8 Atheist and Agnostic Scientists Who Changed the World

It’s common knowledge — or it should be — that atheists are among the most reviled and mistrusted groups in America. We consistently come in at the bottom of polls about who Americans would vote for, who they would trust, who they want to marry into their families, who they think shares their view of how the world should be.

But it’s also the case that non-believers — not atheists as a group, but certain individual atheists and other non-believers — are among our most respected and beloved heroes. Not everyone knows that these people aren’t religious, of course… but they aren’t. And scientists are among the most admired of those heroes. Maybe it’s because scientists are more likely to be non-believers than the general population… and the more advanced in their field they are, the more true that becomes. Or maybe it’s because great scientists — American or not — embody the old-fashioned American values of exploration and curiosity, the willingness to question and the passion for truth, persistence in pursuing dreams and courage in the face of adversity. (These values aren’t uniquely American, of course — but when people gas on about the American character, these ideals do tend to turn up in the conversation.)

So here are eight non-believing or agnostic scientists, whose work and lives and stories can inspire anyone — atheist, religious, or other.


Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, 8 Atheist and Agnostic Scientists Who Changed the World. To read more, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

8 Atheist and Agnostic Scientists Who Changed the World

History, My Bum Knee, and Some People I Want to Thank

So what does a trip to the emergency room have to do with the history of science and the fight for social justice?

This whole “dislocated knee” thing has sucked, and continues to suck, and will probably suck for a little while longer. (I don’t yet know for how long: I’ll keep you posted.) But I also have to say that it hasn’t sucked nearly as badly as it could have. For most of the time, I’m fairly comfortable, and safe, and well taken care of, and even reasonably well entertained.

There are the obvious people to thank for this. Ingrid being the most important and most obvious of the obvious crowd. There’s also the friends who have been sitting with me, and helping out with practical stuff. There’s the firefighters and paramedics who got me into the ambulance and to the emergency room, with compassion and good humor and patience, and with minimal discomfort on my part. There’s the doctors and nurses and staff at the emergency room, who diagnosed me and took care of me and kept me calm, with an entirely appropriate balance of attentiveness and “Yeah, you’ll be fine, this isn’t really that big a deal” reassurance. There’s the readers who’ve been saying nice supportive things. (For the record: It does help.)

But there are two less obvious groups of people that I also want to thank.

I want to thank everyone in history who has done good, evidence-based research into medical science. I’m getting better medical care for my dislocated knee, with less pain and a faster recovery and a better long-term prognosis, than I would have twenty years ago: better still than it would have been forty years ago, or a hundred. I’m getting care that has been rigorously tested and shown to actually be effective, using careful, double-blinded, placebo-controlled, replicated studies, designed and run by people who give a damn about the truth. I owe these people, and I want to thank them.

And I want to thank everyone who, for the last several decades, has been fighting for LGBT rights and recognition. Continue reading “History, My Bum Knee, and Some People I Want to Thank”

History, My Bum Knee, and Some People I Want to Thank

Skeptical Genetics: Jen McCreight's Talk at Skepticon 4

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: Jen McCreight (of BlagHag fame) is one of the best speakers we have in this movement. She’s not a slamming powerhouse of swelling oratory: she’s just really clear, chatty, friendly, funny, approachable, and excellent at conveying complicated ideas clearly without talking down to her audience. I will hear her speak anytime — even if it’s on a topic I’ve heard her speak on before.

Her talk at Skepticon 4 was no exception. It’s sort of a Genetics 101 for a lay audience, with a focus on common misconceptions about genetics and dumb ways genetics get portrayed in news media and pop culture. If you want to know about this stuff but are daunted by dry or forbidding texts, this would be an excellent way to start. Enjoy!

Skeptical Genetics: Jen McCreight's Talk at Skepticon 4

From the Archives: Why Near Death Experiences Are a Terrible Argument for the Soul

Since I moved to the Freethought Blogs network, I have a bunch of new readers who aren’t familiar with my greatest hits from my old, pre-FTB blog. So I’m linking to some of them, about one a day, to introduce them to the new folks.

