Catherine Lothian loves to exercise. She rides horses and goes to the gym. She’s training for a running event later this year. She is, she confirms, a very active person. Yet, according to NHS guidelines, Lothian’s BMI of 37.6 means that she is also “severely obese”.
But can a tool that only considers our height and weight really determine the state of our health? The BMI has long been a device used by medical professionals to tell us how fit we are. Only, the guidelines – 18.5 to 24.9 is “healthy”, 25 to 29.9 is “overweight” and between 30 and 39.9 is said to be “obese” – have serious shortcomings, that could be misleading when it comes to our health, says Lothian. And with a new photography project, she is setting out to challenge them.
“I’m plus size, but I was fed up with people thinking that I sit on my arse all day doing nothing but eating,” Lothian explains. “I was sick of the stereotypes. According to the BMI, 24.9 was supposedly considered healthy, and 25.1 was suddenly overweight. And BMI ignores so many different factors. It doesn’t take into account ethnicity, muscles, bone density – it’s just so unreliable.”
She hated it so much that she decided she had to do something to expose its shortcomings. Inspired by Instagram star, yoga practitioner and body positive advocate, Jessamyn Stanley, Lothian tactfully began to speak to women about their BMI, and found kindred spirits. As a photojournalism student with the University of South Wales, her 25+ project was born, taking photographs of the sportswomen – rugby players, pole dancers and roller derby skaters – who the BMI would have us relegate to “obese” without a second glance.
“I wanted to prove that people who are overweight often do exercise and also underline the unreliability of the BMI system for our needs,” says Lothian. “It doesn’t indicate good health.”
What she believes does work as a signifier is women being strong, powerful and active in their own way. “The women I spoke to were in touch with their bodies. They liked to keep fit, and to monitor their own fitness. I don’t think they were shocked that their BMI was 25+, but I think they were troubled by the fact that they could be considered overweight when they’re not actually unhealthy.”
She’s photographed 15 subjects so far – including herself – with their favoured activities ranging from pole dancing to cycling, dog walking to disabled free wheeling. There are also skiers, rugby players and dancers.
There are many reasons to explain why women already carry negative thoughts about their bodies with them – for one, ocial media is a pressure on us like never before. And the online world means judgement and cruelty are much more common, says Lothian.
“I want people to look at these images and realise that we shouldn’t look down on people for their body shape, or presume we know all about a person’s lifestyle because of it,” she says. “And I want people to look at the images, and think that maybe their stereotypes aren’t well judged.”