Statistics and smokescreens: On fat as a threat to national security

By | December 7, 2010

Have you seen this woman? She is probably plotting to destroy your security AT THIS VERY MOMENT.

Today’s edition of Obesity Epidemic Hand-Wringing comes from David Frum, a CNN columnist whose posts appear alongside a picture of him beaming a cheery smile. Frum, near as I can figure, is a rare creature these days: a rational conservative. I’d all but forgotten such individuals existed, so I will give him credit for momentarily reviving my belief in political discourse.

Okay, that’s over.

Frum’s piece on CNN.com, “Why obesity is a national security threat,” addresses the recently-released report that, in 2008, far more people were discharged from the military for being too fat than for being, uh, tellingly gay. Most of the coverage of this report, which I believe surfaced last week, has trended toward the “see how ridiculous DADT is?” line of thinking, with a generous seasoning of “OH SHIT WE ARE SO FUCKING FAT, IT IS THE ENDTIMES!” Frum, however, sticks to the idea that a flabby army makes for a weak nation, and this is a problem.

I admit I have a hard time getting stressed out about the widening of the military. I am inclined to think that if the fatter soldiers are continuing to run around with 80 pounds of gear strapped to their backs, this isn’t really an issue. Of course, there’s more going on culturally with the fear of a tubby military, as our concept of American masculinity often associates strongly with men in uniform, and so an apparent loss of physical power amongst our troops might seem to indicate a loss of… physical power amongst American men in general. And that IS a problem, boy howdy, from the perspective of said men.

I’m ignoring women here on purpose, as the military weight standards Frum describes are specific to male recruits, and female soliders are not even mentioned. Like I said: this fear is as much about American masculinity as it is about national security, and Frum is hardly alone in (probably unwittingly) illustrating that.

Frum’s column notes the alleged leaps and bounds that obesity rates have taken in recent as evidence of this as a growing problem:

By the military’s own numbers, some 61% of active-duty personnel were above ideal weight in 2007, up from 50% in 1995.

This reminded me of something I wanted to revisit on this blog, as it has been a long time since I brought it up. Step into my TARDIS, kids. We’re taking a trip to 1998. Woooooweeeeooooooo…..!

Hey look, there’s Bill Clinton, denying sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky! NASA actually has funding and is doing all kinds of cool shit, including finding the first signs of the existence of water on the moon (which was confirmed only this year — y’all, can we please give NASA more money?). Titanic has won a million Oscars and James Cameron proclaims himself “King of the World”, marking the first time — though far from the last — that I feel an urge to punch him in the junk as hard as I can. Viagra’s been approved by the FDA, giving both Bill Clinton and James Cameron another reason to be cheerful. Microsoft is facing anti-trust charges from the federal government! Iraq is kicking out UN weapons inspectors, in a move that will not work out so well for them in the long run! A massive tsunami wipes 10 villiages in Papua New Guinea off the face of the planet, giving us all a new natural disaster to be terrified of, while a familiar one, Hurricane Mitch, kills 18,000 people in Central America. Frank Sinatra is soon to shuffle off this mortal coil. I am an undergraduate film student working really hard to get my faux-arty proto-feminist “experimental” final project for my production class edited and done, before they lock me out of the COM building at the end of the spring semester. Oh shit, and I still have to master the soundtrack, I’m never going to finish.

And then, on a Wednesday in June, 25 million Americans who went to bed with their bodies at a “healthy” weight suddenly woke up fat.

This is literally old news. Bless CNN for keeping its archives online.

Millions of Americans became “fat” Wednesday — even if they didn’t gain a pound — as the federal government adopted a controversial method for determining who is considered overweight.

Controversial! Controversial, y’all!

The guidelines are based on Body Mass Index (BMI), a height-to-weight formula that ignores whether the weight is from fat or muscle. It also ignores whether someone has a large or small frame. The weights are the same for men and women.

[...]

Some health experts reject the new guidelines, claiming people who aren’t fat are now considered overweight. For example, under the new definitions, many professional athletes would be considered too heavy.