Today’s archive treasure: Why Near Death Experiences Are a Terrible Argument for the Soul. The tl;dr: Most arguments for spiritual belief that I encounter are so bad, they don’t even count as arguments. But some believers in religion or spirituality do try to make real arguments for their beliefs, and try to defend them with evidence and logic. This evidence and logic are never very good… but they are sincere attempts to engage with reality instead of ignoring it. So I want to do these arguments the honor of taking them seriously… and pointing out how they’re completely mistaken. This piece takes on the argument that near-death experiences provide some sort of real scientific evidence for the existence of an immaterial soul separate from the brain, and which lives on after the brain dies.

A nifty pull quote:

Given that the evidence supporting the “biological process of the brain” explanation is rigorously gathered, carefully tested, thoroughly cross-checked, internally consistent, consistent with everything we know about how the brain and the mind work, able to produce mind-bogglingly accurate predictions, not slanted towards wishful thinking, and is expanding our understanding of the mind every day.

Given that the evidence supporting the “immortal soul separate from the brain” explanation is flimsy, anecdotal, internally inconsistent, blasted into non-existence upon careful examination, totally at odds with everything we know about how the brain and the mind work, and strongly biased towards what people most desperately want to believe.

Which of these explanations of consciousness seems more likely?

And which explanation of near-death experiences seems more likely?


And now a quick question: Are there any of these evidence-based arguments for religious or spiritual belief that I’m missing?

I wrote this series to address the arguments for religion that actually take the question of whether religion is true or not seriously, and that attempt to offer real evidence in favor of religious claims. Of the countless arguments I’ve seen for religion I was able to come up with five — the first cause argument, the argument from design, the argument from fine-tuning, “I feel it in my heart,” and near-death experiences — that fit this category. The rest are just bafflegab: excuses for why evidence isn’t necessary, defenses of the notion that we shouldn’t care whether religion is true as long as it’s useful, accusations that atheists are mean for raising the question in the first place, Pascal’s Fucking Wager, etc. Are there any actual evidence- based arguments for religion that I should be addressing in this series? If so, please let me know.

From the Archives: Why Near Death Experiences Are a Terrible Argument for the Soul

I have my archives!

I have my archives from my old blog! They’re here! With comments and everything! They’re even in the right categories!

Images and videos didn’t make it over, and there are a handful of posts that didn’t make it and that I’ll have to put in by hand. (For some reason, it didn’t like my posts about alternative medicine, speaking at Stanford, making atheism a safe place to land, atheists having morality, and my recipe for chocolate pie. Make of that what you will.) But I can live with that. The archives are here. Years of my old work — all finally in one place. This has been driving me up a tree, and I can now finally relax about it. (A little.)

If you want to see them, scroll down in the sidebar to where it says “Recent Posts/ Comments/ Archives.” Click Archives. There they are! You can also search for posts in the archives with the handy Search box at the top right of the blog. Which works waaaay better than the search box at my old blog.

When I’m back from my Minnesota trip, I’m going to start working on (a) getting the old blog to redirect to the new one, and (b) getting the best and hottest posts listed in my sidebar, so newcomers to the blog can browse them more easily. And I’ll probably start linking to the cool stuff from the archives, so newcomers to this blog can become familiar with it. For now, I’m just going to sit back and cry tears of happiness and relief. I can haz archives! Yay!

I have to express my intense gratitude to fellow Freethought Blogger Jason Thibeault, at Lousy Canuck, for making this happen. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that atheists have no sense of community or compassion. I owe him big time. Go visit his blog, and tell him Thank You.

I have my archives!

The Case of the Missing Bisexual

This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog. I never reprinted it here, for reasons that now escape me. But the Blowfish Blog archives are apparently no longer on the Internets, and the original piece is no longer available. So in the interest of completism and making all my published works accessible, I’m going ahead and posting it here.

Missing bisexual
Harebrained speculation time:

Why aren’t there more “true” bisexuals? (“True” in quotation marks — so please don’t all start yelling at me.)

One of the interesting puzzles about sexual orientation is the way it’s distributed in the population. It’s very far from a neat bell curve, with a few heterosexuals and homosexuals at either end, and a big peak in the bisexual middle. It’s not even a slanty bell curve, peaking sharply at “more or less heterosexual” and sloping down gradually towards “more or less homosexual.”

