Circular Arguments: Even More on BMI and Obesity

I subscribe to a email out of the latest ‘news’, ‘views’ and ‘science’ related to obesity research. This grouping is provided by David B Allison and colleagues at the UAB Office of Energetics and comes out each week. Here is the website. It’s kind of informational, kind of judgemental, to be honest its one of my guilty pleasures! It is really fascinating to read through this, often because of the odd titles and formulations, and of course for what they choose to include. This week I clicked with keen anticipation on this link:

Because, you know, I’ve written a bit on this exact topic once or twice. The actual linked article is a fairly standard kind of example of a ridiculous extreme approach by a health practitioner, instead of using her eyes she used the measure (the BMI that is). This isn’t a new story, in fact it happens every day all over the world. What I wanted to do is to draw attention to the circular link inherent in the title above, particularly:

Reminder: BMI is a crude proxy for Obesity

As I have pointed out many many times before, BMI is the very basis for the definition of obesity, how then can the very basis of something also function as a ‘crude proxy’ for it? This is non-sense, but is the common non-sense that is used uncritically by almost everyone working in this field.

The fact is that the signifier ‘obesity’ has become fully detached from the Reality of the mathematical formula that provides its very foundation. So when a health professional interacts with the term ‘obesity’ the only ‘official’ way they can do this is via the BMI, though they are cautioned or demonised for doing this. As I have said prior my suggestion is to completely abandon the terminology in health practice and instead consider the desire of the person sitting in front of them – what do they want?

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More on Fat and Fit

A colleague pointed out this recent piece in The Conversation another scientist hammering away about how it is vitally important that the government mucks in a fixes the fatties… I commented as such:

So often we social scientists hear scientists like author use phrases like this (quoted from above):


“Governments should take urgent action to ensure that healthy diets are readily accessible to everyone, and that highly processed high-fat, high-sugar diets are difficult to access”


This totalising belief in the role of ‘government’ and its apparent god-like ability to radically transform the economic, social and political landscape is astonishingly naive. The institutional structures that hold the food industry in its place are not shaken by either the rhetoric or the action of ‘government’ but instead are held in place and constantly reinforced by the power/knowledge of those in charge of capital, and these people do not want to lose their profits. If you are going to point to regulation as the answer at least take the time to understand regulation, and particularly its demonstrable inability to stem the accumulation of capital.


In fact if we remove the rhetoric of the God-like controlling government from the argument above we are left with slim pickings (please excuse the pun): Don’t promote HAES, because apparently fatties will just become complacent. Instead everyone lose weight! Because apparently we can achieve a population all with BMIs between 20 and 25? Except of course for the abject failure of this policy over the past 20 years.


The real danger of the above article is the damage it does to large people who care about their weight. Recently I published an article in the journal Critical Public Health (link below) where I lay out the kind of damage a wholesale focus on the Body Mass Index measure can have at the level of the Unconscious using my own experiences of being fat, losing a lot of weight and then struggling to find an identity somewhere in between. I hope that the author takes the time to read this and to recognise that for me (and many many others) being ‘obese’ in relation to the BMI is healthy.

How is it that despite the enormous amount of evidence refuting the BMI and all of the completely failed policy interventions scientists still use it as their starting point?


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Well done Rebel Sport


I just wanted to share this image of a couple of normal looking blokes used by rebel sport recently. It’s nice to see actual people represented rather than the very rare Adonis.

Sadly not as common for them use more representative women in their campaigns. Still, kudos where it is due.


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Orthorexia, Weight Anxiety and the Other: Individualising Society’s Discontent

Orthorexia, apparently, is a newly emerging ‘dis-ease’ where people become disproportionally impacted by the search for the pure. Obviously this can take on many forms – some for instance find it impossible to decide whether kale or chard is more pure (I might argue that this should become the very definition of an upper-middle class problem…!). Others will end up shutting themselves off from the world in all its gastronomic glory, having faith that this will bring them closer to ‘purity’ – whatever that is.

As it is prone to do the DSM looks to start recognising Orthorexia as a new psychiatric disorder, though it seems it will have to wait for the new edition (6th I guess by now??).

These ‘new’ entrants onto the dogma that is medical diagnosis takes away from the far more interesting questions, these being the related to the requirement to individualise society’s discontent: the problem with weight (and all the other weight related signifiers)… For me ‘orthorexia’,  ‘pregnorexia’, ‘bigorexia’ and other fantasy classifications are veils on weight anxiety. Our society requires that YOU worry about your weight (and every other ‘bodies’), regardless of any ‘actual reality’. For some this feels fairly harmless, they lose and gain a bit of weight every year, rolling with the seasons maybe. For others it appears as an obsession, with food control or exercise for instance. Some are satisfied to watch The Biggest Loser, to prop up their morality as exemplars of the ‘right way’.

Those suffering from ‘orthorexia’ along with other weight anxious folk, then are actually suffering from ‘Otherexia’ (this is my term folks, citing necessary :-)), as in they have an insatiable appetite for the Other – they want to be assured that they are “Good” in the eyes of the Other.

For more on this please read my paper: “Re:living the body mass index: How A Lacanian autoethnography can inform public health practice” in the journal Critical Public Health. Available here or email me.


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Bad, good, healthy, unhealthy… messy signifiers

A colleague drew my attention to this nifty little article on AlterNet:

The basic premise of this article is to point out a few foods that have moved discursively in recent years from bad to good. Salt and coconut oil feature for instance.

I have of course been saying this for a few years now, particularly about salt and fat, but I don’t want to blow my own trumpet (much) but comment on the terms bad and good and their relationship to health. These signifiers point to morality, as in bad equals immoral and good equals moral. Now I don’t want to get all tangled up on the essential inhumanity of judging via morality but this very recent and fundamental shift should provide some good evidence to challenge yourself every time you think “this is bad me”!!

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A Zizekian look at the GFC


Link here to a great article on the GFC from a psychoanalytic perspective by my friend Bill. Well worth a read! Great stuff Bill.

Originally posted on Groping towards Bethlehem:

A bit gauche, perhaps, but I’m going to point you to an article I had published at the end of last year. It is my attempt to grapple with economics and the global financial crisis. Because of the nature of the explanation, it appeared in the International Journal of Zizek Studies.

The content will be familiar to regular readers of this blog — Zizekian philosophy and Lacanian psychoanalysis can help explain the economy. Given that it’s an article and not a post, it works through the arguments more fully and with better references.

The work started with two things I couldn’t understand:

  1. why were reputable economists and economics commentators spouting nonsense about the GFC? I don’t mean different interpretations of facts, or bringing different sets of values/preferences to bear on the evidence. I mean relying ‘evidence’ that was not true, developing explanations based on falsehoods
  2. why weren’t more economists…

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Language is important: On obesity and inflammation

In this article the scientist states “We know that obesity causes inflammation the body”

In fact, what they ‘know’ is that feeding rats a diet high in fat and sugar had an impact on memory. They then assume this is related to inflammation, which they also observe.

Extrapolating to human outcomes is ridiculous, and then suggesting that obesity, being defined as having a body mass index over 30, is the cause of inflammation doesn’t follow the science. It’s the diet, not the mass. Darwin would be appalled by the claims not supported by actual evidence.


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