Critics also worry that these lower weights will persuade doctors to start prescribing diet drugs for people who don’t need them. Some diet drugs carry health risks, such as an increase in blood pressure.

Note the dubious tone — note the open criticism! This formula ignores the ratio of fat to muscle! There is no distinction made for frame size, nor for biological sex! The 1998 BMI rules make the case, in all seriousness, that every single human being on the face of the planet — and these were adopted from guidelines created by the World Health Organization, so we needn’t restrict ourselves to the US — that every single human being on planet fucking Earth should fit within one narrow weight range regardless of any mitigating physical differences between them. These guidelines did not stop being controversial because they’ve since been proven to improve the health and prolong the lives of Americans; they stopped being controversial because they were absorbed into our conventional wisdom simply by the passage of time. This is how we do things now. You 25 million new fatties, get in line for your new body-shaming. Oh, and be sure to bring your checkbook; this will be expensive.

Many of you reading this are already familiar with The Great BMI Shakedown of ‘98; many of you are not. But this is one reason of many to question the notion that obesity rates are skyrocketing out of control. In 1998, these rates went up literally overnight, without the need for anyone to actually, y’know, gain weight. What do “overweight” and “obesity” even mean, when they are applied so cavalierly and with so little regard for a given individual’s highly subjective health?

But wait, let’s rewind! What was that statistic in Frum’s column again?

By the military’s own numbers, some 61% of active-duty personnel were above ideal weight in 2007, up from 50% in 1995.

Right, right, now I remember. Lacking a specific reference to BMI, we can’t know for sure whether this uptick is due in part to the 1998 change, but I think it’s a safe argument that when the National Institutes of Health changed their parameters, the military did too.

The point here isn’t that the guidelines are wrong. The point is that the guidelines are irrelevant, too strict to reasonably apply, and yet apparently too malleable to really mean anything, if all that it takes for a person to slip from “normal” to “fat” is the adjustment of a line on a chart. Does a paper-based shift from one category to another suddenly make it impossible for a soldier to do his job? What has really changed?

Returning to David Frum’s column, he acknowledges:

Serving personnel who exceed military limits are offered counseling, nutritional programs and other weight-control assistance. Discharge is very much a last and unwelcome resort.

Very few people who are in the military want to be discharged. The people who serve do so by choice, not by coercion, so losing their job — and more than that, as in many cases, military service is a big part of a person’s identity — this is a terrible tragedy. Thus, I would venture to say that the discharged soldiers’ failure to lose enough weight to continue to serve is not because they simply weren’t trying hard enough, but rather because significant and permanent weight loss is nearly impossible for a substantial number of people.

The problem with anti-obesity public health campaigns is that while they may have long-term effects on statistics across broad populations, they often do so at the expense of people who are already fat, and who — for whatever reason — cannot succeed in making themselves acceptably thin. Frum lauds Michelle Obama’s childhood-obesity campaign, but as I wrote on that topic for Newsweek back in April, it would be far more meaningful to focus on improving the overall health of all kids, no matter their size, rather than zeroing in on a conversation that only underscores the existing cultural loathing of fat people, adults and children included. After all, thin kids eat at McDonald’s too. And isn’t it in our best interest to make certain all our soldiers, both current and future, are offered the same opportunity to be healthy, even if their standards of health may differ from individual to individual?

Frum’s piece never does deliver on the promise of its title, “Why obesity is a national security threat”. Is the threat the notion that all Americans are on an unavoidable slide to uniform fatness, leaving us without a functional military — hardly a likely scenario — or are individual fat people posing a danger? Ostensibly Homeland Security officers have yet to pound on my door and drag me to the Fat Detention Center because they are so busy arresting all the other fatties. (Possibly I will be tortured, in which I am promised cake and then it will turn out that there is no cake?) The real problem with obesity is that it continues to be used as a smokescreen and a scapegoat that distracts us from worthier issues, like making sure that all Americans have access to affordable, high quality healthcare. Or making sure that the wars we send our fatted soldiers off to fight are just and that their sacrifice is for a greater good.

But what do I know? I am apparently a threat to national security.


