Before exploring men's critical understandings, it should be acknowledged that everyday talk about, relating to and surrounding the BMI is not always critical and such words do have positive functions. For example, reference to the BMI sometimes serves as a springboard for discussing weight and health-related concerns more generally, enabling men to present themselves in a steady ‘moral light’ (Goffman 1959). For at least some men who were seeking to lose weight, endorsing the BMI enabled them to display a version of social fitness, i.e. doing being knowledgeable about official definitions and being seen to be concerned to achieve a ‘healthier’ if not medically ‘healthy’ weight. However, explicit endorsement of and an expressed intention personally to achieve biomedical norms was exceptional. Only two men, both slimmers from middle-class backgrounds (a retired school headmaster and a retired bank manager), expressed their intention to comply with the BMI. As well as their similar generational and class habitus, both said they had been recently advised by clinicians to lose some weight. Three other slimmers, one of whom was not part of the interview sample, said they complied with the BMI in the past though they subsequently revised their goals.
Aside from Doug's initial yet subsequently qualified acceptance of the BMI, this extract contains many relevant themes. These include: the discrepancy between medical and everyday definitions of obesity; identifying a personally acceptable weight, which exceeds medically recommended levels; the heterogeneity of bodies, which cannot be standardised; slimness equalling illness, especially for older men; and the more or less acceptable distribution of weight around the divisible male body (e.g. shoulders or abdomen). In an age of risk and uncertainty, where obesity epidemic claims could discredit almost everybody, such talk is related to personal coherence or what Giddens (1991) calls a reflexive project of self. Or, in offering a more gendered reading, these are masculine validating words. They assuage possible imputations of irresponsibility, vulnerability and effeminacy which are stereotypically ascribed to bodies seen to be overweight, obese or fat.
Even Arnold is ‘obese’: the compatibility of heaviness, healthiness and physical fitness
I mean, when you consider Arnold Schwarzenegger's BMI is over 30 it makes a complete mockery of it all really (Mitch).
Mitch, in displaying moral worth, told me he had been a member of Sunshine for five years. He added that he had lost six stone but he was currently two stone above his personally defined target weight ‘because life gets in the way and you put a bit on when there's things going on like holidays’ (Field diary, slimming club). Mitch, who was in his early forties, explained that his BMI was between 28 and 30. However, he disagreed with this index for several reasons, with his words constituting ‘an apparently natural justification’ (Bourdieu 2001) rather than an ‘excuse-account’ (Scott and Lyman 1968) as with his reference to holidaying. After saying ‘I looked ill when I got down to the ideal weight for my height’ (see next section), he reasoned this index had no credibility because it defined Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former elite bodybuilder and Hollywood action hero, as obese. Mitch, similar to Doug and others quoted below, was not suggesting he was extremely muscular like Schwarzenegger. Rather, given his other complaints and commitments, his talk implied that physical fitness, healthiness and masculine worth were not the preserve of men with a medically ‘correct’ BMI.
Health authorities certainly acknowledge that the BMI does not measure body fat and is problematic when applied to muscular men. For example, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) website featured cartoon caricatures of a male bodybuilder and a man with a rotund physique, along with disclaimers about the limitations of the BMI (CDCP 2004). Yet, the weight-centred approach to health was endorsed when it stated: ‘[a]s a person's BMI increases the risk for many diseases increases as well’ (CDCP 2004). Aside from commonsense and obesity science which throw that sweeping generalisation into question (Campos et al. 2006a, Cogan 1999), non-bodybuilders such as Mitch maintain that they too may be healthy even when at a weight that medicine labels overweight or obese. Yet, and certainly for Mitch, he felt obliged to lose weight for aesthetic reasons. While talking to Mitch close to the slimming club weigh-in desk – a ‘zone’ of ‘normative embodiment’ (Watson 2000) where bodies are objectified – he said he originally lost weight to improve his appearance rather than health, which was reportedly good. While his words perhaps say more about his presentation of self (Goffman 1959), and subjective definitions of health, than his physiological status, they are plausible given medical reports of people who are ‘metabolically normal’ yet ‘obese’ (Campos et al. 2006a: 57). Mitch, in invoking ‘visceral embodiment’ (Watson 2000), obviously resented weighty social prescriptions, the moral obligation to embrace slimming culture: ‘I mean, if your health is good within certain parameters, like blood pressure, why should you HAVE to lose weight?’
Metabolic health and ‘the look’ may be distinct, with the pursuit of the latter in its more stylised or exaggerated masculine (muscular) forms attracting criticism from ordinary men (Watson 2000). However, the aestheticisation of men's bodies and the representational significance of health in consumer culture (Monaghan 2001b) are buttressed by the medicalised disparagement of male fatness. There is a rationalisation of the aesthetic, or, to borrow from Watson (2000), within the dominant obesity discourse there is a conflation of normative embodiment with the visceral. This also impacts upon experiential embodiment, masculine identities and the idea of ‘being in shape’ (Watson 2000: 115). This is evidenced beyond my sample. Klein (1996), writing before the intensification of obesity epidemic psychology, may have felt able to assert his masculinity when stating ‘there are times when I value and appreciate my fat [ . . . ] it makes me feel bigger and stronger, more impressive and more serious’ but his words immediately follow his reference to the ascribed medical risks of abdominal fat and then an admitted ‘constant dissatisfaction with my fat’ (Klein 1996: 66). Medicine is inseparable from this moralised, aestheticised and personally experienced ‘degradation ceremony’ (Garfinkel 1956) which has a history comprising the fabrication of the ‘ideal’ male form that normalises, marginalises and stigmatises different groups of men and women (Petersen 1998). Before citing other men, the risks of this bodily degradation are briefly worth reflecting on.
