More on The Trouble With Normal

18th June 2007

More on The Trouble With Normal

Fatfu wrote a stellar post in which she questions standardized notions of what exactly constitutes “normal” body weights, and the difficulties in implementing a one-size-fits-all approach in regards to health. She writes:

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.”

In addition to BMI, which has been shown to be clearly flawed in its application, doctors most often use height/weight ranges to dictate what someone ought weigh. We’ve all seen them before, the charts which list heights corresponding to weight ranges in one of three frame sizes: small, medium and large. Go here to see an example.

But do you know where these handy dandy charts originated? The answer may surprise you.

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 which the government has wholeheartedly adopted and endorsed.

Metropolitan Life based its standards on its clients, which invariably included middle-class, middle- to late-aged white folk. The tables were not suitable for younger adults and children and certainly excluded the data of people of color who, in the 1940s, most often could not afford life insurance.

In its new tables, Metropolitan Life followed a trend which had begun sometime around 1910 in pushing the concept of underweight to overweight as preferable and healthier. This comes as part of a larger national pattern in transforming fat from the coveted notion of health and wealth in the 19th century, to becoming reviled and something to be attacked in the 20th century.

Weights listed in Metropolitan Life’s tables dropped weight ranges by 8 percent across the board throughout a 17-year period in which the company further revised and trimmed its suggested weight ranges. In 1942, the company suggested a medium-framed man of 5’8″ should weigh 145-156 pounds; in 1959, he was supposed to weigh between 145-152. In the same span, a medium frame woman of 5’4″ went from 124-132, to 113-126 pounds.

To determine frame size, Metropolitan Life gave these directions:

Bend forearm upward at a 90 degree angle. Keep fingers straight and turn the inside of your wrist toward your body. Place thumb and index finger of other hand on the two prominent bones on either side of the elbow. Measure space between your fingers on a ruler.(A physician would use a caliper.) Compare with tables below listing elbow measurements for medium-framed men and women. Measurements lower than those listed indicate small frame. Higher measurements indicate large frame.”

If you could follow these instructions, congratulations. I couldn’t, and neither can scores of Americans who instead, pick their frame size subjectively. Additionally, elbow-width or wrist-width does correlate fairly well with muscle and bone mass, rendering Metropolitan Life’s well-intentioned attempts to compensate for differing body types moot.

Other problems with Metropolitan Life’s charts: Most people who use the Met Life tables don’t realize that they should specify their height while wearing “1 inch heel shoes”. And weights listed for tall people or short people are impossibly low.

But more importantly, the weights listed on Metropolitan Life’s charts were considered “desirable weights,” which would indicate those persons with the lowest mortality rates. Somehow the “desirable weight” ranges somehow became synonymous with “ideal weight” and Americans have been killing themselves, literally, to fit within these ranges for decades.

It’s as my favorite musical artist, Bruce Cockburn sings: “The trouble with normal is that it always gets worse.

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This entry was posted on Monday, June 18th, 2007 at 2:40 pm and is filed under Fat Bias, Health, Nutrition & Fitness, Pop Culture. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

There are currently 3 responses to “More on The Trouble With Normal”

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  1. 1 On June 18th, 2007, deja pseu said:

    It’s also my understanding that the first Met Life height/weight tables were compiled based on people in turn-of-Minnesota, who at the time tended to be predominantly of Scandinavian ancestry (tend to be taller and thinner than the general population) as well as from the middle to upper class economic status.

  2. 2 On June 18th, 2007, deja pseu said:

    Make that “turn-of-the-century Minnesota.” Doh!

  3. 3 On July 22nd, 2009, The history of BMI and why we still use it » said:

    [...] Belgian polymath Adolphe Quetelet devised what we now know as the BMI equation in 1832 as a way to define the “normal man.”  He never intended for the equation (weight equals height squared) to be used to determine body fat — his project was intended to describe the standard proportions of the human build.  The equation was largely ignored by the medical community even though insurance companies began using somewhat vague comparisons of height and weight among policyholders beginning in the early twentieth century.   Slate writer Jeremy Singer-Vine doesn’t go in much detail about these tables, but I’ve written on their history here. [...]

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