36 Comments

Jenny on December 7, 2010 at 11:03 am.

Great post, Lesley.

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jmdr on December 7, 2010 at 11:16 am.

“Have you seen this woman? She is probably plotting to destroy your security AT THIS VERY MOMENT.”

She is also looking fabulous in that dress, hairstyle and glasses.
(Off to read the article…)

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Gwen Hayes on December 7, 2010 at 11:30 am.

I absofeckinlutely love this blog.

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Awlbiste on December 7, 2010 at 11:31 am.

I recall my boyfriend saying that when he entered boot camp in 2007 that more people were told to bulk up than to drop down in weight. Of course that’s a bunch of young guys and not maybe the older men being discharged. Although with a brief glance over of the article I’m not seeing an age range for who is apparently too fat.

I’m still a huge fan of those “studies” linking obesity to depression. Maybe if you’d stop treating people like second-class citizens… But nah, that would make sense!

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wriggles on December 7, 2010 at 11:33 am.

Superb, well said.

Note the dubious tone — note the open criticism!

Yep, and we are talking 12 short years-if I’d have known things would turn out like this, I’d have taken notes.

See how easy it can be to change cultures, no wonder there’s a part of me always saying “this is not happening, it just isn’t”.

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greg on December 7, 2010 at 11:46 am.

I’m in agreement with you, but here’s the point of view of military guy with a 29-30 BMI. 1) there are physical standards for a practical reason…bulletproof vests are made only so big and vehicle seats are only so accomodating. 2) each service has a physical fitness test, and most don’t penalize you if you’re strong and big. But it can be disadvantageous to be big enough that your battle buddy can’t pull you to safety. 3) regarding people getting kicked out for being unfit rather than gay, that’s due to annual reports that include a “meets physical standards:Y/N” section.

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Lesley on December 7, 2010 at 11:50 am.

Yay! I’m so glad you commented! Your points are all very well taken. Like awlbiste mentions above, I’m also wondering about the age breakdown — as in, how many of the discharged were active-combat types for whom these points are critical to both success and survival, versus older people who may be less in harm’s way on a regular basis.

I guess I should read the damn report myself, heh.

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KCsMom on December 7, 2010 at 11:53 am.

I’ve been lurking here for a while without ever commenting. But, I just have to tell you that you are so great I want to send you love letters. Seriously, reading you is the bright spot in my day. I would read your grocery lists if you posted them.

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CarrieP on December 7, 2010 at 12:07 pm.

“Possibly I will be tortured, in which I am promised cake and then it will turn out that there is no cake?”

LOVE

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marchioness on December 7, 2010 at 12:46 pm.

Most definitely grief counseling, but only if you have insurance.

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Lesley on December 7, 2010 at 2:51 pm.

I tried very hard to get a joke in there about even my weighted companion cube being fat, but I just couldn’t make it work.

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Anna on December 7, 2010 at 7:38 pm.

This is your fault. I’m going to kill you. And all the cake is gone. You don’t even care, do you?

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Megan on December 7, 2010 at 12:16 pm.

I’ve always wanted to check out the Tardis… thanks! :) But for reals, I really dig the way you contextualized the BMI shift in ’98. Quite clever.

I know I read about the fat discharges vs. gay discharges somewhere, maybe last week, and I feel like it was accompanied with a visual aid… but I can’t for the life of me remember where it was. Unfortunately, when the press is doing “fat reporting,” they always tend to leave out facts that I would consider important. I know the statistics I saw included numbers for both service members who were discharged for being too fat and and those discharged for failing physical fitness tests. Of course, the questions I was asking myself – like what exactly constitutes “too fat” and why does it matter? – remained unanswered. Because it’s “teh news,” and in “teh news” you only have to mention “obesity” and everyone knows it’s bad – no explanation required.

But I do have to mention that when your photo popped up in my Google Reader, I felt compelled to run over here and enthuse about how striking you are! The color balance is totally working for me.

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kbryna on December 7, 2010 at 12:42 pm.