In societies where masculinity is thought to proceed from men's bodies (Connell 2000), the disapprobation of men's bodily bigness as emasculating (sickness producing) fatness potentially spoils moral worth and identities. In interpreting larger men's intersubjective understandings within such a context, I would embody Schutzian phenomenology (1970) and offer the following statement. Possible subordination on masculine hierarchies may emerge as a topically relevant risk (see Watson 2000: 117–8). This risk, though attenuated in face-to-face-interaction with considerate others or ‘the own and the wise’ (Goffman 1968), may be imposed upon consciousness from outside or become thematic through volitional self-interpretation. Correspondingly, the idea of the technically obese yet physically robust man (e.g. the male bodybuilder) has gendered cultural currency even among men who are not strength athletes and, as will be seen below, recognise that ‘excess’ muscle is also likely to be culturally disparaged (but not feminised in the way that fatness often is). This idea element may become motivationally relevant in order to refute the BMI, allowing heavy men to construct masculine selfhood and eclipse the increasingly medicalised degradation of their own and/or other men's bodily bigness as unhealthy fatness.
Similar to Mitch, others mentioned Schwarzenegger, or members of the English World Cup winning rugby team, as a way of critiquing the BMI. If their weight was a problem for them, or had been defined as a problem by others, then such talk helped to negotiate potentially ‘spoiled identities’ (Goffman 1968). The common line among men seeking to regulate their weight was, ‘muscle weighs more than fat’ which could be read as ‘not all of my bodyweight comprises unhealthy (sic) fat, I have muscle too, and that will register on the scales’. I would add that ‘muscle talk’, which reproduces the myth that sport and lean body mass are intrinsically healthy, was not an artefact of my interactions with men and how they may have perceived my body build. My research associate generated similar data. In short, reference to heavy yet physically fit-looking and/or active men was recurrent when critiquing the BMI. And, this was not only voiced by men who defined themselves as having a weight problem. Duncan, a barrister's clerk, who at approximately 5′6″ tall and 12 stone described himself as having ‘no particular weight issue really’, said the following to my researcher when asked about the BMI. Elsewhere this 22-year-old described his body as ‘broad shouldered [with] a relatively short frame’ and while he was not a gym member he said he did press-ups and sometimes lifted free-weights at home:
I don't know when it [the BMI] was put together but it sounds like it might have been of the time when the only people who ever worked out [exercised] were sportsmen and there was no culture to anyone wanting to be more healthy or increased muscle mass or what have you. I mean the thing that highlights it for me, I have never really looked into it a great deal, but I read an article sometime ago about it and it said going by the BMI Jonny Wilkinson [English Rugby hero] was clinically obese [laughing] (Interview 28).
Similarly, consider another of my researcher's interviewees who talked about elite rugby players. Jason, aged 38 and ‘a shade off six foot and probably 141/2 stone’ was a university researcher in the area of social policy and mental health. Similar to Duncan, Jason was interested in keeping physically fit though he differed in terms of body image because he said ‘I'd like to be smaller than I am’. Elsewhere in the interview, Jason said his doctor told him to lose weight but he subsequently gained weight (developed more of a mesomorphic shape) after exercising more. His reported exercise regime included daily eight mile runs and weight-training that, somewhat ironically, meant ‘the fitter I got the more unhealthy I was on the scales’. Jason's additional comments on the unintended consequences of a war on obesity, expressed as a depersonalised cautionary account that extended beyond his personal weight concerns, are also worth citing. Although respectful of medicine, in doing compassionate masculinity he echoed feminist work that ‘reminds of the dangers of messages and other social practices that tell women (and increasingly men) that their bodies are inadequate’ (Gard and Wright 2005: 156). After being asked, ‘what do you think of the government claim that two-thirds of men are overweight?’ he replied:
Yeah. I mean I'm not a medical person. I probably spend most of the time trying to be constructive [but] I don't know what that means. I mean if that's based on the BMI, I mean probably half of the England rugby team are overweight. You know, certainly the packers, forwards are. But I'd like to tell the government to explain to me why they’re unhealthy when they could be, you know, run around and make tackles and running round the field all day. I think you know, I don't know quite what they mean. I don't know whether it's really helpful to kind of cram into that media kind of moral panic. Yeah. I don't know what they expect. Yet the problem with that is maybe there could be a lot of people feel even more inadequate and upset and unhappy with how they are. You know, because they feel they’re unhealthy. Not only do they feel overweight, they feel fat. But now they've been told they’re clinically overweight and now they've got probably a mental health issue and that makes them feel – so what are they going to do? They feel bad about themselves and feel mentally unhealthy amongst other things (Interview 32).
