big as much as being beautiful small. And to back that up, almost as many people who compliment me on having lost weight and looking good now, say I looked good or better back then. the main difference to me is my happiness in being able to take more opportunities to live my life due to my increased fitness..

    • Betty Fokker says:

      However, the fact that exercise is the main ingredient to health, not merely weight per se, is often often ignored in the US and the belief that fat=unhealthy=bad leads to quite a bit of discrimination and false condemnation/judgement. I am not trying to say that fat is axiomatically healthy; just that it is NOT axiomatically unhealthy. I certainly advocate a non-sedentary lifestyle to promote health. I go to the YMCA, do yoga, and have a standing desk so that I spend very little time sitting, but to “look” at me people could easily assume I lay on a couch eating bon bons vis-a-vis the current beliefs about fat.

  25. Ashley says:

    I take it this post was recently posted somewhere within the mrm sphere?

  26. Pingback: BMI … Fact or fiction? | The 185 Weigh

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