The Bizarre and Racist History of the BMI
Body Mass Index has been used in recent decades as a referendum on individual health. But it was never meant to be.
I walk out of the doctor’s office, swiftly folding my after-visit summary packet and tucking it under my arm. If I don’t, the strangers in the waiting room will see its bold lettering in an oversized pull-out box on the first page. BMI: 47. Super morbidly obese.
My Body Mass Index (BMI) has come to feel like a scarlet letter. It has become not only a referendum on my size, but also on my health and subsequently my character. The logic is ruthlessly consistent: anyone my size must have committed a series of unforgivable acts. I must have let myself go. I must be pathological in my need to eat, my greedy desire to stay still. This is a pathology deserving only of disdain, never empathy. Clearly, I have been derelict in my duty to keep myself thin.
Like most of us, I’ve come to accept the BMI as a simple truth. It is, I have been taught, a direct measure of my size and health. But for something as universally relied upon as the BMI, its history is much less solid — and scientific — than you might think. For many of us, especially people of color, medicine’s over-reliance on the BMI may be actively harming our health.
The invention of the BMI
The Body Mass Index was invented nearly 200 years ago. Its creator, Adolphe Quetelet, was an academic whose studies included astronomy, mathematics, statistics, and sociology. Notably, Quetelet was not a physician, nor did he study medicine. He was best known for his sociological work aimed at identifying the characteristics of l’homme moyen — the average man — whom, to Quetelet, represented a social ideal.
Quetelet was Belgian, publishing works in Western Europe during the early 19th century — a boom time for racist science. He is credited with co-founding the school of positivist criminology, “which asserted the dangerousness of the criminal to be the only measure of the extent to which he was punishable.” That positivist school laid the groundwork for criminologists like Cesare Lombroso, who believed that people of color were a separate species. Homo Criminalis, Lombroso argued, were…