Instead, it’s a double bell curve — with one peak near “leaning towards straight,” and another, smaller peak near “leaning towards gay.” (The height and shape and location of these peaks vary depending on who’s doing the study… but the basic “double bell curve with one high peak and one low” pattern seems to hold pretty steady.)

Translation: Very few people are strictly straight or strictly gay… but most people do have something of a preference for one gender or the other. Quote unquote “true” bisexuals, people who are attracted to women and men equally, are fairly rare. Even if we take self-identification out of the picture — even if we define orientation purely on the basis of desire or behavior — we still see this tendency.

Why would this be?

If sexual orientation were entirely genetic — if there were some evolutionary reason for humans to be more heterosexual than not but to have some fluidity around that — why would we have the double peaks? Wouldn’t we just have the slanty bell curve, peaking around 1 or 1.5 on the 0-to-6 Kinsey scale, and gradually curving down towards 6? Why would we have a small second peak at around 4.5 or 5?

I freely acknowledge that there might be some good genetic reason for this “double bell curve” phenomenon, one that we just don’t know yet. I’ll even acknowledge that there might be some good genetic reason for this phenomenon, one that somebody else knows but that I don’t. I’m definitely not a sexual orientation constructionist (translation: person who thinks orientation is entirely constructed by society). The science is still shaking out, but it does seem to be pointing to genetics as at least a significant factor in determining which gender or genders we like to boff. And it might well turn out that genetics play an important role in this “double peak” pattern.

But I’ll also say this:

I think it’s quite plausible that the double peak is entirely cultural.

And there are two specific cultural trends that I think may be skewing our orientations towards the two peaks.

The first is homophobia… and the way it’s sorted our culture into Straight and Gay. The two mix and overlap, of course — straight people have gay friends, and vice versa — but they’re still distinct social categories. Especially in parts of the country and the world that are more homophobic. Because of homophobia, people who lean towards being queer have a strong need to create a gay culture, a community shaped around sexual and romantic desire towards people of the same sex. And of course, because of homophobia, straight people have historically shunned queers — and have denied any queer tendencies in themselves. This has improved dramatically, but it’s only improved fairly recently, and it does still go on today.

So because society has sorted itself into two intermingling but distinct groups — Gay and Straight — people somewhere in the middle often feel a need to pick one. There is a bisexual community, but it’s nowhere near as visible, or as well-organized, as either the straight or gay worlds. And it can be very hard to drift back and forth between those two worlds. People whose natural orientations lie close to the middle of the scale — say, a 2.5 or 3.5 on the scale of 0 to 6 — often wind up picking a side, and more or less sticking to it.

And that tendency can be self-perpetuating. A cultural preference for straight society or the gay community can slant your sexual preference towards women over men, or vice versa. I know that I tend to get more interested in women when I’m spending more time in dyke culture, and I get more interested in men when I’m hanging around straight people more. It’s a simple matter of who’s on my mind. Not to mention who’s available. Love the one you’re with, and all that. Or lust after the one you’re with, anyway.

So that’s Harebrained Speculation Number One for the double peak.

Harebrained Speculation Number Two: Biphobia.

There’s a strong bias against bisexuals in both straight and gay cultures. Gay culture tends to see bisexuals as traitors, fence-sitters, kinky thrill-seekers, people who can’t commit either politically or personally. Straight society tends to see bisexuals as fickle, unreliable, secretly gay people who just can’t admit it. Plus straights often see us as promiscuous… and, of course, in the age of AIDS, they see us as vectors of disease. And both gays and straights tend to see us as confused, experimenting, “going through a phase.”

All of which exacerbates people’s tendency to sort into gay or straight culture. The strong biases against bisexuality — from both gays and straights — push many people to pick one camp or the other… people who might not otherwise need or want to. People who might have identified as bisexual can internalize this biphobia, and decline to call themselves bi. And people who privately identify as bi are often reluctant to do so publicly.

So largely because of homophobia from the straight world, we have a tendency to sort ourselves into straight society and the gay community. Because of biphobia from both straight and gay cultures, this tendency gets exaggerated. And this cultural tendency gets transformed into personal sex behavior and desire… which then turns into a self-perpetuating feedback loop. Hence, the “double peak” pattern in our sexual orientations — a pattern that might be much less pronounced, and might not even be there at all, if these social trends weren’t there.

