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, “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.


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