Dumbing Around

I’m copying a couple of other writers this morning. In both cases it’s because they’ve made particularly fine work of saying AGAIN things that should not need to be said again, but, dammit, do. In the first we have a perfect example of how damaging it can be for people who  believe “common sense” and the information provided by interested/invested parties  should drive social policy.  Science, people, science. In the second, I’m copying a chunk of Lindy West’s jezebel.com lucidly furious piece about the extraordinary frustrations of watching sexism drive so much of culture (i.e. Seth McFarland is not merely an ass, he’s a seriously damaging ass).

Anyway, I am just going to copy Ragen Chastain’s blog from this morning because, while she and I have both written before about this, apparently we’re going to need to keep doing it.  If you want more evidence and argument on this, go to any of the pieces Philip Alcabes has written on the subject of childhood obesity, but this one especially:


His is a voice that we need, generally to hear more of, since he’s particularly concerned about the ways in which lies take hold, cause panic, and result in critically stupid, problem-expanding public behavior.

And here’s Ragen’s blog from this morning:

The BS of BMI Report Cards

by danceswithfat

grade on curveSeveral readers sent me news stories today about how Massachusetts schools are now testing the Body Mass Index (BMI) of students and sending letters home to parents letting them know if their child’s BMI is “too high” or “too low” and suggesting that they see a medical professional to help their child get to a “healthy weight.” Charming. Let’s look at some of the many, many reasons that this is a bad idea.

First of all, putting the focus on kids’ weight is a horrible idea. According to research from the University of Minnesota “None of the behaviors being used by adolescents (in 1999) for weight-control purposes predicted weight loss[in 2006]…Of greater concern were the negative outcomes associated with dieting and the use of unhealthful weight-control behaviors.”  In the last decade hospitalizations for eating disorders for kids under 12 are up 119%.  Kids.  Under.  Twelve.  Kids are plenty focused on their weight – they don’t need the Massachusetts government’s help.  Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, an obesity research, said “I don’t think that it’s the role of the school to be the schoolyard bully. These six- and seven- and eight-year-olds who are going to get letters sent home, they’re not suffering from an epidemic loss of willpower. We’re not dealing with that here…Simply putting it on the kids is putting them at increased risk for bullying and increased risk for pressures at home.” I agree.

A focus on weight as a substitute for health does disservice to kids of all sizes because of the “healthy weight” fallacy.  When we try to make body size a middle man for health we tell fat kids that their healthy habits don’t make them healthier unless they make them thin (which is not what the evidence suggests), and we tell thin kids that they are healthy because of their size and regardless of their habits (which is also not what the evidence suggests.)

The use of BMI is another issue here.  BMI is always problematic as a health measurement predominantly because it’s, well,  not a health measurement – someone’s weight in pounds times 703 divided by their height in inches squared is NOT a health measurement. BMI was created as a tool for statistical analysis of the average body size of large populations.  It was never meant to be used as a health measurement at all, let alone for individuals.  As a simple ratio of weight and height BMI doesn’t take into account any actual health measurements, body composition (Tom Cruise is obese based on the BMI scale), or anything other than weight and height.  So again, even if someone believes that being fat is bad, BMI would still not be a good tool to use.

It’s even more problematic with kids than with adults because it completely fails to acknowledge not just a natural diversity of body sizes and body compositions, but also natural fluctuations in kids’ weight. If a kid gets their BMI report card taken when they’ve put on weight before a growth spurt, and their parents take them to a doctor who puts them on an diet and restricts their calories, how does that affect the kid’s growth and health? Since dieting hardly ever works, these programs are using other measures of success, one of which is an INCREASE in kids who are indicating that they are concerned about their weight.  Since research by Peter Meunnig from Columbia found that women who were concerned about their weight had more physical and mental illness that those who were fine with their size regardless of their size, this seems like a pretty questionable measure of “success.”

Even if someone believes that all fat kids would be healthier thin, we do not know how to get it done; and saying repeatedly that we do is just a lie that has been repeated so often that people believe it’s the truth. Dr.Freedhoff has called these “non-evidence based interventions.” The CDC has admitted that there isn’t sufficient evidence to recommend these BMI Screening programs.  There is not a single statistically significant controlled study where even a simple majority of kids were able to change their weight long-term.  Anything that is prescribed to kids for weight control is experimental medicine at best, and at worst it’s an intervention that’s been demonstrated by research to fail – and it’s typically prescribed without the consent to the child or the parent, violating the ethical principles of evidence-based medicine and informed consent.  Can you imagine the uproar if kids who were actually sick were shamed for being sick, prescribed treatments that studies had shown to not work, often making the sickness worse, lied to that “everyone who tries hard enough” gets cured on these treatments, and then were blamed and shamed when the treatments didn’t work.  To be very clear, body size is neither a disease nor a diagnosis but if the medical establishment is going to treat it that way then the least they could do is practice ethical medicine.

Parents are allowed to opt-out but many are saying that they were not notified in advance and so kids were forced to submit to a weigh in at school that their parents would have vigorously opposed.