Muscle or athlete talk, which is obviously not much of an option for most women and children, enabled other men to deflect possible moral opprobrium. This talk, which derives symbolic meaning in relation to sex specific corporeality and the potential for real material practice in a socially divided world, helps to preserve and project appropriate masculinities. Muscle talk also emerged when interviewing Brad, my youngest interviewee, aged 16. In providing additional context, Brad told me about fat-related taunts from his father, friends and others during his recent schooldays – something which may be equally if not more powerful in determining body image and emotional wellbeing than actual bodyweight or BMI (Cohen et al. 2005, Eisenberg et al. 2003). Like Jason, Brad was unencumbered by common gendered role obligations (marriage and fatherhood) and was in a favourable position to use a nearby fitness centre which he had joined five months previously specifically to lose weight. Reportedly peaking at 161/2 stone at 6′3″ tall, Brad had since lost most of his unwanted weight though he regained some during the recent Christmas festivities. Brad was also in the first year of a college sports science course. His studies included fitness tests and ‘objectively’ grading his own and other students’ bodies by weight. He disagreed with this measurement of ‘healthiness’ because it jarred with his embodied experiences and athletic capabilities:
Brad: Looking at our coursework, we had graphs which showed how heavy you are in total and what you should be. I was just above the overweight for your health. But I would consider myself to be quite healthy because I can run quite far distances and can do a little bit of training and stuff. So, according to that I am overweight but I would still say that I am healthy.
LM: What do you think of height-weight charts?
Brad: I think they’re a bit, erm, not quite correct. Because over at that time I built up some muscle and stuff. And muscle weighs heavier than fat [at a given volume]. So that makes you heavier. So you could have somebody like Arnold Schwarzenegger and he would be way above for his height and that, because he has so much muscle. He's going to be heavy (Interview 7).
Similar to Mitch, Brad was not claiming he looked like, or thought he looked like, Schwarzenegger. Although I thought this broad-shouldered young man looked physically fit and strong, his words had a different meaning. Given a history of teasing, and his recent immersion in rationalising yet potentially irrational processes (being negatively labelled on the BMI, monitoring his fluctuating bodyweight), Brad was stating he should not be typified as unhealthy or softly feminine: as well as citing good physical fitness, his physique also comprised muscle that elevated his BMI. Of course, as well as preserving masculine selfhood, such words reproduce embodied gendered hierarchies where the matter of differentially endowed male bodies matters in indeterminate ways. This is indeterminate because the neat distinction between ‘muscular’ and ‘fat’ bodies, while ideologically important, is an empirically questionable dichotomy. Men's physiques are actually highly heterogeneous and changeable in terms of their organic composition. Static ‘typifications’ (Schutz 1970) such as ‘fat’ and ‘muscular’ may be convenient social constructs but there is indeterminacy and overlap between male body types which, within certain parameters, are modifiable. For example, bodybuilders ‘bulk up’ and increase their body fat reserves in-between physique competitions. They also have physiques that are sometimes considered ‘fat’ by non-participants even when relatively lean (Monaghan 2001a).
Similarly, consider Mike's take on the BMI. Mike, who was not part of my slimming club or fitness centre sample, was a 43-year-old school mentor who informed me that he regularly played football at work and had lifted weights in the past. After being told to diet by a doctor, Mike conceded that he needed to lose weight from his stomach. However, he remained dissatisfied with the doctor's blunt pronouncements that he was ‘too heavy’ (seriously unhealthy). Mike stressed that he was physically active, had good fitness or stamina and there was solidity to his limbs from his current and past involvement in exercise. This solidity was taken as an index of muscularity and masculinity. Mike's reference to past weight-training, his highly defined calf muscles from football and his knowledge of champion bodybuilders, buttressed his sense of masculinity when recounting authoritatively imposed vulnerability. Finally, while Mike acknowledged that he carried unwanted weight on his stomach, and clinicians define ‘male abdominal obesity’ as particularly harmful (Haslam 2005), there is exercise physiology which maintains that even when men have a large waist-girth this is not necessarily a risk factor for death (Lee et al. 1999):
Mike: I've seen one doctor and she was quite brutally frank I think. That's the only way I could put it. She said, ‘if you don't lose about four stone you’re going to die’. They were her words. Simple as that. You know? I knew I was heavy [5′6″ and about 17 stone at the time], but I thought, and still think, I'm reasonably fit, although I'm heavy. I mean, all my [unwanted] weight is on my stomach. My legs and that, from playing football, are solid. And I think these weight levels, from top to bottom, are not typical of what maybe someone who trains [with weights], who is going to be massively heavy . . . I've got quite biggish legs from training. I've got the best calves I've ever had. I couldn't get calves like this when I weight trained. From playing football. Brilliant definition [muscle clarity].
LM: So what do you think of height-weight charts?
Mike: I think it's this relevance about what you’re doing. You know, when they done the Mr. Great Britain, or Universe, locally. Some of the lads there were massive. I mean there were some big, big lads. It was when Eddie Elwood was just coming on the scene, ’91 time. And they were massive. Now you cannot tell me, when he gets on the scales, and he's 18 stone of meat, that he's obese . . . I don't think there'd be many people who would say that bodybuilders were obese. They might say that they look grotesque, but I don't think you'd find anybody who would say [they’re] obese even if that's what it says on the BMI. The Body Mass Index (Interview 3).
