You’re Not Overweight, Your BMI is Just Racist 

Dragana Gordic /
Dragana Gordic /

What do math, roads, standardized testing, home ownership, and good credit have in common? These are all racist ideas designed for white supremacy. Just when you think it couldn’t get any sillier, hold on…because there’s always a way. 

Body Mass Index, or BMI, is now a racist concept according to the American Medical Association, an organization that, until now, has always been considered a respectable and common-sense institution. 

BMI, the standard for roughly determining body fat for over 200 years, is a simple and quick estimation that uses an individual’s height and weight to ballpark the amount of body fat they are carrying. It’s well-known that increased fat stores lead to many health problems such as heart conditions, stroke, diabetes, and high blood pressure. 

Now, the AMA Council on Science and Public Health says that BMI is racist. 

Per a recently released paper, “AMA recognizes: the issues with using body mass index (BMI) as a measurement because: (a) of the eugenics behind the history of BMI, (b) of the use of BMI for racist exclusion, and (c) BMI cutoffs are based on the imagined ideal Caucasian and does not consider a person’s gender or ethnicity.” 

The claim that “eugenics” is behind the history of BMI is flawed, implying that the sole purpose of the system was to separate those with favorable BMIs from those without them.  

BMI was devised in 1832 by Belgian mathematician Adolphe Quetelet. It was created using the only population available to him at the time, European men. It was considered a population-level tool at its inception and had no practical use for individuals. It was initially used to quickly measure obesity in the general population and to assist the government with allocating resources. 

 In 1972, physiologist Ancel Keys reintroduced the concept, labeled it as Body Mass Index, and began using it to assess an individual’s health. 

In other words, BMI as a specific measurement was not invented for eugenic purposes, although it did become part of misguided eugenicist movements. 

Per the AMA, BMI is inaccurate because it doesn’t factor in gender or ethnicity. While this is true, doctors understand the roles that both play in overall health. BMI is not a stand-alone risk factor in developing health complications but is intended to complement other assessments.  

Per those who claim the BMI is flawed, the system doesn’t consider the fact that muscle weighs more than fat. This is both true and untrue: a pound of feathers is still equal to a pound of rocks. The difference is that muscle is denser than fat. That’s why BMI is not, on its own, always accurate. A physician using BMI as one tool in a kit of health assessments recognizes that a fit person with a high BMI is healthier than an obese person with a lower BMI. 

You don’t need seven years of medical school to understand the difference. Anyone with eyes and common sense can tell the difference between a muscular person and a morbidly obese person. 

As it turns out, BMI is more reliable than the AMA’s startling declaration would have you believe. Per a study released in a 2015 New York Times article, the failure of BMI in muscular women is only 3%, with a 12% failure rate among muscular men. In both men and women, the BMI is more likely to categorize someone as having a healthy BMI when they are carrying an unhealthy amount of fat for their height. 

As with many problems faced by leaders within minority communities, it’s easier to label challenges as racist. African American females, per a CDC and the Health and Human Services Offices of Minority Health report, released in 2022, have the highest rates of obesity compared to other groups in the United States. About 4 out of 5 African American women are considered overweight or obese. The average height for Black women is 5’4”, with an average weight of 187 pounds or a BMI of 36.5. 

Rather than face the situation head-on and help minorities overcome obstacles, such as enabling better eating habits and encouraging physical exercise, labeling BMI as racist takes the lifestyle factors out of the equation and places the blame on something else. From celebrities to influencers, “fat acceptance” has become an overused buzzword designed to make people feel ashamed for their desire to be fit or shame those who think obesity has a negative connotation. 

The alternative being touted for BMI is hardly any more acceptable than BMI. The AMA recommends that measurements of an individual’s visceral fat (waist measurements), along with adiposity (a ratio of body height to hip width), and a consideration of genetic and metabolic factors to be the new standard. 

Unfortunately, if you have a high BMI, chances are you will like your actual waist measurements even less.