I was recently asked by a colleague at the college that I teach at, how I thought we should we be teaching Body Mass Index (BMI) so not to harm our students. First off, I wanted to fly out of my chair and hug her for asking this question. Second, I thought how do we teach nutrition and health and wellness and weights without harming. Especially in this day and age. When everyone in the room has a different story and a different relationship with food and their body. When I look out at a classroom full of students that have self selected into studying nutrition I know that there are likely many different internalized views on what it means to be healthy and how to achieve this. We do not know the struggles anyone in our classes are having with food or body. And we can't assume that nobody in class is struggling.
I was even more reminded about the diet stew we swim in when giving a class an assignment on diets. They needed to find a fad diet- (I used to say fad diet but have switched it to diet because they need to realize that anything that has rules or restricts is a diet, fad or not), they research where the diet can be found (in a book, online, in a shop), state the claims, find scientific research to back up the claims- or research at the disputes the claims and compare it to Canada's Food Guide (not perfect but a comparison). Every year -this is the 4th year I have taught this class with this assignment- I get emails from students pointing out that Whole30 or paleo are not diets- they are lifestyle changes and I should remove them from the list of diets. Or that they can't find any journal articles to support (insert any restrictive diet here) so they would like permission to quote off the website as it sounds scientific (??). And every year I am reminded of how strong the pull of the diet industry is. I try to surround myself with like minded people (or nobody I am friends with talks to me about diets anymore because they were worried about my head with all the eye rolling and forehead slapping). My social media feeds are very carefully curated to include images of all body sizes and non diet inclusive minded feeds, even my podcast selection are mostly the same HAES, non-diet, inclusive podcasts. I think I really do forget what the "other side" looks like. I think I forget how radical I sound to these students. I think I forget that some of them really do think that Whole30 or the diet du jour will make life better and their bodies smaller.
Which is what brings me back to the beginning of this post. How do we teach BMI in a way that will not be harmful especially when they are swimming in the diet stew? We never know the lived experiences of all the people we come into contact with especially when teaching. When I teach I am considered the expert in the room (I cringed at writing that if you are interested...I do not think I am expert at anything expect myself). If I stand up there and say this is the BMI, this is how you calculate it, this is what your category is...and leave it at that...what I am leaving there? Did I just trigger a student into thinking they need to lose weight because they see their BMI in the overweight category? Did I just put my whole class into a defined box that doesn't account for anything except their height relative to their weight? So, do I even teach BMI? Yes, I do. And here is why. Even if I do not use it in practice or find it relevant, they will see it in the world. They will come across it in their work and their lives. They will be told what their BMI is at doctors appointments or while getting a fitness assessment at a gym. They will see the chart in magazines or in weighting rooms. And I want to teach them what that number really means. I want to make sure they know how the BMI was created, where the categories came from and all the limitations. I want to teach them that they are so much more than a number on a scale or a point on a chart. ( I would like to take this point to thank Fiona Willer AvdAPD for her podcast "Unpacking Weight Science" (you can find it here https://www.patreon.com/UnpackingWeightScience/posts) and her online course of the same name as Fiona is now giving me even more tools and the proper language to use when teaching about weight. She is on the SheRo list for sure ) I want to teach my students to look at diets critically and use this critical thinking when assessing weights and bodies. If I can even reach one student in each class then we will continue to ripple out this effect.
So in short- Yes I think we can teach BMI in a way that is less harming but we need to teach where it came from, how we got to using it the way that we do and be very clear about all the things it does not measure. I need to acknowledge that even though I would erase BMI from the world- I can't. But I can arm the future with enough knowledge to challenge its uses and slowly over time I hope we will not have to be having conversations about how do we teach BMI in a non harmful way, we will be teaching about the archaic why we used to think weight was related to health and this ancient index that makes no sense.
Until next time be unapologetically you while I continue to be Unapologetically me