Bodybuilding is a-typical and constitutes an extreme case. Nonetheless, sport and physical activity more generally are important ‘body-reflexive’ practices for constructing masculinities (Connell 2000). The earlier quote from Klein (1996), for example, on medical risk and masculine presence immediately follows his reference to running, sit-ups and stretching, i.e. disclaiming, as well as gender affirming, talk. Despite negative cultural stereotypes about so-called overweight or obesity, most men who could be medically typified in this way are, or have been, physically active in their lives. In displaying social fitness, men contacted during this research often discursively valued sport and/or physical activity even if they were not currently active. (Physical activity is intertwined with pragmatic embodiment and the fulfilment of gendered role obligations, such as working in a manual job or going for walks with the children and family dog.) Their past or present involvement, and an embodied knowledge of their own fluctuating weight and physical fitness, also provided fuel when dismissing height-weight charts and anybody using these as part of their health-related work.
This point is neatly captured in Henry's account. Aged 67 and about 5′4″ in height, this retired telecom engineer told me he had peaked at 17 stone but set his own target weight at 12 stone when joining Fat Fighters. His target weight was higher than that recommended on height-weight charts and by his slimming club leader for eminently sensible reasons. I found Henry's words humorous. As he argued, an unbridgeable gap existed between external prescriptions and his embodied biographical understandings (these are part of different worlds). While some readers, such as health professionals endorsing the BMI, may question the ways in which some slimming consultants use this index, it remains that the BMI is the standard measure when socially constructing the obesity epidemic and claiming almost everybody is worryingly fat. Following Henry's army reference, it is also worth noting that the British army have just increased their BMI threshold for male recruits from 28 to 32 (i.e. two points above the WHO definition of obese) in order to allow fit, strong men to become soldiers (BBC News Online 2006). That casts an especially critical light on the BMI and dominant constructions of obesity because military settings are deeply intolerant towards men's fatness (see also Stearns 1997: 100):
Henry: According to the books and charts that they [Fat Fighters] use I should weigh 10 stone 5 or 6, which is absolutely ridiculous. Ludicrous. I mean, the fittest that I ever was in my life was when I did national service. I weighed 10 stone 12 when I was 21 when I went in [the army]. I didn't used to do any exercise, apart from going for walks in the country. Nothing strenuous . . . And the corporal said to us, ‘you lot are fat! I want at least half a stone off every one of ya by the time I've finished with ya!’ And we bloody worked hard. We did assault courses. We did rope climbing, we did gymnastics, we ran everywhere and we jumped everywhere. And at the end of three months I got weighed and I was exactly 10 stone 12, which was the same weight I was when I went in. And I pulled this corporal and he said, ‘well, fair enough, though there is no fat on you is there?’ He said, ‘that's the difference’. But at 21 I was 10 stone 12, and super fit for me. I mean, we were doing 20 mile hikes and stuff like that with the full kit on. And it wasn't just walking. You'd run, walk, run, walk. But I didn't change weight. If I was 10 stone 12 then, and I come along now as a 67-year-old and they say ‘you should be 10 stone 5’ I say ‘get off! Get off like’. Ya know? ‘Which planet are you on?’
LM: [laughing] Was she using the BMI chart?
Henry: Yes. She looked in the book, go down, and, dum de dum, that's what weight you should be (Interview 8).
Skeletons, anorexics and anaemia: looking and feeling ill at a ‘healthy’ BMI
If we were all the weight we’re supposed to be, we'd all be bloody skeletons (Howard).
Ethnography on bodybuilding ‘ethnophysiology’ (i.e. subculturally learnt ways of looking at and experiencing the body) describes the embodied pleasures of vibrant physicality, of ‘looking good and feeling good’ (Monaghan 2001a,b). These positive meanings, which relate to what Watson (2000) terms normative and experiential embodiment, contrast with the meanings ordinary men often ascribe to supposedly ‘healthy’ BMI levels: a case of looking ill and feeling ill. The former, presentational modality of male embodiment was clearly expressed by Howard when talking about skeletons. Aged 56 and working as a haulier, Howard said he had ‘a lorry driver's belly’ while other parts of his body, notably his legs, were thin. Howard, who was not recruited through the slimming club or fitness centre, eschewed a stigmatised ‘fat identity’ (Degher and Hughes 1999) and said he had never dieted. He elaborated upon his skeleton comment, making reference to other people's perceptions of dramatic weight-loss and health. I had good rapport with Howard, and his wife of 35 years, Sheila, and he was comfortable being interviewed in her presence:
Howard: I don't consider myself to be fat although I am probably two or three stone overweight if you go by those charts.
Sheila: [Joking affectionately] You've only got sparrow legs though haven't you?
Howard: Chicken legs [laughter].
LM: What do you think of those charts? Because according to those charts two out of three men – and these are the terms that they use and not what I'd use – are overweight or obese. You said something earlier: if we went off that we'd all be skeletons. I wondered if you had more to say about that?
