Body Peace or Body Wars: Seventeen’s BMI Calculator Says Underweight is “Healthy”

By Claire Mysko--Shirley Wang, 17, is recovering from anorexia. When she came across Seventeen's online BMI calculator this week, she was shocked at the results. We were too.

UPDATE: Seventeen has removed the BMI calculator from their website. Read more about this victory.

Here at Proud2Bme, we actually have a policy that asks members not to include specific numbers like weight or BMI (body mass index, a formula of weight/height ratio) in their posts, mainly because those numbers can often trigger a chain of unhelpful and unhealthy comparisons and self-doubt. "I wish I could get to that number." "I'm glad I'm not that big/small." "If she/he weighs that much, what should I weigh?" You get the picture. But in this post we're going to make an exception to our no numbers rule, simply to illustrate how off base and irresponsible Seventeen's online calculator is. As Shirley discovered, her results page showed a chart claiming 14.8 to be in the healthy BMI range for an 18-year-old (she's closer to 18 than 17). As she puts it quite succinctly on her blog: “Does that sound f*#ked up to anyone else, or is it just me?”

Although we don’t believe in using BMI, since this is already out there, let's compare Seventeen's calculator to the Center for Disease Control’s BMI calculator for kids and teens. Inputting a weight and height ratio for an 18-year-old that equaled a 14.8 BMI turned up these results:

"Based on the height and weight entered, the BMI is 14.8 , placing the BMI-for-age below the 1st percentile for girls aged 18 years 0 months. This teen is underweight and should be seen by a healthcare provider for further assessment to determine possible causes of underweight." (emphasis theirs)

So the U.S. government says that a BMI of 14.8 for an 18-year-old is considered medically underweight and a teen with that BMI should be seen by a doctor. According to Seventeen, however, this BMI is in the "healthy range." Yeah, major inconsistency and a big, big problem. Lauren Stalnaker, 21, saw Shirley's Tumblr post and took her anger one step further, creating an online petition to Seventeen, which now has over 2,700 supporters. She writes:

"While I understand it is not your goal to promote eating disorders, this portion of your website certainly does just that. By leading a 17-year-old to believe that a BMI of 15 is healthy, you are telling them that being ‘very severely underweight’ by normal standards is acceptable. Your 17 Body Peace pledge was something that inspired me as a reader when I first heard of it. I signed, and vowed to work to love my body again. This BMI calculator is sending the opposite message to your readers. Please do something to fix this."

And that conflicting message is another reason why Seventeen's BMI calculator bothers us so much. True to our style, we contacted Seventeen telling them the error of their ways about the BMI bit and suggested they remove it.  Even if their BMI calculator results weren't shockingly, dangerously off, why do teen girls need to be tracking their own BMIs to begin with? Should a site that asks girls to pledge to “Appreciate what makes my body different from anyone else's” be inviting them to type in their height and weight to get a number that will surely lead many of them to wonder how their number compares to others?

Yes, BMI is one assessment tool used by medical professionals. But it doesn't give the whole picture of a person’s health—whether that person is medically overweight, underweight, or somewhere in the middle. Seventeen’s disclaimer reads, “FYI: BMI is the best do-it-yourself way to figure out if your weight is healthy. But the most accurate tool is a growth chart analysis and body fat test at a doctor's office.” You know what else is really, really helpful? Talking to your doctor--hopefully a compassionate doctor who looks at you as a person and not a compilation of numbers on a chart--and telling that doctor about your unique concerns, your stress level, your day-to-day habits, all the factors that affect your physical and emotional health. That is not a DIY process, people. Especially not for teens.

Seventeen is serving up a scary inaccurate number and telling girls that based on that number, they can “determine whether or not they need to take steps to change it by adding or subtracting calories to your diet.” Oh, but you should totally check out their “Fitspiration” gallery (perhaps an ill-advised choice of terms given its connection to “thinspiration”) for quotes like “Be real! Healthy and beautiful comes in all sizes.”  Take their quiz to determine if you are “Too food focused” then take the “Are you a nutrition label expert?” quiz that appears right next to it.

It’s a dizzying ride from happy sunshine, hand holding body acceptance to brow furrowing, calorie counting, good food/bad food obsession.

Seventeen’s readership is incredibly vulnerable to body image problems and eating disorders. According to a study conducted by Girls Inc., 53% of 13-year-old girls are dissatisfied with their bodies. That number increases to 78% by age seventeen. If Seventeen wants to be part of reversing this body image crisis, they can start by ditching that BMI calculator. They can also lead the charge and offer some good old-fashioned consistency in their Body Peace initiative. The onslaught of conflicting messages about food, weight, diet, and health in this culture is fueling insecurity and disordered behavior, not confidence and good health.

 

Note: As of this post, Seventeen has not yet removed the BMI Calculator.

 

Claire Mysko is the editor of Proud2Bme.

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