I’m not sure how you’d test this hypothesis. But here’s what I’d expect to see if it were true:

If it were true, then in parts of the world that were less homophobic — and less biphobic — I’d expect to see a less vividly pronounced double peak. (If the less-homophobic, less-biphobic trend had been happening for long enough, anyway.)

And if it were true, then if society continues to become less homophobic — and less biphobic — over the coming decades, I’d also expect to see the strong double peaks soften and flatten towards a more standard slanty bell curve.

It might not flatten out entirely. Again, there may be some genetic reasons for the double peak in the bell curve, ones that we don’t know about. And even in an entirely non-homophobic, non-biphobic society, we still might have something of a cultural tendency to sort into gay and straight cultures. For dating/ cruising purposes if nothing else. But I think without these cultural factors, this double peak would very likely flatten out significantly.

I’m not saying “everyone is basically bisexual.” I think that’s bullshit. Some people are clearly not bisexual. Some people are clearly gay or straight. And even though most people do have at least some capacity to be attracted to both/all genders, that still doesn’t make them “basically bisexual.” Sexual identity is complicated — it’s about political identity, cultural identity, sexual history, romantic and relationship preferences, etc., as well as basic sexual attraction. And when people are deciding which identity (if any) works best for them, they get to decide for themselves which of these factors gets priority. I don’t want someone insisting that I’m “basically lesbian” because I’m currently hovering around 5 on the Kinsey scale — so I’m not going to insist that someone else is “basically bisexual” because they’re currently hovering around 4.

Bisexual symbol
So I’m not saying “everyone is basically bisexual.” I’m saying that, at least for those of us in the wide sloppy middle of the Kinsey scale, sexual orientation is at least somewhat malleable. Like I wrote in my piece, The Learned Fetish, the finer points of our sexual desires can be shaped by our experiences as adults — even if the basic outlines are set early on.

I’m not sure why I think this is important. I’m not sure the answer would have any effect in figuring out social policy or political strategy or dating strategy, or any other practical decisions we might make about sex. I’m even not sure that it is important, except that figuring out what is and isn’t true about reality is always important.

But I sure do think it’s interesting.

So what do you think? If you lean more towards one end of the Kinsey scale, do you think you might lean more towards the middle if society weren’t so divided into Gay and Straight? And if you’re already pretty squarely in the middle, do you think you’d have had an easier time getting there if it weren’t for the two camps?

The Case of the Missing Bisexual

Sex Addiction or Sexual Compulsion?

This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog. I wasn’t planning to reprint it here, since after it came out some errors in it were called to my attention (specifically on the neuroscience of addiction). But the Blowfish Blog archives are apparently no longer on the Internets, and the original piece is no longer available. So in the interest of completism and making all my published works accessible, even the ones I no longer totally support or that are no longer relevant, I’m going ahead and posting it here.

Sad silhouette
Let’s start with something we can all agree on. Some people have a hard time controlling their sexual behavior. Some people have sex in ways that damage themselves, and damage others… and they keep doing it anyway. Some people pursue sex — specific sexual activities, or just any kind of sexual pleasure generally — in ways that seriously interfere with their lives: ways that screw up their relationships, or create financial hardship, or even injure their health. And despite this harm, despite the fact that their behavior is making them unhappy, they don’t seem to be able to control themselves, and they keep doing it anyway.

I don’t think anyone would disagree with that.

Does this mean these people are “sex addicts”?

My immediate answer is No.

And my non-immediate answer, my answer after long and careful consideration, is also No.

No, no, no, no, no.

Abso-fucking-lutely not.

The right word for this behavior is “compulsive.” Or “obsessive.” Or “fixated.” Or “self-destructive.” Or “harmful.”


Why am I so passionately opposed to the very concept of “sex addiction”?

Why am I being such a stickler about this language?

Cocaine fiends
Part of my problem is that the word “addiction” has a particular pharmacological meaning. It’s a specific relationship to a particular set of drugs, such as heroin or cocaine or alcohol: needing higher doses to get the same effect, withdrawal symptoms when the drug use stops, etc. It’s a fairly specific concept. And it’s a different concept from compulsive behavior, or self-destructive behavior, or having a hard time stopping a certain behavior. To say that people are “addicted” when they’re being compulsive about exercise, or working, or collecting things — or sex — is just not accurate.