Howard: Well my height [5′10″] and weight, I should be about 111/2 stone. So I'm 141/2. So that makes me three stone over what my weight should be according to these so-called charts. But if three stone fell off me now you'd think I was . . .
Howard: Poorly . . . If everybody was the weight that the chart says I think you'd be looking at some very thin people walking around. Wouldn't you? I don't know where they get their figures from. I mean, I always – I was like 11½ stone [in his twenties]. And I always considered myself to be on the thin side (Interview 4).
This is distinctly gendered talk. It resonates with Stearns’ (1997) cultural history of fat where, especially during the mid-20th century, being ‘thin’, ‘skinny’ or ‘underweight’ was considered a male problem to be corrected through feeding or bodybuilding. For men like Howard, ‘thinness’ is not prized as it is among White Western women, especially middle-class women (Sobal 1995). Thinness, like fatness, has negative connotations. Although a source of humour among intimates, within this system of meaning being ‘thin’ (or having ‘thin’ body parts) jars with everyday conceptions of robust, healthy masculinities. This is not the same as endorsing ‘fatness’, which, as suggested by Howard's opening disclaimer, is a socially contingent judgement rather than a purely objective scientific fact. Rather, and more ambiguously, it means accommodating and perhaps welcoming a degree of bodily bigness and extra weight around certain parts of the divisible male body.
Other men, who considered themselves to be more on the ‘fat’ than the ‘thin’ side, and who had joined a slimming club, similarly criticised BMI charts by invoking the blackly ironic image of the skeleton. Similar to Howard, Gareth was supported in his views by somebody else who was privy to our conversation. Here resisting standardised measures, through recourse to normative and experiential embodiment, occurred within an interpretive community comprising reasonable others (a role that I was also happy to adopt):
Field diary, Sunshine: I sat with Gareth and Ernie, two regulars. They had just been weighed and were casually chatting while waiting for the image therapy session to start. After leafing through his slimming book, Gareth, who was struggling to get below 18 stone, informed me that he should get down to 12 stone. I asked whether that was his target weight. He said it wasn't, but it was based on the [BMI] chart at the back of the club's book. I asked what he thought of those charts. Gareth looked a little coy then said: ‘I think they’re two stone out. I mean, if I got down to 12 stone I'd be a skeleton. I'd be happy at 13 stone’. Ernie immediately added: ‘The weight you should be is the weight you feel good at. If you’re happy and feel good then that's the right weight’.
Other slimmers shared these men's more accommodating definitions of ‘healthy’ weight, which were intimately tied to their emotionally expressive bodies. Dom, who was about 33 stone when he joined, said the following in the context of our discussion about target weights and BMI: ‘If I felt all right in myself, I'd say “sod the charts”. You know? As long as I, if I felt all right in myself, if I was happy the way I was I wouldn't take any notice of the charts’ (Interview 21). Sunshine employees, for whom weight was both a personal and professional issue, agreed. This included Paul, who joined Sunshine as a member and then became a team manager after losing eight stone. Paul emphasised the experiential and aesthetic dimensions of health, saying he knew he would feel and look unhealthy if he had the recommended BMI, which ‘I don't really look at too much because I don't believe in it’ (Interview 23). Paul initially said BMI charts were ‘all right’ during interviewing, but then immediately laughed:
I think they’re too low. I do. I think they’re far too low. I should be 111/2 stone I think for my height. I'm 13, 6, which if I went to 111/2 can you imagine what I would look like? You know? To me that would not be a healthy, a healthy thing. I would be anorexic [laughs] (Interview 23).
As noted above, Sunshine, unlike Fat Fighters, did not enforce the BMI despite listing it in the back of their slimming book. As with Goffman's (1961) ethnography of institutional life, secondary adjustment to official definitions may be allowed for good organisational reasons. Jim, who was unimpressed with Fat Fighters’ rationalised policy on ‘appropriate’ weight-for-height, welcomed that. Employed as a nurse, Jim stressed visceral, pragmatic and normative modalities of male embodiment when personally refuting this measure:
Prior to actually attending Sunshine my wife had tried Fat Fighters. And I went to Fat Fighters with her. This is going back quite a few years. And according to the guidelines at that time by Fat Fighters I should've been 10 stone 10. If I'd been 10 stone 10 I would've been anaemic. I would have had no energy and I would have looked as if I was emaciated rather than actually fit and healthy (Interview 16).
Rejecting other imposed definitions of ‘healthy’ weight, on the grounds that one would look ill, and possibly feel ill, was commonplace. It was not an artefact of the slimming club, or an orientation peculiar to men like Howard who eschewed dieting and was largely sedentary. Edward, a physically active 73-year-old, who had joined a fitness gym five months previously to lose weight (he originally wanted to go from 16 stone to 14 stone but had not lost any weight), said:
I'd hate to be – I mean, by my height, 5′11″, or thereabout. Me weight should be around the 12 stone mark, I think. To me, if I . . . I thought if I was on, I'd look ill. I'd be gaunt but I mean, you know, oh and this [skin around chin] would be hanging, and God, I would likely look a bloody mess, I think, you know. So no I don't believe in it, me (Interview 9).
