Public health concern, Social Issue

The weight of social approval

During a short break from seeing patients, I was sitting behind the desk, enjoying an appealing novel. In the heart of the neighborhood of Jalouzi, in Petion-ville, the atmosphere was rather comforting, punctuated with laughter of children and chants of street vendors wandering outside. Betty, the nurse in charge of patients’ vital signs laid on the wooden bench in the waiting room looking preoccupied. At some point, she got closer to me and shared her concern: Ever since she started working at the center, she had gained several pounds and feared to have crossed the line of obesity, making her susceptible to the health threats associated with it (mostly cardiovascular diseases).

Betty is a short and curvy, 24 years old woman. She confessed to never doing exercise. Even back when she was at school, the court was too small and physical education wasn’t part of the curriculum. She also grew up in a family where women proud themselves on their thickness. According to her family and peers, it is a mandatory asset to attract a mate.

Generally, clinicians use the Body Mass Index (BMI) to assess the adequacy of weight in patients. This index, designated as indicator of fatness, is a ratio of the weight (kilogram) in relation to the square of the height (meter) of the person. A BMI score equal or greater than 30 is required to classify a person as obese while between 25 and 29.9, he/she is said to be overweight. In 2008, the World Health Organization reported an increase in the number of overweight and obese people, especially in developing countries where 115 million people bear the burden of disease due to obesity. It is important to note because in developing countries, including Haiti, the many health problems co-exist with poverty and a blatant lack of basic education, strengthening the vicious circle. As a consequence, the impact of obesity goes beyond the individual and also affects the State in terms of cost of related diseases.

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Betty had a BMI at 34; far along in the side of obesity. When I asked about her diet, she told me that she often consumes fried and greasy meals many times a day. Her sedentary lifestyle along with the popular culture that particularly promotes female thickness is also a factor. Other obese patients have even confessed to having resorted to self-medication and other practices to gain weight and develop a body shape, given the social standards, that is valued by most people. Bearing in mind the concept of health as defined by the World Health Organization, self-acceptance undoubtedly has an important role to play in the overall well-being of a person. But self-acceptance is sometimes too tightly dependent on social norms. Therefore isn’t it important in specific cases to question these norms and ideas of beauty that lead to self-flagellation and degradation of the body in the long term?

For instance, let’s go back to the origins of the Body Mass Index used to determine obesity. It was first described in 1832 by a Belgian mathematician and statistician called Adolf Quetelet. After the Second World War, it became crucial to develop a reliable index of normal body weight as the relation between weight and illness and death represented such a shattering concern in the medical world. But the researchers only referred to Anglo-Saxon populations to gather the data. Hence, the ideal Body Mass Index is not quite representative of the every person since African populations among other ethnics had been ignored in the studies. Another bias is that fat is not the only component of body mass. Muscle mass makes it even harder to generalize the obesity measurement standard. As a matter of fact, studies have shown that blacks have lower body fat and higher lean muscle mass than whites, so the same BMI score may lead to less obesity-related diseases. It doesn’t mean that the index per se is useless in African populations but the situation opens doors to further research which may lead to ethnic adjustments. In that vein certain groups have begun to lower cut-off points for the BMI of Asians.

After our exchange, Betty promptly acknowledged the challenge to merge her idea of beauty with her desired state of health. While the prospect of developing a perfectly objective standard for determining obesity and its health risks is still blurry, we need to keep in mind that the perception of beauty itself remains subjective. The balance between what is culturally preferred and what is healthy is also delicate and difficult to reach. Undoubtedly there seems to be a shift of consciousness among young women in Haiti. Hopefully properly designed and culturally tailored health communication campaigns are going to meet them halfway.

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