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Fat and fit: a new way of understanding health

Panelists say Body Mass Index ignores emotions, finances and more

It’s scarier than cancer, war or losing both parents:

Being fat.

So said 10-year-old children who took part in a study cited in the book, “Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls,” by Jes Baker. Megan Tekchandani, a Pacific University alumna, read a passage from Baker’s work at a panel discussion last Tuesday, Sept. 27, which opened with the question, “What does fat mean to you?”

Matthew Lydum, Jennifer Bhalla and Tekchandani did their best to answer at “Scam on the Scale: Fit at All Sizes,” an event put on by Pacific’s Center for Gender Equity. Nationwide, fat-shaming is suddenly in the spotlight since the recent presidential debate focused briefly on how Republican candidate Donald Trump called a former Miss Universe "Miss Piggy" after she gained weight and how he denigrates overweight women (charges Trump did not deny).

“There’s so much pressure on boys and girls,” Tekchandani said. “It’s time to start surrounding ourselves with healthy images and letting children know they can be fit, healthy and happy with whoever they end up being and with the body they end up having.”

That’s a tough goal in modern American society, said Lydum, Pacific’s head track and field coach. Corporations control the images present in mainstream media such as television, movies and advertisements.

The standards of beauty presented there are nearly impossible to achieve in the first place and even tougher in a society that markets unhealthy products such as beer and processed foods almost as aggressively as it markets skinny, said Lydum.

That paradox presents problems across genders. Tekchandani pointed out the pressures of physical appearance on men are not as widely discussed as the pressures on women, which can often lead to sweeping men’s issues under the rug.

The burden on men to work out and build muscle can lead to extreme behaviors, such as using steroids and eating inadequately, which can lead to health problems like impotency and low bone density, respectively, said Bhalla, an exercise science professor at Pacific.

Other common problems arising from these pressures include eating disorders — which meet official clinical criteria — and disordered eating, an unofficial but very real problem of unhealthy eating behaviors such as skipping meals, trying to cut out all sugar for a month and fad dieting, Bhalla said.

Addressing eating disorders and disordered eating can be tricky, Bhalla added, because most people tried to hide them and for a short time may even be getting their desired results like losing weight. “It’s hard to break someone’s pattern, especially if they’re looking the way they want to,” Bhalla said, and even if they're feeling sick, tired or emotionally drained.

Lydum agreed. Even if an athlete’s performance initially increases because he’s carrying around 10 percent less body fat, it will decrease due to injury or fatigue because the person is unhealthy.

Health is a measure of many fitness types, from cardiovascular to emotional to financial, Lydum said. That’s why all three panelists are against using the Body Mass Index, numbers and scales as measures of fitness and health. A person can be skinny and unhealthy as well as heavy and fit, they agreed.

Bhalla, who also coaches Pacific women’s soccer, encourages her athletes to use their bodies the best way they can. Common among coaches across sports is to discount players based on height and size before even seeing them play, she said.

Bhalla thinks promoting “physical literacy” in youth could be the solution to some of these problems. This means creating children who are competent in physical activities across multiple environments that don’t require any special size or athletic ability. In addition, education for all people — not only about the benefits of physical activity but the health risks of inactivity — should be paramount, Bhalla said.

Tekchandani thinks American society needs to shift the focus from size to healthy behaviors. “How does it feel to move your body through the world? What do you like to do?” she said. “It’s all about respect for yourself and the body you live in.”