The Trouble With Normal Weight

I’m reading Michael Warner’s  “The Trouble With Normal,”  about homosexuality and…well…the trouble with the idea of “normal.” I had to share this passage…which was so relevant to the relationship of fat to the “normal”:

As [19th Century] doctors began using…statistical methods [to determine the statistical norm], they usually thought they were discovering natural laws…normal came to mean right, proper, healthy. What most people are, the new wisdom went, is what people should be….

He points out how these “norms” are invariably dependent on just who is chosen as “normative” (e.g. White Europeans? People in which environment? Which age group? Which era?), and something that should be fairly obvious, health itself is impossible without variety and variability in the population in order to allow for change and adaptability. “Health requires variation. Not a pregiven norm.”

He continues:

…From the late nineteenth century onward, people had to work very hard to resist this medical fallacy, which was rooted in the confusion between statistical regularities and natural laws. The lesson in this struggle should have been one of skepticism toward all norms of health that express social norms, preferences for certain ways of living, or tastes of the majority.

This so resonates with “the trouble with normal weight.” Fat-phobia is not just about a taste for certain body-shapes. It’s also about a taste for a certain way of living. And the fear that people who don’t have the right body shape, aren’t living the right way. It’s almost impossible to listen to discussions about the “obesity epidemic” without hearing it morph into a detailed dissection of what it means to live “right”, and the need to “educate” or otherwise coerce the fat (especially the poor and minorities) to change their imagined “poor lifestyle” into something more presentable.

And of course, the most aggressive and ill-considered fallacy on which most people premise their pronouncements about weight, is, of course, that everyone is “meant” to be a single weight – that variations from the “normal” aren’t about natural human variability – they’re “abnormal,” and therefore “unhealthy” and therefore “disease.”


And since those same people also tend to believe that fat isn’t heritable and is purely a reflection of “lifestyle,” then the distance from which you travel from the “normal” is a reflection of your distance, not only from “health” but from “good behavior.”

By the way, I’m not discounting any correlations of fat with health effects. Every human variation has its own “risks” – as a woman I know I’m at risk for breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and osteoporosis.  Men have other risks. Short people have certain risks, and tall people others. Straight men have different risks from gay men who have different risks from lesbians. Every ethnicity has its own risks too. And as I enter middle age I find myself confronting an array of risks I didn’t have when I was young. Am I now officially “unhealthy?”

And just as importantly, whatever health correlations there are for weight vary immensely depending on who you’re talking about, their age, their gender, their ethnicity, their illnesses, and any number of other variables. 

So that in general the  label of “unhealth” to fat is so vastly overgeneralized, oversimplified and hyperbolically stated that it serves little value in improving health. It only serves to rationalize hate and discrimination, to foster panic-driven (and not evidence-driven) public policy, and to undergird the (il)logic of a universal prescription for weight loss without consideration for benefits, dangers, (in)efficacy….or simple humility in the face of how much is not yet known.

How does the idea of fat as simple “unhealth”  jibe with two studies this week that showed that the fat have a lower risk of suicide, and that fat people with heart disease fare better than others? They make it jibe by calling it “The Obesity Paradox.” Yes, it must be a paradox because we’ve already labelled fat as unhealthy.

But why are we so quick to impose the label of “unhealth” on any and all variations from “normal weight?” For the most part it’s simply because we’re always quick to assume that anything straying from the statistical average -“the normal” – is by definition deviance and disease.


13 Responses to “The Trouble With Normal Weight”

  1. meowser Says:

    This is what has always stuck in my craw. Allegedly two-thirds of us in America are “too fat” according to BMI data to one degree or another, right? (Yeah, that supposedly includes George Bush and George Clooney, but…wev.) What I want to know is, how can two-thirds of any given population, especially one as massive as this one, be considered “deviant” or “abnormal,” even by most people who fall into this category?

  2. fatfu Says:

    Good point. Well I guess it’s in part because the “norm” we’re using is a nostalgic norm that assumes that people in earlier eras were “healthier.” So people buy the idea that most people nowdays are “abnormal” because they’re also very ready to presume that modern life is not just “different” but inherently unhealthy, lazy, “unnatural,” and so on. But that goes exactly to the trouble of deciding which group, in this case which era, do you choose to make “normative.”

  3. rebecca Says:

    it’s the difference between “normal” (which could theoretically just mean average or most-commonly-occuring) and “normative,” which implies a whole complex social thing that everything must be compared to and judged in light of. a category can remain normative even as the number of actual people in that category shrinks and shrinks.

  4. rebecca Says:

    ps: same commenter as above — the “must” (in “normative,” which implies a whole complex social thing that everything must be compared to and judged in light of) was meant facetiously. 🙂

  5. meowser Says:

    I have to shake my head reflexively when I hear people insist that everyone was healthier 30 or 50 or however many years ago. That is just ridiculous.

