Health and Wellness Fair body composition testing triggers controversy

The third annual CMS Health and Wellness Fair faced criticism from students for providing body fat composition testing from the Hydrostatic Body Composition Testing Clinic of California. The event, advertised in an email to the entire Scripps College, Harvey Mudd College, and Claremont McKenna College student bodies, took place at Roberts Pavilion Oct. 26.

“The health and wellness fair was created to highlight those health and wellness services and opportunities available to students, faculty, and staff of the [Claremont-Mudd-Scripps] Community. Our efforts are to destigmatize help-seeking and empower wellness practices,” Raechel Holmes, CMS athletic trainer and health and wellness coordinator, wrote in a statement sent to TSL.

After undergoing the body composition test, in which students were submerged underwater and weighed, students were given a sheet with an assessment of body fat and lean mass percentage, previous test results if applicable, and a calculation of their resting metabolic rate.

Test-takers were also given a reference table “showing where you are and where you should be,” which categorizes students’ body fat percentages as “essential, athletic, healthy, fair, unhealthy or very unhealthy.”

“Body composition is a basic health assessment just as resting heart rate, blood pressure, blood glucose, and cholesterol/full lipid proteins are all indicators of overall health,” according to a sheet of paper posted on the Body Composition module labelled “Body Composition Facts.”

The owner and operator of Hydrostatic Body Composition Testing Clinic of California, Linda Finley, wrote in an email to TSL about the benefits of measuring body composition rather than weight.

“Looking at body composition rather than body weight is far more informative and provides a deeper look at what people are made of,” Finley wrote. “Determining how much lean mass (everything but your fat) and fat mass a [person] has and the ratio between gives a scientific look at a person’s health.”

Both Finley and Holmes wrote that hydrostatic testing is the most accurate method of measuring body fat percentage.

“The gold standard in body composition testing is hydrostatic weighing, however it is generally difficult to find a location that performs hydrostatic weighing due to the required equipment,” Holmes wrote in a statement to TSL. “Offering a mobile hydrostatic testing method at the health fair allowed individuals to get the best idea of their body composition using the most accurate method.”

Several students raised concerns with body fat composition testing and the message CMS sent to the student body by publicizing the event on a Facebook post published by Jamie Haughton SC ’20.

“When I got the email [advertising the CMS Health and Wellness Fair] I guess my initial reaction was kind of anger and frustration, because even though it doesn’t explicitly say fat bodies are bad bodies in the email, it does say it’s about health and wellness and there are only two things mentioned: flu shots and weighing yourself,” Haughton wrote.

Haughton acknowledged that she could not speak to the benefits of the testing for athletes, but said she believed both weight and body fat percentage are not dependable or accurate measures of health.

“[I]n my experience any focus on a number produces idealizing/unhealthy eating and exercising behaviors,” Haughton wrote in a message to TSL. “[N]umbers are incredibly triggering for people with disordered eating and exercising habits. Any number can become something that one can obsessively track and therefore become dangerous (weight, calorie intake, etc.) body fat percentage is another number.”

Danielle Tishkoff Chidester SC ’19 plays competitive ultimate frisbee at the Claremont Colleges and tested her body fat percentage in the fall of 2017. She considers herself an athlete, and found the testing unhelpful, saying that athletes can be successful in their sport without a low body fat percentage.

“[Athletes] should be focusing on their performance, and that doesn’t necessarily correlate with body fat,” Tishkoff Chidester said. “I think that falsely equivalating low body fat with athleticism is harmful, and associating low body fat with something to achieve is harmful in a lot of ways.”

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