Melissa Musiker is a registered dietician and a member of APCO’s Washington, D.C., health policy team.
We live in the age of information, and we are being inundated by a never-ending torrent of information about obesity and health. There is no way to avoid it; it is part of our daily lives. And it is nearly impossible to make sense of it all.
The International Food Information Council (IFIC), a repository of fantastic information about food and nutrition, has been keeping tabs on media impressions on obesity for more than a decade. The interest in obesity has been at a sustained and high level for more than two years with no signs of slowing down. Obesity is personal, compelling and complex. New news and new angles on the topic can be found on a daily basis.
The XXX Olympics are currently taking place in London. Who isn’t glued to a screen watching athletes redefine the limits of human speed, agility, skill, strength and endurance? For centuries, Olympic athletes have been held up as examples of the ultimate expressions of the human physical form.
Unflattering pictures of Australian swimmer Leisel Jones recently surfaced that have led to international criticism of her body habitus that doesn’t fit the mold of what many believe an Olympic athlete should be. So instead of the story being about a four-time Olympian, only one medal short of Australia’s record of nine lifetime medals with a legitimate chance of breaking that record at these games, people are questioning her right to be there in the first place.
To further push the limits of stereotypes of what an Olympic athlete should look like, let me introduce you to 22-year-old Holley Mangold from Ohio. Holley is a U.S. super heavyweight lifter. Her compelling story led to a profile in The New York Times magazine. She is able to lift between 300 and 500 pounds above her shoulders. Her personal best is 562 pounds. She is a truly elite athlete and at 5 feet 8 inches tall weighs about 330 pounds.
So in a time when we are bombarded by images that tell us that fat-less is ideal and messages that fat is unhealthy, images of what seem to be less-than-perfect bodies competing (and even gasp! medaling) at the Olympics seem incongruous with reality. Too often when it comes to health, we fixate on image. That fixation is discouraging as much as it is distracting. Being physically active and eating a healthy diet are things that benefit in a multitude of ways. They are key building blocks for wellness both physical and emotional, but they aren’t necessarily building blocks for thinness.
There is growing scientific consensus that the motivation for physical activity should be achieving better fitness, not less fatness. Skinny doesn’t equate to healthy, especially if it requires unhealthy habits to get there. These messages, which are too often lost in the media reporting on the topic, are needed to help reduce stigma and increase participation in any form of physical activity. Athletes like Leisel and Holley shouldn’t be ridiculed but rather looked to as role models. I hope this Olympic Games serve as inspiration for all of us, regardless of size, to push ourselves to go a little farther and a little faster.