    Look, it used to be common for people to pass away quietly in their mid-50s from heart attacks while sitting in front of the TV at night. That hardly ever happens any more.

    People hardly ever ate fresh vegetables or fruit (let alone organics) or whole grains 30 or 50 years ago. Going to the gym was something even professional athletes didn’t do for the most part, let alone rank-and-file workers. If people exercised, it was maybe doing jumping jacks and situps to the Jack La Lanne show. Woot.

    As for the vaunted gym classes of our 1970s youth, I recall a whole lot of standing/sitting around and pointing and laughing at classmates (me), and not a whole lot of actual aerobic exercise.

    We also have more people who have never smoked cigarettes or who have quit, who don’t reflexively say “I need a drink” when stressed out, who don’t have to work physically hazardous, even poisonous, jobs to earn a living. We have less air pollution, indoors and out. And immunization has knocked out a whole bunch of formerly devastating diseases.

    Things aren’t perfect, obviously. Too many people still have insane commutes to their jobs or have to work multiple jobs to keep themselves afloat. And particularly in poor neighborhoods there aren’t many safe places to walk or play, and not enough good quality fruits and veggies are available. People are still way too stressed out, and an awful lot of stress is heaped on kids to be perfectperfectperfect, to get top grades and test scores and be thin and athletic and cute and popular (but not so cute and popular that they attract freaks) and constantly walk on eggshells around adults with ever-fragile egos. There’s still lots of racism and sexism and homophobia and (yes) sizism that takes a terrible toll on people.

    But worse than the 20th century? C’mon.

  6. Rachel Says:

    The entire concept of how we measure “ideal weight” is a classic case in point. In 1942, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company – a company with dollar figures as its primary concern, not the health of the nation – introduced the standardized height/weight tables that the government adopted until they were revised in the 1980s.

    The company based its standards on its clients, which invariably included middle-class, middle- to late-aged white folk. The weights listed were considered “desirable weights” and dropped weight ranges by 8 percent across the board. The weights listed for tall people or short people are impossibly low weights.

    Somehow the “desirable weight” ranges somehow became synonomous with “ideal weight” and Americans have been killing themselves, literally, to fit within these ranges for decades.

  7. » Blog Archive » More on The Trouble With Normal Says:

    […] wrote a stellar post in which she questions standardized notions of what exactly constitutes “normal” body […]

  8. Kate217 Says:

    Stellar post. It should be required reading in every 10th-grade bio class in the country.

    In addition, those Met Life weights that Rebecca (? – I hope, I wasn’t paying close enough attention) mentioned were self reported, single time measurements. So they were based on unsubstantiated reports of healthy, young clients.

    Yeah, for about 20 minutes in college I had a BMI of 19.5. Given that I was very muscular, I actually had an unhealthily-low percentage of body fat. Had I been reporting then, my 127 pounds (which I probably would have claimed was the 118 that I bizarrely thought I should weigh) would have been the weight they had on record. Their stats would have assumed that I am still that weight today. No surprise that I’m not.

  9. Kate217 Says:

    ACK! I meant “no surprise that I don’t.”

  10. Stef Says:

    Eric Oliver in Fat Politics has a couple of pages about the historical developmental of the concept that “average” is the same as “ideal”. He discusses a Belgian astronomer named Adolphe Quetelet who, in the 1830s, invented the notion of BMI by studying the height and weight of members of the French and Scottish armies. Choice quote: “BMI did not become widely used until a century later because body weight was not a very good mechanism for social differentiation. Most people in the nineteenth century struggled to get enough to eat and few had the luxury of worrying about whether they were too fat.”

  11. fatfu Says:

    Rachel – interesting about MetLife I didn’t know that they’d dropped it another 8%. And thanks for the pingback.

    Kate – self-reporting is a problem that keeps rearing its ugly head in fat studies. It’s often used to check up on dieter’s success rates, for instance, so somehow I’m not surprised that it was used in the fashioning of the original “ideal” weight tables too.

  12. Strata Chalup Says:

    M-X Irony Mode On:
    Concerned about weight and BMI issues as an indicator of morality? Maybe as fat people, we should do the public service of alerting the media and the general populace to the epidemic of abnormal, non-average, overly muscular professional athletes.

    Remember that testosterone excess can cause non-peaceful behavior, and that muscle tissue requires testosterone to maintain. These professional athletes are seething social explosions, waiting to go off– just look at all the news headlines about them, and I’m sure that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

    Children probably shouldn’t be allowed to participate in team sports if they are ‘too’ athletic, or show athletic tendencies, otherwise they may be at risk for being too muscular, and intimidating to their fellow citizens.
    End Irony-Mode.


  13. Big Fat Carnival - Sixth Edition at Says:

    […] The Trouble with Normal Weight at fat fu Fat-phobia is not just about a taste for certain body-shapes. It’s also about a taste for a certain way of living. And the fear that people who don’t have the right body shape, aren’t living the right way. […]

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