Frances Chan is a history major at Yale University who has been involved in a struggle with that university’s health services because they kept telling her that at 92 lbs, she was too thin and that her Body Mass Index was too low. Her height is 5’2″, which gives her a BMI score of 16.8 while the ‘normal’ is in the range 18.5-25.
She wrote in an article that the Yale health center people said that her health was at risk, and that she had to eat more and build up her weight and she had to have mandatory weekly weigh-ins and meetings with a clinician. It did not seem to matter that she told them that all her family was thin and that she had always been thin but healthy. She tried to gain weight by stuffing herself with ice cream and cookies and reducing her physical activity but gained only a couple of pounds. After a struggle with the university, they finally agreed to stop bugging her.
I have found that in the US people worry a lot about norms for all manner of things and treat them as prescriptive, worrying far too much if they slip out of the supposedly right range. Parents are perhaps the most guilty of this, especially when their children are young.
The Chan story struck a chord with me because our older daughter was tall for her age and thin too, but active and healthy. Her school nurses would say that she was too thin and that she should gain weight, although they did not pester her like what happened to Chan. The situation was not improved when my younger daughter told her friends in school that her older sister was anorexic. She was surprised at the reaction her statement received because she had not realized that being able to use both hands was such a big deal. What had happened was that she had confused the word ‘anorexic’ with ‘ambidextrous’, which is what her older sister is!
Fortunately for us we could laugh about these things because our children’s pediatrician had told us all along that our children were healthy and to ignore those who said they were too thin. He said that since her parents were both very thin, our daughter’s physique was not unexpected. He said that people made a fetish about the BMI, not recognizing that it is just one piece of data and that one should look at the overall health instead.