LOVE that blue dress in the photo. It’s gorgeous.
I can’t add anything to this discussion about the military or the changing BMI except that, if one is trying to teach reluctant undergrads about Fat Studies, the BMI and its weirdness is one really good avenue in – lots of the undergrads are athletes with serious muscle mass that puts them in the “overweight”/ “obese” categories, and they recognize that that’s wrong. It’s a wedge into questioning the whole BMI system, and then into the whole arena of Fat Studies.

Not that there aren’t millions of articles popping up all the time about fatness, but this one struck me as especially terrible. It reports on a study done about facial coloring and health (which turns into FATNESS), and includes this quote from one of the study leaders: “and it turns out we’re very good at estimating weights from faces.” and this chap has “been doing experiments lately that show a direct relationship between healthy eating and facial coloring.
(http://tinyurl.com/23m25tc)

Truly, the more I wear my goggles of Fat Studies, the more I am disturbed by the way health/fatness/weight/eating are talked about.

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SweetAsCake on December 7, 2010 at 12:42 pm.

A guy I used to know who was in the military and of (apparently) average/medium size – mentioned being told to lose weight because he was in the “overweight” range. I don’t know what came of that, though.

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Renee on December 7, 2010 at 12:50 pm.

Sometimes, when I read news like this, I think there really will be Fat Detention Centers one day.

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DaniFae on December 7, 2010 at 12:55 pm.

They post the PT standards online: http://www.airforce-pt.com/ for the Air Force obviously.

But, they judge on straight waist measurement, not scale weight, not BMI, not body composition. Just how big you are around the middle.

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GenericBrandofAwesome on December 7, 2010 at 1:41 pm.

I don’t remember the controversial INTRODUCTION of the BMI standards in 1998. I’m 21 now, and the BMI has been a sort of default way of measuring obesity since I’ve become aware of the concept. But! I have lately been seeing a bunch (well, more than three) articles about how the BMI standards may not be a good way to measure health as it relates to a person’s weight.
It took them 12 years to get back to where they started with this stuff? Awesome.
Also: I agree. Give NASA more money so we can all dream about being astronauts again.

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Willow on December 7, 2010 at 3:18 pm.

When I decided to join the military, I was 5/10″ (I’m 5’11″ now) and weighed about 158. They told me that I was burgeoning on being “Over The Weight Limit.” I wanted to ask, “Is that worse than being Over The Rainbow?” Except I didn’t think that the recruiter would catch the subtlety. He wasn’t the brightest fellow I’ve ever met.

I find that people on either extreme these days, both conservative and liberal, seem to have lost their ability to discourse rationally on just about anything. It’s “MY WAY OR THE HIGHWAY!” on both sides. Liberals rail on conservatives for all sorts of controversial issues; conservatives rail on liberals for these same issues. It turns out that both sides have valid points on each issue. But it’s hard to get either side to admit to this. (In case you’re wondering, I’m virtually impossible to categorize politically, as I believe in every woman’s having the right and access to state-funded abortions, yet I also believe that our guns should not be taken away. [Look at crime rates in London and Australia - they haven't gone down appreciably; crimes are just being committed with knives instead of guns.] Here’s something I’ve often wondered about: the government has used the argument that it can’t use federal funds to finance abortions because some people have moral objections to it; yet what of those who have moral objections to having their tax dollars taken away to fund social security that they themselves will never see? Just an interesting philosophical question that happens to be very relevant to all of our lives.)

Anyway, I think I’ve been in a near-decade-long sense of befuddlement following my experience with the military, when they told my gangly, skinny 18-year-old self that I was borderline fat according to their standards. It’s like hearing that my neutered cat has, since his neutering, fathered kittens. I’m just stunned.

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Jannette on December 7, 2010 at 4:10 pm.

Be warned: the next person who offers you cake (or baklava!) may, in fact, be a terrorist trying to undermine our national security.

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Chutti on December 7, 2010 at 4:32 pm.

Thanks Lesley for the historical framework and timeline on this.
Easy to forget, sometimes.

I have a relative who is retired air force, and also a retired doctor from a university synonymous with their weight lost program. His disordered eating and attempts to fit this weight standard went beyond his military career. I think he engaged in a lifetime of disordered eating with training starting in the USAF. As a doctor, there really was no organizational reason for the weight restriction, and it certainly didn’t make him more healthy or fit.

