Health & Lifestyle

Weight-focused or “Body Composition” Testing Continues to Harm Students

Jamie Haughton ’20
Guest Contributor

On Oct. 17, 2019 I sent the following email in response to the promotion of CMS Recreation’s Annual Body Composition Testing event. I would like to thank Rose Gelfand ‘21 for bringing this issue to my attention and for her invaluable feedback on this letter. I would also like to thank Tova Cohen ’20 for her both her emotional support and for helping me brainstorm and develop a strategy for how to approach this issue. I really appreciate their time, effort, and support.

Dear CMS Recreation,

I am writing to express my disappointment and frustration that CMS has chosen to continue their Annual Body Composition Testing. The promotion of the idea of weight as an indicator of health is incredibly fatphobic, inaccurate, and increases the risk of dangerous eating and exercise behaviors. I initially wanted to believe that you (Raechel Holmes, Coordinator of Health and Wellness for CMS Rec) simply were not aware of student pushback to this event from last year as I did not reach out to administration through official channels but instead wrote an op-ed for The Student Life (“Diet culture hurts students, silences those in recovery”). However, when I went back to read the articles about the controversy from last year I realized you had given comments for another TSL article and therefore were aware that students were unhappy about this event. I am especially concerned to see on your staff bio that you have served on “an Eating Disorder Task Force at Claremont’s seven colleges” given that you believe there is a direct correlation between weight and health and that you promote body composition testing as a way to determine health.

When interviewed by TSL last year, you stated that your efforts in the Health and Wellness Fair (which appears to have been rebranded as Fresh Friday this year, I’m not quite clear on this) were “to destigmatize help-seeking and empower wellness practices.” The only information about the event I have received this year was the email from Oct. 16, copied below. By solely advertising body composition testing, you are suggesting to students that their weight and body composition is the sole indicator of their health and wellness. Not only is that messaging incredibly inaccurate but it certainly does not “destigmatize help-seeking and empower wellness practices.”

The email I received read as follows:

“Body composition testing is offered as it is an integral component of total health and fitness, yet also the most difficult assessment to obtain easily because of the required equipment for an accurate assessment. Our bodies require essential fat because it serves as an important metabolic fuel for energy production and other normal bodily functions. Essential fat requirements are < five percent for men and < eight percent for women. Normal body functions may be disrupted if body fat falls below the minimum level recommended for men (five percent) and women (15 percent). The body fat ranges for optimal health (18 percent -30 percent for women and 10 percent -25 percent for men) are based on several epidemiological studies of the general population. Having an accurate understanding of one’s body composition can help you make great nutrition and fitness choices to make sure your body is being fueled to optimize your health and boost your academic performance.” While I have many questions and concerns about this messaging, I am most frustrated and angered by (1) the comment that body composition or weight is an “integral component of total health and fitness” and (2) the implication that fat-bodied students are not optimizing their health or are performing more poorly academically. In fact, “Multiple studies are suggesting that a focus on weight as a health criterion is often misdirected and harmful” (According to the Association for Size Diversity and Health “There is considerable scientific evidence supporting the Health At Every Size approach and establishing that “obesity” is not the health risk it has been reported to be”). Additionally, “Concern has arisen that [...] weight focus is not only ineffective at producing thinner, healthier bodies, but may also have unintended consequences, contributing to food and body preoccupation, repeated cycles of weight loss and regain, distraction from other personal health goals and wider health determinants, reduced self-esteem, eating disorders, other health decrement, and weight stigmatization and discrimination” (“Weight Science: Evaluating the Evidence for a Paradigm Shift,” by Bacon & Aphramor, 2011). Essentially, not only is weight not an accurate indicator of health, but the focus on weight (such as a “Health and Wellness Fair” that only weighs people) actually leads to the negative health behaviors and outcomes you are trying to avoid. Going forward, I ask that you consider students of all sizes and eating behavior histories both when planning “Health and Wellness” events and when serving on “Eating Disorder Task Forces.” I ask that you read the studies (and references within those studies) I linked above and inform yourself about misconceptions and dangers of focusing on weight as an indicator of health. More statistics and study references can be found in the article “Everything You Know About Obesity Is Wrong” by Michael Hobbes in the Huffington Post, including both the emotional toll of diet-focused programs and statistics about their ineffectiveness. I would like to reiterate that I am incredibly disappointed and frustrated. Students from SCR, CMC, and HMC deserve to have an inbox free from diet culture/weight focused “health” messaging. We deserve to have health and wellness administrators who do not engage in fatphobia or promote fatphobic messaging and activities. Finally I would like to acknowledge that this is one of many instances of fatphobia and diet culture that I have noticed or experienced* as a student at The Claremont Colleges. This specific body composition testing event is part of a larger context that sends the message to students that this space is for thin-bodied folks. Other examples of this context can be seen in events held by Tiernan Field House teaching students to make low calorie foods, posters about the CDC “healthy weight index,” Student Health 101 emails with calorie/carb snack comparisons, study abroad health approval forms with BMI as the only data point on the form, inaccessible seating in classrooms and public spaces, messaging posted both in the different dining halls and gyms across campus; these are all ways in which the colleges tell students in fat bodies that they do not belong and are not welcome. I ask that moving forward administrators, including yourself, make a conscious effort to put an end to fatphobia and diet culture on campus. Sincerely, Jamie Haughton *As a person who experiences thin privilege, I do not directly experience fatphobia. I do however notice diet culture and fatphobia daily at the Claremont Colleges. To submit any experiences of fatphobia or to be added to an email list to be kept in the loop about advocacy related to this issue happening at Scripps, please fill out my anonymous google form: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSeAB1apcMaw4aXlSydNHqLPgRkaG1Xa3gE6QzlTP4Gbw1w1HQ/viewform?usp=sf_link Image Credit: Nylon 10/30, Volume XXIX, Issue 3