But I’m not usually this much of a stickler about definitions. Quite the opposite. In fact, regular readers may be getting very confused at this point: I’m usually an ardent usagist when it comes to language, a descriptivist rather than a prescriptivist, and I’ve defended this non-stickler position with great passion and waving about of hands. I think words mean what they’re generally understood to mean by most of the people using the language, and I think it’s nonsensical to complain that a word “really” means X when most people speaking and hearing it think it means Y. I understand that the meanings of words change over time. And I’m generally fine when words with specific, technical meanings acquire different meanings in casual, colloquial conversation.

So why am I being a stickler about this one?

Why do I get my panties in a twist about the phrase “sex addiction”?

Partly it’s because, although I am usually a happy- go- lucky usagist when word meanings change, I’m more of a stickler when a word’s original meaning is useful — and there isn’t another word to replace it. (I object to the word “literally” being used as an intensifier, for instance, not because “that’s not what the word really means,” but because we don’t have another word to express the concept that “literally” used to express.)

And this is definitely true about the word “addiction.” The concept of “a specific pharmacological relationship to certain drugs, characterized by withdrawal symptoms, needing increasingly higher doses, etc.” is a useful one. It’s a very different concept from “any sort of obsessive or compulsive behavior that people have difficulty stopping.” And while these two concepts are obviously related, the distinction between them is worth preserving.

But in the case of the word “addiction” — and especially in the case of “sex addiction” or “porn addiction” — there’s another reason I’m being a stickler. And it’s a far more important one.

The word “addiction” has, I think, certain implications. They’re implications inherent in the original technical definition of the word, and they carry over into the colloquial, casual, non-technical use.

And they’re implications I think are grossly inaccurate, wildly misleading, and seriously harmful when they get applied to sex.

The word “addiction” refers to a specific kind of relationship: not just with drugs, but with specific drugs. Some drugs are addictive — others are not. Heroin and cocaine and alcohol, for instance, are addictive: marijuana is not. People can certainly form unhealthy relationships with weed — but those unhealthy relationships don’t include withdrawal symptoms, needing increasingly higher doses to get the same effect, etc. People can and do get those symptoms with heroin and cocaine and alcohol. That’s what addiction means.

So as a result, we tend to see addiction as being a problem that’s rooted in the substance itself. We tend to see addiction as a problem, not with the quirks of the human brain, not with the way certain human brains deal with certain drugs, but with the drugs. We’re obviously not very consistent about this — we happily demonize heroin and cocaine, while we have a much more accepting attitude towards alcohol — but we still tend to see the harmful potential of addictive drugs as somehow inherent in the drugs themselves. Maybe we shouldn’t — okay, we definitely shouldn’t — but we do. And while this isn’t the most useful attitude towards drugs humanity has ever come up with, there is a grain of truth to it. Our relationships with addictive drugs are different from our relationships with non-addictive drugs. Or they often are. I certainly don’t think it makes sense to demonize addictive drugs… but I do think it’s reasonable to acknowledge that they often have a different effect on us, and to set them apart in some ways.

But this is a very, very bad approach to take when we’re talking about sex.

Sex fiend pulp
And it’s an approach that feeds into our culture’s existing demonization of sex. The concept of “sex addiction” treats sex as an experience that is inherently harmful: an experience that has financial disaster and screwed-up relationships and ruined health somehow inherent in the experience itself.

When we’re talking about people having a hard time controlling their sexual behavior, “compulsive” or “obsessive” are much better words. Because when we talk about compulsive or obsessive behavior, we understand that the problem doesn’t lie in the specific thing being obsessed about. We understand that people can get compulsive about anything: work, exercise, eating, falling in love, collecting Simpsons memorabilia. In fact, we understand that people tend to get compulsive about positive, pleasurable experiences, experiences that are central to human existence. We don’t blame work or exercise, food or love, for the fact that some people get compulsive about them.

And sex should be in that category. It’s not a substance, like heroin or alcohol, that people can form pharmacological dependencies on. It’s a fundamental human behavior, like eating or working or falling in love: a behavior that, tragically but understandably, some people get destructively compulsive about.

