Taking down the myth of BMI

I wrote this during my final semester at Humber for the OCAA’s magazine sweat, check out the original here!

Mikayla Dawson, a first-year forward for the Algonquin College female rugby team, says she was drawn to the sport because all different body shapes and sizes are valuable to different positions on the field, whereas some other sports she’s played, like soccer, tended to have predominantly slimmer athletes. With rugby, she found she fit right in.

“I find with rugby there’s never really any shaming. When I’m at practice you’re almost proud to be a bigger girl…just depending on where you play.  It’s almost like you’re proud of whatever body shape you are.”

While the prevailing attitude about the ideal body shape for a woman or man is always changing, the pressure to conform to these archetypes is constant. For a generation that is dedicated to documenting their lives with selfies and social media video posts, there are daily reminders of what a person is expected to look like.

Several recent social media campaigns have pushed to help improve body acceptance and encourage body positivity. In 2013, plus-size model Tess Holliday started the positive body movement #effyourbeautystandards as a way for people of all shapes to embrace what they look like. The hash tag took off – it’s now used worldwide and contains more than a million posts.

In 2014, clothing retailer American Eagle’s sister company aerie decided to keep its ads untouched and spurred the #aerieReal campaign, aimed at teaching girls to love their ‘real’ selves.

Most recently, following the annual Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show in December 2015, Lane Bryant, a plus-size lingerie line, aired a commercial with the hashtag #ImNoAngel, encouraging women of all shapes to redefine what’s thought of as sexy.

Cynthia Blair first-year forward for the Algonquin College women’s rugby team studies health and fitness. She thinks it’s good that social media is taking advantage of positive hashtags.

“It’s super important because so many girls use social media at such a young age now.”

The prejudice of body types doesn’t only apply to females; men feel the pressure as well.

Derek Veenstra is an OCAA cross-country runner at Conestoga College and he doesn’t see his body image as the typical male body image.

“I’m not built upper body. I’m not one of those guys who go to the gym.”

Veenstra says his body type does help with his sport of choice, even if it’s not ‘typical.’

“I knew I’d be a good runner because I have these long legs and not a very large build up top. It definitely helps for the sport, and you can see it in who is good at higher levels,” he said, referencing Olympic athletes.

And has running helped his body image in return?

“For sure,” says Veenstra. “When I go out running, then I can walk up to the other guys and go, ‘I’m not the only one out here who doesn’t go to the gym every day and work out.’”

Mikayla Dawson (left) and a teammate after a tournament in her final year of high school. (COURTESY MIKAYLA DAWSON)

Body image stereotypes can apply to both sexes, but females are targeted more often in the media, and particularly on social media.

Erin Gawley is a starting forward for Fleming College’s female rugby team. She worries that younger girls are becoming more influenced by their exposure to social media.

When Gawley was younger she was teased for her size and frame and often called a boy.  She knows that girls now have to deal with the added pressure of social media accounts like Instagram.

“There’s so much social media and so much that they have access to…to look at all these beautiful people that are size zeros and stuff,” says Gawley.

“Seeing these kids glued to their phones selfie-ing like crazy and posting things on Instagram … I feel it was crushing enough to be called a boy but now having the pressure … I didn’t even know what makeup was [when I was young].”

A person’s body shape does not have to dictate their abilities, however the prevailing idea is that being fat is unhealthy, while staying slender automatically means being in shape. This isn’t always the case, according to experts like Toronto-based holistic nutritionist Tara Miller.

“Social media tends to feature images of a smaller person in health statement articles, but those images don’t reflect true health and don’t mean you need to look like that,” says Miller.

“Even on Instagram, you generally see a health article that will definitely feature someone who is smaller. You wouldn’t see an overweight person as the health feature.”

A February 2016 University of California study, titled Don’t Use Body Mass Index (BMI) to Determine Whether People Are Healthy, found that a person’s BMI (a number measured using weight and height) has little

to no effect on the person’s health.

The study determined that around 20.7 million people whose BMI fell within the ‘normal’ range were unhealthy based on other health data, and that two million people considered ‘very obese’ on the BMI scale are actually healthy.

The trend explained by Miller extends to other forms of media as well, including running magazines.

The August 2015 issue of Women’s Running got a lot of attention on social media because it featured plus-size model Erica Schenk on the cover.

Using thin models for articles and covers is deceiving because the size of a person doesn’t dictate their health. That’s the message Women’s Running Editor-in-Chief Jessica Sebor set out to make by choosing Schenk for the cover: dispelling the stereotype that all runners are skinny.

Miller says there’s more to health than size because other things have to be considered, such as the person’s mental state, energy levels, what they’re eating, how they’re sleeping and how their digestive system is functioning, all of which aren’t included in BMI calculation.

“It’s the same thing with women who are athletic and have muscle. They don’t always fit into a size four, but by no means does that mean they aren’t way more healthy, way more energetic [than some of their thinner coutnerparts],” says Miller. “The bigger message is that there’s way more going on underneath…even with someone who looks healthy.”

“What we see is definitely not a full picture of what’s going on inside.”

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