Interestingly,my Mother, his blood relative, and her brother, didn’t get fat until later in life. My mom eats pretty well, never exercised much, but tends to do all chores and physical stuff herself. At 80+, she is the only of her close friends without osteoporosis or mobility issues. One was a flight attendant with weight cycling deluxe, the other two on the cokes n smokes diet plan for decades.
Mom’s brother was the poster child for fat n’ fit, climbing mountains, riding bikes cross-state and didn’t slow down until well after 85. yep-fat the whole time.

It’s just interesting to me to see how our actual PROFESSIONS can train us to accept the dominant message at great expense to our health.
Oh yeah, us fatties must be the biggest drain on health care ever, right?

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Kate on December 7, 2010 at 6:11 pm.

I have a degree in International Studies (I promise this is relevant… sort of. Ha! Just like in real life! My degree is SORT OF RELEVANT. ANyhoo.) Sometimes I’d be reading something saying something controversial about the Middle East, and then you’d look at the stats they used to make the graph and they’ve included, say, China as the middle east. Or left out The stans.
Basically what I am saying is, I love statistics. But they are only useful if you know what they MEAN and how they were collected. They also don’t have much to say about the individual. Also, we MAKE statistics with our body. I mean, all statistics are true FOR THE PAST. They may not be true for the present.

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icedteaandlemoncake on December 7, 2010 at 6:45 pm.

Nothing to add. Just…yes. I get so tired ofpeople thinking the bmi means anything. Ugh.

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Anna on December 7, 2010 at 7:33 pm.

I love this post on multiple levels. Your tone, the range of topics that all fit together…it’s just an excellent piece of work.

I am now on par with TERRORISTS. Because of my fatness! WHOA.

I also really liked your time travel bit. Hilarious!

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Lydia on December 7, 2010 at 8:58 pm.

If indeed 61% of military personnel are above ideal weight, then the question is what responsibility does the military itself have to shoulder for that situation? Surely if people are putting their hands up to join the forces, and are presenting at a less than desirable body weight, then the powers that be can jettison their joining up. But maybe the real problem is that people are joining at an accpetable weight and getting heavier during their active service. In which case the military must bear some responsibilty for that. Why is that ahppening?
We have this ‘soldiers too fat for duty’ bullshit in Australia too from time to time, and I have come to regard it with increased skepticism.
Instead of getting a patsy like David Frum to write an opinion piece which masquerades as a warning on national security, but is in fact another rant about how fat people are ruining our society, the military should be accepting at least some of the rap for this situation. If their soldiers are fat, then maybe they helped make them fat.
I think the underlying problem here is that the military in all western nations are so desperate for recruits, that that will take just about anyone – including people a bit on the heavier side. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. Again, we are led to believe that all soldiers need to be as fit as the SAS, but there’s a large percentage of them who don’t occupy front line jobs, never will and won’t need to be able to survive in the desert for 15 days on end eating scorpions and drinking their own urine.

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Hindi on December 7, 2010 at 9:29 pm.

Great post! And the Doctor Who reference left me with a smile as wide as my face! I’ve been a bit more than obsessed lately.

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staci on December 7, 2010 at 11:40 pm.

Bravo, Lesley! I was hanging on every word of this. You are amazing.

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Christine on December 8, 2010 at 10:36 am.

Great post Lesley! (Also, you look stunning in that photo and I want your dress.)

In any case, I wouldn’t have a problem with discharging or transferring someone who is in active duty due to inability to pass a physical fitness test; but on weight, BMI or some other arbitrary measure (like you know, that sliding scale of the Gay), it’s a problem.

Now I’m off to protest the lack of cake. Certainly there must be cake!

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DaniFae on December 8, 2010 at 11:21 am.

My husband’s in the US Air Force, the problem is how the PT test scores work out, which is as follows: 100 possible points, 50 points for the run, 30 points for the waist measurement, 10 points for push-ups 10 points for sit-ups. It’s become somewhat of a joke, that in combat the guys with the low PT scores would actually fair better in combat, if you scored high, all you can do is run away.