Ralph, who was Edward's friend and member of the same fitness centre, similarly stressed the importance of ‘looking’ acceptable and ‘denied injury’ (Sykes and Matza 1957) when justifying his bodily bigness. After commenting upon the non-standardisation of bodies, ‘everybody is not the same, their body structure is totally different’ (see next section), he said: ‘One 5′11″ bloke looks great at 11 stone. I'm 5′11″ and if I were 11 stone I'd look bloody ridiculous. People would think I'm dying. You know?’ (Interview 10). Ralph was 68-years-old and reportedly weighed 17 stone, which, based on BMI, is obese. Contrary to negative stereotypes, however, this retired foreman and current Justice of the Peace told me that he had a very active life, playing golf and bowls most days with his friends.
Even peas in a pod are different: rejecting irrational standardisation
As commented by Ralph, everybody is different with a weight that is appropriate for them. Elsewhere I discuss gendered resistances to rationalisation or ‘McDonaldization’ (Ritzer 2004), stating that lived bodies cannot be standardised like the Big Mac (Monaghan forthcoming). Some of my contacts also offered food analogies when making this point, though, as with Doug, he alluded to more healthy food when we were discussing the BMI. In providing analytic context to this remark, it is worth noting that the BMI is derived from the work of Quetelet, the 19th century father of social statistics. Quetelet is famous for his concept of the ‘homme moyen or average man’ (Ruppel Shell 2003: 33). Of course, Mr Average is a statistical fiction and an old one at that:
It's like two peas in a pod. They’re not the same, same size. Everybody's different, physically and mentally and characteristics. There's nobody the same. You’re different to me, I'm different to my son and I'm different to the neighbour next door. Totally different. Nobody's the same (Interview 17).
Henry, who talked about exceeding the ‘correct’ BMI when he was a fit, young soldier, offered a clothing analogy when criticising others who seek to standardise heterogeneous bodies. The specific numbers in his ethnostatistical talk are, of course, secondary to his ironic argument that standardisation is unreasonable and arbitrary:
I don't think anybody can turn around and say ‘you should weigh such and such’. Generally. Because you’re 10 stone 12, all you 10 stone 12 people should be 5′4″ high. All you 11 stone people should be 6′ high. You know? I don't think that's right. That's like going into a shop for a pair of trousers and saying that everybody 45 years old has a 29″ inside leg . . . It [the BMI] just generalises. I don't think you can do that with health (Interview 8).
Such generalisations are especially problematic in a global context. This is reflected in the obesity literature where there is debate about ‘appropriate’ BMI cut-off points for different ethnic groups (International Diabetes Institute 2000). Biomedical talk about non-standardisation amidst ‘racial’ diversity – which, it should be stressed, is sociologically questionable because it naturalises socially constructed, class-related and historically contingent bodily differences – also emerged during interviewing. The following is from an interview with Lenny, a 33-year-old postgraduate student, who rejected a nurse's definition of his Black body as ‘overweight’. Lenny, who was married to a GP, also brought a BMI chart to our interview. The BMI classification of a man weighing 15 stone at 5′11″ (his bodily dimensions) as ‘almost obese’ was a source of ironic humour during other parts of our interview. In making connections with relevant literature, I would also refer here to Petersen (1998) who critically discusses Eurocentrism, colonialism and racism which have historically regulated ‘race’ relations and ultimately served the supremacy of White, middle-class males:
Lenny: I was joining this new surgery. And everybody has to go through this test, like checking your health and everything. Just like a general, overall check up. And erm, basically, she just basically said that I was overweight after putting me through one of these tests. And, erm, I don't think it would really have been drawn to my attention if I wasn't married to a doctor but she like says, my wife says, ‘you know, at the end of the day, these are like very ancient tests. They’re based on a 1930s ideal idea of what, erm, White, middle-class, men's bodyweight for what was meant to be ideal at the time’. Now, obviously, bodies have shifted through time, what is considered an ideal body has shifted from what it used to be in the 1930s or 20s. So she was just basically saying that it was outdated. And as a Black man as well, it definitely doesn't, erm [pause] how can I put it? [Pause] Black men's bodies are so much different.
LM: You’re talking about muscle composition?
Lenny: Yeah, but, I don't . . . well, that's what she said. I don't believe that. But that's just, obviously coming from her, a doctor (Interview 1).
Although Lenny was justifiably circumspect about reifying biological differences between racialised bodies (e.g. men from different ethnic groups may be equally muscular), naturalistic conceptions of the body are influential in contemporary Western societies (Shilling 2003). A recurrent argument with other men who rejected standardisation was that bodily heterogeneity is ‘natural’ and weight is only alterable within certain fixed biological parameters; namely, not all weight is ‘bad’ and while it may be more or less possible to regulate bodyweight not all weight requires, or is amenable to, remedial work. As with the ‘body diversity’ model sometimes expressed in size acceptance groups (Saguy and Riley 2005), men invoked non-negotiable characteristics like ‘body structure’ or ‘build’ when critiquing the BMI. As stated by Noel, a 29-year-old who was employed in customer services: ‘I think with guys, and probably with women as well to be fair, people have got a certain kind of build. And they’re going to be that build no matter what’ (Interview 13). At about 151/2 stone and 5′11″, Noel joined a fitness centre to lose weight but he reported limited success given various contingencies (an excuse account). Similar to others, who said they had their own personally defined ‘fighting weight’ or ‘comfort zone’ (which was independent of a ‘healthy’ BMI), Noel told me he had his own ‘middle weight’ that was related to his ‘natural build’. He immediately added: ‘You can go either side of it, and I think I'm definitely one of them. I'm probably naturally 14½ stone. That's my middleweight. And I can go either a stone up or a stone the other way’. Here accommodating a medically defined ‘unhealthy’ weight did not imply personal irresponsibility or an inability to lose unwanted weight. Noel offered a ‘naturalistic’ (Shilling 2003) justification for setting his own ‘optimal’ weight, a level of body mass that he felt more or less able to control, depending upon his life circumstances and given biological parameters.