All of this is another dangerous example of people substituting what they think is “common sense” for actual evidence.  Let’s be clear about what’s happening here – lawmakers have decided that kid’s body size is such a big “problem” that they should just start “doing something about it” and what they should do is the first thing that comes into their heads – even if there is no evidence basis for it, even if evidence exists suggesting that it’s actually dangerous and likely to cause harm, they believe that their common sense is a better guide than science when dealing with the health of kid’s.  Yikes.

This entire thing is completely unnecessary. We could have a complete discussion about health and healthy habits for kids without even once bringing up weight.  There aren’t different healthy habits based on body size, and so there is no need to pull weight into the conversation, let alone force kids to participate in weigh-ins.  We can do better.  Let’s.

And now, back to Seth McFarland. I had managed to blank out the repugnant jokes about Jennifer Anniston and Meryl Streep and Jodie Foster’s rape scene and Scarlett Johansson’s photos being leaked. Which both nauseates me and proves how very right Ms. West is:

To put it simply, I AM TIRED OF TRYING TO EXPLAIN THIS SHIT TO PEOPLE WHO DON’T WANT TO HEAR IT. Especially “jokes” like MacFarlane’s, which, to the layperson’s ear, barely register above microaggressions (if the kind of people who see no problem whatsoever with “We Saw Your Boobs” were the kind of people who used the term “microaggressions”). I am tired of trying to have an intellectual discussion about dog-whistle sexism in a culture where prominent politicians are still trying to grasp what rape is, and in a world where little girls are shot in the head because they want to go to school. Asking people to think critically about some hacky jokes from a dancing cartoonist? You might as well wear a sandwich board that says, “Yell at Me With Bad Grammar.”

I am tired of being called a shrieking harridan for pointing out inequalities so tangible and blatant that they are regularly codified into law. I am tired of being told to provide documentation of inequality in the comments sections of a website where a staff of smart women documents inequality as fast as our fingers can move. Like, you might as well write me a note on a banana peel demanding that I prove to you that bananas exist. I am tired of being asked to “cite sources” proving that sexism is real (that RAPE is real, even!), because there is no way to concisely cite decades and decades of rigorous academia. Allow me to point at the fucking library. We can’t cite “everything,” and our challengers know that. It’s an insulting diversionary tactic, it’s an attempt to drag us all backwards, and fuck it. Do your own research like the rest of the grown-ups.

What are you supposed to do when someone asks you to “prove” that feminism isn’t a massive conspiracy theory in a country where we’ve only had 39 female senators in the nation’s entire history, and 20 of them are serving right now? What kind of a stupid fucking question is that? What are you supposed to say when the 8,000th faux-incredulous jackass throws you the same argument about the wage gap or the draft or bumbling dads in Tide commercials—as though holding each of their hands individually through the empirical facts of the world around us is a worthwhile use of my time. As though feminist academics haven’t filled books (decades of books) with answers to that shit already. As though they believe that if they can keep you occupied refuting their flimsy trump cards over and over forever, they can stave off any changes to the culture that keeps them on top. I am so fucking fatigued by this anti-intellectual repetitive shell game that all I could do on Sunday night was write jokes about Barbra Streisand’s hella goth choker.

But. I couldn’t quit doing this any more than my cells could “quit” processing oxygen (or whatever cells do! Us girls aren’t so good in the sciences!). I’m not a feminist by choice, I’m a feminist because this is the world. And if my fatigue sounds defeatist, it isn’t. It’s the opposite. It’s an internal rallying cry that reminds me how bad things are. If you pay attention to and comment on everyday inequalities—immense and tiny—if you let all of it filter through you and you hop around and eyeroll and groan and drive your boyfriend crazy because he just wants to watch the IT Crowd but you NEED to talk about what Pat Robertson said today, this is what happens. Seth MacFarlane will go on the television and make a joke about George Clooney having sex with a 9-year-old girl who is sitting right there, and your first reaction will be, “Well. At least he didn’t literally say she should get raped. Pass the cheese.”

That’s bad. A famous man making sexist jokes on a primetime awards show watched by millions of people is so banal and status-quo in our culture, that to me—a woman professionally committed to detecting and calling bullshit on sexism—it just feels like a drop in the bucket. Luckily, there’s nothing better than a depressing dose of apathy to remind you to FUCK THE BUCKET. If I’m not fatigued, I’m not caring enough. So fuck that stupid bucket.

round dragon

One thought on “Dumbing Around

  1. Miriam Sagan says:

    I just have to recommend a book I just finished–NAKED STATISTICS–Taking the Dread out of the Data by Wheelan. It is very cleverly written (and you can skim the full math or not). But he makes point after point about the suspect validity of data and stats…and won my heart by saying graduation rates are NOT education. He has a mild prejudice himself, I felt, against fat, but his basic points are based on a sound teaching of statistics, and has conclusions like–health encourages exercise and possibly not the much tauted opposite.
    Anyway, it encourages freedom of thought, and as I love stats in general this explained a lot to me and includes an intuitive and reality based assessment of life. Yay!

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