Among other things, the Olympics showcase the amazing diversity of human bodies that lend themselves to athletic excellence. From the 7-foot-5 basketball player Yao Ming, to 4-6 gymnast Deng Linlin; from the bird-like frames of the long-distance runners, to the enormous dynamic bulk of the hammer throwers, the Olympics feature athletes who come in a dizzying array of shapes and sizes.
Consider two medal-winning members of the American team: weightlifter Cheryl Haworth and gymnast Nastia Liukin. Haworth is 5-9 and weighs 300 pounds. Liukin is 5-2 and weighs 99 pounds.
Haworth can lift more than 300 pounds over her head and hold the weight there for several seconds; Liukin can do back-flips on a 4-inch-wide wooden beam.
Haworth reports that 30 percent of her body is made up of fat. She is, according to our public health authorities, "morbidly obese." Liukin is, according to the same people, (just barely) "underweight."
Interestingly, from a purely statistical point of view, the body mass of each woman correlates with approximately the same mortality risk. For Liukin's body mass to correlate with the lowest mortality risk for her demographic group she would have to weigh approximately 50 percent more than she does. Similarly, Haworth would need to weigh 40 percent less for her body mass to correlate with the lowest mortality risk for white women of her height.
What follows from these statistical generalizations? The short answer is, not a thing.
A somewhat longer answer includes several observations. First, that 5-2 white women who weigh 150 pounds have a lower mortality risk, on average, than white women of the same height who weigh 99 pounds says nothing at all about whether Liukin herself would be healthier if she gained 50 pounds.
This, one would hope, is obvious. For one thing it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for Liukin to gain 50 pounds and then maintain this weight, even if, through a precise reversal of the usual brand of cultural insanity, this would be considered a desirable goal for her to pursue. (Experiments have demonstrated that it's nearly as difficult for thin people to maintain weight gain as it is for fat people to maintain weight loss.)
Furthermore there isn't a speck of evidence that it actually benefits a 100-pound person to weigh 150 pounds, even though 150-pound people of Liukin's height have a lower mortality risk (Japanese people have longer life expectancies than Americans, but it doesn't follow at all that I'll improve my life expectancy by moving to Tokyo).
These observations, which we can safely assume are considered merely common sense in the case of someone like Liukin, instantly become the most horrible heresies when applied to a 300-pound woman such as Haworth. Yet the situation is precisely the same: It would be extremely difficult and probably impossible for Haworth to lose 40 percent of her weight and maintain that loss, and there is no evidence whatsoever that it would be beneficial for her to do so.
Haworth and Liukin are mirror images in another way: Haworth is in the 98th percentile of body mass for the American population, while Liukin is in the 2nd. In other words, they are, statistically speaking, each at an equal distance from being normal-weight (in the proper sense of the term, meaning statistically typical) American women.
Yet our supposedly scientific definitions of what constitute a normal woman's body have become so distorted that Liukin is in fact only two pounds away from being at what is currently classified as a "normal" weight. Meanwhile, Haworth would need to weigh 130 pounds less to achieve the same bogus normalcy.Could these pseudo-scientific definitions be a product of the cultural fact that the extraordinarily slender Liukin represents what a contemporary American woman is "supposed" to look like?
Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos@Colorado.edu.