This natural ‘build’ invoked by Noel, which cannot be radically changed through self-directed bodywork, also consists of ‘bone density’ that varies between people. The basic argument is that a simple, standardised measure like the BMI does not take this ‘normal’ aspect of ‘body structure’ into account. Correspondingly, it should not be given too much credence or complied with. Darren, who was not from the slimming club or fitness centre but who told my researcher he had recently become ‘slightly overweight’ (reportedly between 13 and 14 stone at 5′10″) said: ‘It [the BMI] just tells you if you’re overweight or not. But how can that be right? Because people's bone structure might be heavier than some, so it could mean it's pointless really’ (Interview 27). Mitch, who talked about Schwarzenegger and illness when mocking the BMI, went from the generic to the personal when telling me he had heavy bones. Such words could easily be dismissed as an unconvincing denial of ‘fatness’ and, within popular culture, are open to discrediting comebacks. However, such talk makes sense within a field of power and regulation. It expresses men's justifiable dissatisfaction with the authoritative view that there are specific measures that they could or should conform to and, by implication, some bodies matter more than others. For Steve, the unacceptability of this was compounded when a Fat Fighters consultant ‘told’ him what he ‘should’ weigh:
Field diary, Sunshine: Steve told me he went to Fat Fighters once but stopped after one week because he thought it was ‘OTT’. I asked him what he meant. He explained that they were telling him what he should weigh. I asked whether this was based on BMI. With an incredulous expression, he said: ‘That's the biggest running joke known to man. For a start it doesn't take into account bone density or anything else for that matter. It's just weight and height’. He added that there was a BMI chart in the back of Sunshine's slimming book but he took no notice of it.
Others offered similar complaints, citing ‘big bones’ and authoritative yet inconsistent prescriptions. Here ‘expressed distance’ (Goffman 1961) is clearly not only about aesthetic body norms but also the hierarchical context within which messages are conveyed. Consider the words of Al, a committed slimmer who weighed over 20 stone at the time of our interview. Al, employed as a mental health assistant, routinely came into contact with doctors as part of his work. He was highly critical of some hospital consultants who ‘stick to their guns’ and are ‘like God in their ivory tower’:
I struggle with these height and weight charts because there is differences in body structure. Some of us do have big bones and I know doctors always deny it, but it's amazing even hospital consultants, when they prescribe the medication, they get that chart out, the height and weight chart, you know. And you think [looks perplexed]. And I challenged one, one day. I said ‘now is that an accurate guide?’‘Oh yes’. You know? So, and I challenged another one. And he said ‘no it's not’. I says ‘oh’ I says (Interview 24).
This talk relates to the idea that the BMI is misaligned with the lived reality of being and having a large male body. Roy, who, at 28 stone, had joined then subsequently left another slimming club that ‘told’ him he should weigh 12 stone 12 pounds (he was 6′1″) recounted what he said to his club consultant in a sarcastic tone: ‘“Aye”, I says, “if you chop my legs off”. I says, “There's no way . . . You are kidding!”’ Roy reportedly lost 11 stone, ‘but to be honest when I was 17 stone I looked thin. I didn't look average or chunky. I looked thin on 17 stone’ (Interview 15). Because attempts to standardise male bodies are considered irrational (ridiculous), current or former slimming club members argued that consultants and organisations must be realistic and accommodate ‘natural’ bodily diversity.
This prescription corresponds with an individualised, personally tailored approach to slimming. This was institutionalised at Sunshine. Members defined their own target weight according to what they felt ‘comfortable’ and ‘happy’ with, alongside other considerations such as activity levels and approval from significant others. As with Stan, who ‘stopped around the 16 stone mark’ after losing almost eight stone for largely pragmatic reasons: ‘16 stone does me. My wife's happy with it, I'm happy with it and my children are happy with it’ (Interview 19). Key workers at Sunshine supported this. After describing how he originally complied with the BMI but revised his views after his mother complained about his emaciated appearance, Danny, a slimming club consultant, said the following:
A lot of people do come up to us and say ‘well what do you think is my ideal weight for my height?’ And I say, ‘well I cannot really say that at the minute’ I says ‘because there's a chart in the book’ I says ‘but I wouldn't go by that’. I think it kind of varies for people (Interview 18).