But when we talk about “sex addiction” — as opposed to “sexual compulsion” — it places the blame on sex itself. It treats sex, not as a positive and necessary part of human life that can sometimes go wrong, but as a dangerous and harmful substance: best avoided entirely if at all possible, to be treated like a minefield if you absolutely have to engage with it.

And that’s both denigrating to sex, and flat-out mistaken.

I would never deny that sex can be harmful. Anything can be harmful. And I think it’s quite possible that sex has more potential to cause harm than many other human behaviors. Sex is a powerful drive, an irrational, deeply ingrained, lizard-hindbrain urge: it has hundreds of millions of years of evolution powering it, and our fears and desires and feelings about it run deep and hard. We’re not going to be as smart or as self-controlled about it as we are about, say, collecting Simpsons memorabilia. Strong drives have more potential to go wrong, and to go wrong more badly. That’s true of hunger, and fear, and pleasure, and competition, and family loyalty, and love: these experiences are powerful — which means they have more power to screw us up.

But these experiences are also our most fundamental ones. They have the power to harm us, of course — but they also have the power to give us joy, to inspire us towards greatness, to take us out of ourselves, to connect us with our future, to keep us alive, to engage us with the world.

We’re not going to cope with the problems they create by treating them like poison… as if evil and destruction were woven into their very core.

Sex Addiction or Sexual Compulsion?

The Fat Positive Feminist Skeptical Diet, Phase 2, Part 2: How Do You Know When Enough Is Enough?

This is Part 2 of a two-part post. In yesterday’s piece, I talked about the process of switching from weight loss to weight maintenance… including the strange attraction of the process of losing weight, and the challenges of letting go of that process and embracing lifelong weight management. Today, I talk about how you even decide what a healthy weight might be… and how loving and accepting your body is part of that decision.

Done button
So, like I said yesterday: I am officially done losing weight. I’ve reached my target weight. Or, to be more accurate: I have reached the bottom of my target weight range. Or, to be even more accurate than that: I have made a final decision as to what my target weight range should even be — something I wasn’t sure of at the beginning of this project — and have reached the bottom of that range.

But how did I make that decision?

Feet on scale
Deciding when to stop losing weight was an interestingly tricky question. Much trickier than I’d thought it would be. I knew I didn’t want BMI (weight to height ratio) to be my only metric of healthy weight. I knew that BMI, while a fairly good measure of healthy or unhealthy weight in populations as a whole, isn’t the best metric for individuals. It can give some good broad strokes — I knew that at five foot three and 200 pounds I should definitely lose weight, and that at 160 pounds I should probably keep going for a bit — but when it comes to the fine-tuning, it’s really not the best gauge. There’s too much variation in how people of different heights are built — different frames, different muscle masses, etc.

So once I got closer to my “ideal” BMI, I had to decide when to stop.

And I had to decide how to decide.

Which metric of healthy weight should I use? Body fat percentage? Waist circumference? Waist to hip ratio? Should I use body mass index after all? Some combination of the above?

Yoni Freedhoff (of the Weighty Matters blog), an evidence-based doctor/ weight loss expert I’ve been following and whose work I greatly respect, advises his readers not to get too hung up on external metrics. Instead, he says, we should find a weight we’re happy and healthy at, one with a calorie budget we can sustain and not be miserable with. And there’s some real value in that. When I was hovering near my “ideal” BMI and trying to decide whether to stop or keep going, one of the factors I considered was whether I could be happy dialing down my calorie budget a little more to lose a few more pounds… or whether that would restrict my eating too much for me to be happy with.

Broken plate
But there are also real problems with this approach. The whole point of this weight control project is that my own instincts about what is and is not a healthy weight are pretty broken, and I can’t trust myself to make that decision without some external metrics. After all, I deluded myself for years into thinking that I was happy and healthy at 200 pounds… and that eating any less than I was eating would make me miserable. And on the other side of those broken instincts lurk eating disorders. Like I wrote yesterday, the process of losing weight itself has a strange appeal, with its constant cycle of victorious accomplishments and new goals to reach for. I could see myself coming up with a rationalization for continuing the process, even if I had no earthly health-related reason to do so. And since even at a completely healthy weight, my body still isn’t the exact perfect body I’d choose if I could, it’d be easy to delude myself into thinking that more weight loss would solve that imperfection. I could see myself deciding that I’d be happier with my body if I lost just a little more weight… and then lost a little more… and then just a little bit more after that…

Target 1
So I knew this “decide for yourself what weight you want to be” method wouldn’t work. I didn’t just want to paint a target around myself and call myself “done.” I knew that my powers of rationalization would make that a dangerous path. It’d be way too easy, if my weight slid up again (or slid too far down), for me to just keep re-painting that target at every new place that I landed. I needed some other way of deciding.