My husband’s a bit on the chubby side, and it’s endless guilt trips, he had an NCO tell him to divorce me because I’m fat, and feeding him nothing but “pizza and fast food” (from a fat man none the less). There’s very little regard for actual fitness or health, because if you have an injury, it’s assumed you’re faking it to get out of something. I’ve known three separate guys who failed their PT tests, and threatened with discharges, in the past 3 months, because they were forced to test injured, my slightly chubby husband, a super muscular guy, and a rail thin guy.

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CollieMom01 on December 8, 2010 at 10:40 am.

As always, a brilliant post. And I don’t know if anyone will remember this, as it’s been ages ago, but the idea of fat detention camps sparked my memory banks. I remember a Lily Tomlin TV special with a sketch where there were fat police, and they pulled you over in your car and pulled out a scale. It’s been so long now that I don’t remember what ultimately happened once you weighed too much–did you get a ticket?? Hauled off to fat camp??? I don’t know–I just remember that image of a very thin Lily Tomlin being forced to get on a scale by a police officer. That image has stuck with me all this time; seems she was way ahead of the rest of us.

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Colleen on December 8, 2010 at 1:39 pm.

Wow. Ignorant people are almost as abundant as fat people! XD Great post!
Oh, and you made a Doctor Who reference. You are my hero.

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Living400lbs on December 9, 2010 at 1:35 am.

I must be a security risk. Horrors!

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Laurie on December 13, 2010 at 3:41 pm.

I know this thread has already been put to bed, and I’m way late to the game, but I just have to say, that is a great dress!!! Where’d you get it? (Sorry, I can’t add anything intelligent to the conversation. I just really liked the dress!)

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BillLaMoreyshow on December 13, 2010 at 9:12 pm.

I think whenever you overplay your hand and over-politicize an issue it tends to get kind of funny and sometimes downright silly; which is the inspiration for this video “Michelle Obama warns: Beware of Weapons of Mass Consumption!”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BlpbsbLAn28

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Tracy H on December 30, 2010 at 1:20 am.

I love love LOVE the article you wrote for Newsweek. I see myself so much in the description of yourself growing up. I am going to forward it to my friends. Thanks for sharing!

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Audrey on January 12, 2011 at 4:12 am.

“Serving personnel who exceed military limits are offered counseling, nutritional programs and other weight-control assistance. Discharge is very much a last and unwelcome resort.”

Hmm…I didn’t see any counseling, when I ended up in the weight control program – unless you count the leader of the “Fat PT” yelling at us to move our asses. :P
Nutritional programs? WHERE? Perhaps the Marine Corps is low priority…maybe the Army, Navy, and Air Force get nutritional programs, but we sure as hell didn’t. We got little snippets of advice like “eat more veggies” …uh, yeah. Do you know how much I get PAID?! I can’t afford veggies. I have to eat at the chow hall, you MORON! :P
Weight-control assistance… oh, what we affectionately called “fat PT”? You’d go at o-dark-fuggin-thirty to listen to someone yell at you about how fat you are while you continue to do the same exercises over and over again.
Can someone remind me of the definition of insanity? :D
Oh, wait:
Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. ~ Albert Einstein
I remember one day – on the way back from another failed Physical Fitness Test. One of my fellow Marine fatties was kind enough to drive me, as I was on restriction, and was forbidden to drive. The conversation went like this:
Him: Do you want out?
Me: God, yes!
Him: Then don’t be afraid to let yourself go.
~I’m not kidding. It’s not a fast or easy way to get out of the military, but if you’re miserable and desperate, you’ll do anything to escape it.

It is actually listed on my DD214 (separation document)- failed to conform to body weight/composition standards…but it’s put on as an afterthought. The real reason for my discharge? Misconduct. Meaning…I was a bad girl and didn’t listen. I had a bunch of teeny tiny infractions (which were gradually getting bigger, so the discharge was a blessing to both me and the USMC).
In short, I don’t conform well.
Tell me something I don’t know. :D

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