Danny, in ‘doing’ sensitivity to the everyday social situation of those labelled ‘obese’, explained further the need for an individually tailored approach. That is, an approach that does not necessarily correspond with standardised biomedical definitions. It is worth adding that even extremely sensitive slimming club consultants occasionally and unavoidably enact stigma. This is because they work within a larger engine of anti-fat sentiment and sensibility where rationalisation is more often accepted than rejected (e.g. weighing bodies, counting and measuring foodstuffs):
Danny: A gentleman can be 30 stone and he could lose, I don't know, maybe six, seven, eight stone. He's gonna feel absolutely fantastic but do you still class him as being obese at 22 stone or something like that?
LM: Well the medical profession would wouldn't they?
Danny: Yeah, yeah, of course they would. I think, I mean, I don't know exactly what the [medical] limits are for obesity and whatever but you've gotta be careful as well. He's lost six stone. He's gonna be feeling absolutely fantastic and over the moon. You've gotta be very, very careful there not to say ‘well’ you know ‘you still need to lose more’. Cos he's gonna think ‘what you talking about? I've already lost six stone. I'm feeling quite comfortable’. If they’re comfortable at it, then fine, you know, that's where they wanna be. But you can't stand there and say ‘well’ you know ‘I think you should lose maybe another six or seven stone’ cos they’re gonna be so deflated. They’re gonna think ‘oh my god, I thought I was quite comfortable there, I'm quite happy with that and he's telling me to lose another six stone!’ And it deflates them. And then that's when they can suddenly just walk back into the trap of saying ‘oh comfort eating’ . . . But if you’re comfortable and you’re happy with what you are then fine we’re happy.
For Paul, the other slimming club employee I interviewed, this emphasis upon experiential embodiment rather than normative rationalisation was a key selling point for Sunshine. Organisational resistance to the BMI, or, perhaps more accurately, the willingness of these and other consultants from Sunshine to permit men's ‘secondary adjustments’ (Goffman 1961), made economic sense. It also made personal sense for Paul, who had lost eight stone and who struggled daily to maintain most of this loss. He said the following after I asked whether he could suggest anything that might inform health professionals and policy makers who are concerned about weight-related issues among men. It is also significant that Paul stressed subjective definitions of personal health, though, elsewhere in the interview, he confidently stated he would undergo medical tests to confirm his belief that he was very healthy (tests undertaken when he was clinically obese reportedly confirmed a normal metabolic profile):
What we were saying about that BMI and that is be a bit more realistic. That's the good thing about the slimming club and you choose your own target. And you can change your target. If you feel you’re too thin you can take it up a bit or if you don't feel you’re thin enough you can take it down a bit. You know? It's up to the individual. And I think it should be up to the individual of whether they are healthy or not healthy, rather than they’re saying I should be 11½ stone, at which [joking] I don't think I was that when I was born [i.e. that weight is too light and unnatural for him]. You know what I mean? So I think that would be the only thing that I would try to put across to them (Interview 23).
It could be argued that if health authorities are not ‘realistic’ then they could risk undermining their own credibility. Indeed, perpetuating ethnocentric body classifications could render health authorities vulnerable to strong criticism and condemnation. Consider one last extract. It is with an implicit reference to Campos's (2004) ironic talk about Brad Pitt being classed as overweight, as well as explicit reference to a BMI chart, that I had the following exchange with Adrian. This 31-year-old had joined a fitness centre to lose weight in preparation for his wedding. When starting at the fitness centre he reportedly weighed 15 stone 8 pounds at 5′8″ tall, which clinicians would label ‘obese’ on the BMI. After losing 10 pounds he was feeling good about himself even though he would still be medically classed as obese:
Adrian: Excuse the French [sic]. That's bollocks [the BMI chart]. It really is [laughter]. You ask any – everybody I know will tell you that that's bollocks. I've got no mates in the right height-to-weight ratio at all. I don't know anybody that's like that. The only people I know like that are on the screen in the cinema in Hollywood because that's what society says they've got to look like.
LM: But actually, if you’re looking at – yeah maybe women but not men – Brad Pitt would be categorised as overweight, George Clooney –
Adrian: [immediately interrupting me] Brad Pitt overweight? You’re jesting aren't you?
LM: On this [BMI chart]. But I mean – OK well let's think – their definition of obese is a BMI of 30. Dividing weight by height [squared] and it gives you a number. But in everyday language, what does obese mean? What does overweight mean?
Adrian: Aye. If I see a bloke or a woman going down the street with a huge gut I think ‘well that's a bit obese’. And if I see a bloke in the pub with a bit of a cupboard, a bit of a pot, I think ‘that's a bit overweight that like’. I don't know. I mean, that's the way I see it (Interview 12).
Adrian's way of seeing overweight and obesity was not peculiar. Adrian was part of a much larger interpretive community. The specifics of Geordie terms notwithstanding (e.g.‘bit of a cupboard’ to refer to ‘abdominal obesity’), I am aware from virtual ethnography and international connections that this community extends way beyond Northern England. However, in restricting my substantive claims to those data reported above, this group of men clearly forged meaningful definitions of ‘appropriate’ weight that often clashed with ‘scientific’ measurements and pronouncements. These everyday definitions were far less inclusive than standardised, biomedical definitions that pathologise bodies under the rubric of medicalised rationality. Moreover, such everyday understandings made sense and were inseparable from men's displays of moral worth or social fitness.