But what else? BMI isn’t great, for the reasons I detailed above. Waist-hip ratio isn’t bad, it’s pretty strongly linked to health outcomes… but the problem is that you can’t really do much about it. Spot reducing (i.e., losing weight in one particular part of your body) doesn’t work — so if you want to improve your waist-hip ratio, all you can do is lose weight, and hope you lose more of it in your waist than your hips. Waist circumference? Seems a bit weird for that number to be the same for everyone, regardless of height or frame. But sure, I’d gotten that below the danger point. Was that enough?

I decided to go with a combo of BMI, waist circumference, and body fat percentage. I figured if all three were in a healthy range, I was probably fine. So when the first two were where I wanted them to be, I signed up with a hydrostatic body fat testing company — you know, one of those places that measures your body fat percentage by dunking you in a tub of water — and got that number.

And here’s where it got interesting.

According to the Tub of Water Dunking Company (no, not their real name), my body fat percentage is 23%. And according to the company’s calculations and categories, this puts me squarely in the “healthy” range. In fact, it puts me close to the bottom of that range.

I had my answer. I was done.

In theory, anyway.

But according to the Tub of Water Dunking Company and their calculations and categories, my 23% body fat percentage put me very close to the “athletic” range. And the moment they told me that, I found the idea almost irresistibly appealing.

I have never, in my entire life, considered myself “athletic.” I’ve always been nerdy, indoorsy, a bookworm. Growing up, I was always a fat, gawky, “last picked in gym class” kid. Even when I lost weight in my teens, even in high school and college when I was taking tons of dancing classes and getting an A in fencing — hell, even when I was dancing at the Lusty Lady peep show fifteen hours a week and making a living being professionally beautiful and sexy — I never once thought of myself as “athletic.” And now, finally, according to the Tub of Water Dunking Company, if I lost just a few more pounds of body fat, I’d officially be in that category.

And I thought: Maybe I’m not done after all. Maybe I should lose a few more pounds, and get my body fat percentage into that “athletic” range. Maybe it would be worth it to keep going, just a little bit longer.

It took some time, and some thinking, and a bit of Googling, to realize that something was very wrong here.

The Tub of Water Dunking Company had ranges for body fat percentages that they considered too high — but they didn’t have any that they considered too low. Their categories were Obese, Overfat, Healthy, Athletic, and Excellent. They had no category for You Don’t Have Enough Body Fat. They had no category for You Are Dangerously Thin And Need To Start Gaining Weight Now.

And that was very disturbing.

Body fat percentage
So I did some Googling. Mostly to get a reality check on my “Yes, a 23% body fat percentage is totally healthy, you can stop losing weight now” answer… but also to get a reality check on my disturbance. And I got both. Yes, the body fat percentage range that the Tub of Water Dunking Company called “healthy” is also called “healthy” by the somewhat more reliable World Health Organization and National Institutes of Health. I really and truly didn’t have to lose any more weight. Yay!

But here’s where it gets really interesting. The body fat percentage range that the Tub of Water Dunking Company called “athletic,” the WHO and NIH call “underfat.” Yes, many athletes have a body fat percentage in this range… but athletes often have serious health problems, and sacrifice their long- term health to reach short-term goals. Serious athletic training is about achieving extraordinary feats of performance — not about good health.

And I started thinking:

Why was I so eager to be in that “athletic” range?

Why was I so eager to keep losing weight?

