Does body size matter? When it comes to health, yes, but maybe not as much as we think.
Thin is better, right? Wrong. Take British model Kate Moss, for example. At a reported 170 centimetres tall and a weight of 48.5 kilograms, she is certainly thin. But given her well-documented love of cigarettes and champagne, she is hardly a role model for healthy living.
Just as you can’t judge a book by its cover, it is impossible to gauge a person’s health by their size alone. Particularly deceptive is the internationally used body mass index (BMI) measurement, in which a person’s weight in kilograms is divided by the square of their height in metres. A result of between 20 to 25 is considered to be in the healthy range, 25 to 30 overweight and more than 30 is obese.
But, according to an adjunct professor at the Australian National University’s medical school, Dick Telford, the measurement is misleading, as it gives no indication of a person’s overall body-fat percentage.
”It’s not always a reliable indicator of whether someone is a healthy weight,” he says. ”With the BMI, you can do height and weight but you’re not going to take more specific measurements of body fat for everyone in the population. It’s just impossible. Where we get into a bit of strife is when we make inferences on smaller groups or individuals using the BMI.”
At the Australian Institute of Sport, Telford measured the BMI of professional athletes.
”I remember the Canberra Raiders, getting people like Mal Meninga, for example,” he says. ”They were very lean, muscular, big people with body mass index ratings which put them in the obese category.
”If you took a skin fold, though, you would see immediately that they had a very low percentage of body fat.
”They were big and lean – not big and fat.”
Conversely, a person might be in the healthy weight range but a lack of exercise, a bad diet, cigarette smoking and heavy alcohol consumption might put them on the fast route to the emergency department. Look no further than singer Amy Winehouse, who slimmed down when she found success but has since become the poster girl for alcohol and drug addiction. She re-entered rehab last week.
The director of body-image specialists Shape Your Mind, psychologist Olivia Patrick, says society needs to accept that slenderness does not equal good health or physical appeal.
”We are constantly fed this message – particularly women but increasingly men – that you have to be thin to be attractive,” Patrick says. ”Really, it’s not the case at all.”
The chief executive of eating disorders education and support group The Butterfly Foundation, Christine Morgan, says concerns about weight have led to a culture in which dieting is seen as normal.
”There are valid concerns about obesity but one of the biggest issues with dieting is that it has been shown to cause obesity,” Morgan says.
”When we go on a diet, it changes our metabolism. Coupled with that, when we restrict our food intake, that starts a physical urge to binge. You end up in this vicious cycle.”
The director of a leading Australian plus-size modelling agency, Bella Model Management, Chelsea Bonner, also challenges the size-eight culture.
When the agency – which represents models up to size 18 – opened its doors nine years ago, it was met with some resistance from the fashion industry.
But attitudes have changed and Bonner’s models have worked for leading designers such as Leona Edmiston and brands including Berlei and Bonds.
”We say, ‘Look at your shelves,”’ Bonner says. ”What’s selling? If it’s mostly size 12s that are selling, use a size-12 model. She can still be beautiful and inspirational to look at but she can still be a realistic size.”
What’s Ideal Anyway?
A hundred years ago, the look for Western women was best illustrated by the empire-line silhouette, which accentuated the bust and waist. A decade later, boobs were out as the flat-chested flapper look came into vogue in the 1920s. Things changed again in the 1930s, when a rounder appearance became fashionable, followed by the hourglass curves of the 1950s, best exemplified by actor Marilyn Monroe.
In the 1960s, the fashion pendulum swung once more to the boyish with Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton the top models of the day. A few decades on the thin models were cast aside for the glamazons of the 1980s – think Elle Macpherson and Cindy Crawford – whose toned, athletic bodies defined the new ideal.
The arrival of the 1990s saw the launch of the new waif, ushered in by Kate Moss. Heroin chic followed, only to be bumped out in the new millennium by the return of the glamazon in the form of Brazilian model Gisele Bundchen.
Curves have returned this decade. Thanks to the likes of Christina Hendricks and the 1950s fashion revival, it’s hip to have hips once again.