Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Sour Grapes?

The Free Dictionary defines the expression "sour grapes" as:
  • denial of the desirability of something after one has found out that it cannot be reached or acquired
  • the attitude of affecting to despise something because one cannot or does not have it oneself
    [from a fable by Aesop]
I'm sure that at least one of my readers is convinced that this is my "real" problem with the BMI. It's not that it's a blunt or inaccurate measure of health or that it can potentially backfire on those who look to it as the bottom-line arbiter of good health nor that it can actually encourage individuals to give up healthy habits since their BMI still doesn't register at or below the correct number. No. It's that since clearly my own BMI is too high, I am just reacting with a petulant expression of sour grapes.

Well, sorry, but the lady is going to protest.

The sour grapes argument, in my opinion, actually hides some very serious and dangerous underlying messages.

I believe the most damaging underlying message is that an overweight person who criticizes the BMI does so only because she is too lazy, slovenly, weak-willed and greedy to suck it up and do the work required to lose weight. If she just put her nose to the grindstone, success would be hers. If she just stopped wallowing self-pity and shut her fat gob, she too would become svelte and healthy. The implication is that everyone under similar conditions will gain or lose weight in exactly the same way or at exactly the same rate (three British documentaries certainly beg to differ: Why Thin People Don't Get Fat, Super Slim Me and Super Skinny Me). It therefore follows that slim people are that way simply because they are more virtuous than fat people. If fat people only behaved like slim people, they would be slim too.

But let's go even further. Something perhaps even more insidious lies behind the above attitude: the overwhelming belief that achieving a "normal" BMI (or let's just say losing weight or looking good in a bikini or wearing a size 0) is purely a question of individual will and the choices one makes as an individual every day. It's the belief that we are ultimately the masters of our own fate.

Sadly, this manichean view of life--the black or white view that hard-working people succeed and slackers don't--permeates our society and enables those who "succeed" to lay the blame for failure squarely at the feet of the vast majority who, for reasons both within but more importantly outside their control do not become society's winners.

Let's be clear: I do not believe that we are merely puppets in the hands of some otherworldly being, or that our fate is written in stone the minute we burst into the world.

I consider myself someone who has worked and continues to work hard to achieve certain goals in life, be they financial, personal or health-related. In many ways, I consider myself a person who has succeeded in life by making and implementing decisions that have enabled her to overcome certain obstacles in life.

Yes, I admit it: I make choices. And choices seem to be at the heart of the belief that "you can do it if you only try", which underlies the whole weight loss movement.

But there's a problem when it comes to weight loss: despite what many medical professionals, laypeople, and reality TV show creators alike believe, not every person who is overweight eats like a pig and lies around watching TV all day. Not every person who exercises regularly and eats a balanced diet full of reasonable quantities of fresh, unprocessed foods is slim or at least no larger than 24.9 on the BMI. Like my 98-pound weakling friend, doing all the right things does not necessarily get you to goal.

Many people--particularly in North America--could no doubt benefit from making some better personal choices in what they eat. Do I worry about people who chug-a-lug large bottles of sugar-laden pop every day? Am I concerned about the current spate of commercials suggesting parents serve their children a product for breakfast whose total calories are composed of 50% fat and 40% sugar (the other 10% does have some food value)? Of course I am.

Do I make what I consider thoughtful, healthy food choices in my own life? Yes, again.

And would I be thrilled to see better phys ed programs in the schools; more walkable cities; better public transit; a tax on junk food and subsidies for locally grown, pesticide and hormone-free foods; the elimination of food deserts.

I firmly believe that there are many societal measures and personal choices we can make that do contribute to making us healthier individuals and creating a healthier society. They just won't make us slim.

On a population level, we know that 95% of people who diet fail (and fail repeatedly) and we strongly suspect that many of these people end up even heavier than before they dieted. Evidence is also growing that what the body perceives as on-going starvation (aka dieting) acts as a damper on one's metabolism, making it increasingly hard to lose weight and much easier and quicker to gain it back. While choice can make the difference on a personal level, society-wide the only thing we can be sure of is that people spend upwards of $60 billion yearly trying to lose weight and failing to do so in both the short but especially the long-run.

It seems that our obsession with the BMI has led us further away from striving for good health, as opposed to a "good" number. We don't actually know what the effects on population health would be if, as a society, we implemented campaigns to improve our health through eating healthier, less processed foods rather than simply concentrating on limiting portions or eating lo-cal Frankenfoods. Nor do we know what would happen if ALL kids in school were encouraged to be active, rather than shaming the fat kids into withdrawing from sports while pouring lots of money, time and effort into building elite athletic teams that build the school's reputation.

If as both individuals and a society, we focused on positive attitudes and activities rather than on striving for a magical number, we would end up in a world filled with healthy people of many different sizes. That's not sour grapes. That's striving for health for myself, as an individual, and for a healthier world. Rejecting the tyranny of the BMI is not sour grapes, it means taking the focus off aiming for a number and putting it where it belongs: aiming for a healthy life.


  1. Maybe we should all stop focusing on what other people think and aim for our own 'best'. I think Our world would be a better place if we all just focused on what we do, being the best person we can be. By we I mean 'I'. And not worrying even what your doctor thinks. You doctor isn't going to die with you. I have given up the numbers on the scale for the look I want. As I loose weight I would get 'scared' because I have issues from my past that crop up with certain numbers. I let go of the scale and my fear left. So, I count calories and exercise. One day ( I presume within the next three or four months) I will hit my mark. Then I will step on the scale and see what or where I am at. Then THAT will be 'goal weight'. And if it above be it. If it is be it.

  2. It gets the wrong idea in young girls head about pursuing a lower BMI and can be triggering!

  3. As I have been posting lately, I think that we all have choices, but we all do not have the same choices nor the capacity to make them equally. All talk of "choices" is oversimplified and presents choice as if we all have the same ones and an equal capacity to make them. A thirsty man does not have the same capacity ti turn down a glass of water as a man who just drank a glass of water. A man who is dying of thirst has even less capacity to say no. When it comes to many, many choices in life, we all fall into one of these three types, but tend to believe we're all precisely the same.

    People who think that fat people are "jealous" of their bodies are elevating themselves to gratify their own ego. The same goes for people who believe that their choices are superior. These are people who essentially lead empty lives with less than meaningful achievements and have to attach superiority to trivial differences. They have to believe they are better than you because their fragile self-esteem is attached to a need to be superior based on something as ridiculous as food choices, exercise habits, or the appearance of their bodies.

    Everyone who says you have a case of sour grapes is telling you something about themselves and saying nothing whatsoever about you.