A lot of it, I think, has to do with what I talked about in yesterday’s post. There is a powerful appeal in the process of losing weight, and in the sense of accomplishment and approaching a concrete goal that it gave me. That’s been surprisingly hard to let go of. I also knew how much harder weight maintenance is than weight loss, and I think I was nervous about embarking on this new leg of this project that everyone says is so much more difficult. So as relieved as I was at the thought that I was done, a part of me was disappointed, even somewhat scared… and eager to jump at an excuse to keep going. And again, even at my “ideal” weight, my body still wasn’t the perfect body I would choose if I could …and since weight loss had gotten me so much closer to where I wanted my body to be, it was seductive to think that a little more weight loss would get me a little closer to that ideal.

But some of the appeal, I’m embarrassed to admit, has to do with that word “athletic” — and the feeling of validation and approval I could feel in having someone else, someone with some sort of objective eye, apply it to me.

Even if it was just the guy at the Tub of Water Dunking Company.

War of the simpsons
There’s a Simpsons episode that perfectly illustrates what I’m talking about here. (Because there’s a Simpsons episode to illustrate everything important about life.) It’s the one where Homer and Marge go on the couple’s counseling retreat, and Homer sneaks off to go fishing for the legendary giant catfish the locals are obsessed with, and thus be respected and admired. When Marge asks him, “By whom?”, he answers, “Those weirdos down at the worm store!”

Why on earth did I care about those weirdos down at the worm store?

Why on earth did I care whether the guy at the Tub of Water Dunking Company thought I was an athlete?

And this is where I come back around to Yoni Freedhoff, and his “whatever weight you’re happy with and can sustain without being miserable” metric.

Foot on scale
The truth is that we don’t really know what a healthy weight is. A lot of research is being done in this area, but right now, we just don’t know. There are lots of different metrics, and not much agreement about which one is best, or where on each metric it’s best to be. The answer is almost certainly a range, not a single fixed number. The range is almost certainly different for different people. And we don’t really know exactly what that range is, or how wide it might be. We have some clear ideas of what a definitely unhealthy weight is… but we don’t have a clear idea of what a healthy weight is. We have some very broad outlines… but for any given person, the question, “What should I weigh?” does not have an obvious answer.

So ultimately, I do need to take responsibility for this decision myself.

Yes, I need my decision to be evidence-based, informed by the best available research I can find. Yes, I need to avoid denialism about the serious health problems connected with overweight and obesity. (And, for that matter, denialism about the serious health problems connected with underweight and disordered eating.) Yes, I need to be aware of my human ability to rationalize and justify decisions that I find comforting and convenient. And so yes, I need to find reliable outside sources that will give me a good reality check.

But I don’t need the guy at the Tub of Water Dunking Company to tell me I’m athletic. I know I’m athletic. I pump iron three days a week, most weeks. I’m doing bicep curls with 25-pound dumbbells. I can run up a flight of stairs without getting winded or breaking a sweat. I can dance for hours, and be disappointed and ready for more when the night is over. I can bench press half my weight. (Not that I would, usually: my trainer says bench pressing is a waste of time.) And when I flex my biceps, I look like a freaking Amazon goddess. I don’t need to get my body fat percentage below some essentially arbitrary line, above which I’m just an ordinary schlub, and below which I am somehow magically transformed into Martina Navratilova.

Greta full
I know I’m athletic. And more importantly: I’m healthy. My body does most of what I want it to do, most of the time. In fact, lately it’s been doing things I never in my wildest dreams would have thought to ask of it. It’s not perfect, and it never, ever will be. But it’s strong, and it’s sexy, and it’s awake and alive and happy, and it connects me intimately with this universe I love so much.

And I’m learning to be okay with that.

Also in this series:
The Fat-Positive Diet, 7/28/09
The Fat-Positive Skeptic (Part 2 of 2), 7/29/09
An Open Letter to the Fat-Positive Movement, 11/11/09
The Fat-Positive Feminist Skeptical Diet: An Update, 3/8/10
Weight Loss and Strange Emotional Stuff: The Fat-Positive Feminist Skeptical Diet, Part 2, 3/9/10
The Fat-Positive Feminist Skeptical Diet, Part 3: The Actual Diet, 3/10/10
Some Evolving Thoughts About Weight and Sex, 3/17/10 (reposted here 6/28/10)

The Fat Positive Feminist Skeptical Diet, Phase 2, Part 2: How Do You Know When Enough Is Enough?