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Eating Disorders

Reevaluating Military Fitness Standards

Moving beyond weight stigma in the armed forces.

Key points

  • Weight stigma in the military undermines mental and physical well-being.
  • Extreme measures to meet military standards risk service members' health and careers.
  • Outdated metrics like BMI perpetuate weight stigma and fail to reflect diversity.
  • Military culture perpetuates eating disorders, exacerbating the toll on service members.
Source: Photo by Benjamin Faust on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Benjamin Faust on Unsplash

Weight stigma pervades every branch of the military, where the idealized image of a lean, muscular physique reigns supreme. This narrow standard not only marginalizes those who don't fit the mold but also exacts a heavy toll on their mental and physical well-being.

The Impact of Weight Stigma

Studies have underscored the detrimental effects of weight stigma within military culture, including adverse psychosocial correlates such as depressive symptoms, internalized weight bias, and compensatory behavior like purging via self-induced vomiting, over-exercise, and laxative abuse. Other unhealthy methods to lose weight quickly include severely restrictive diets, diet pills, body wraps, saunas, and liposuction.

Weight-based stigma in the military has also been associated with maladaptive behaviors such as avoidance of physical activity and bingeing in response to negative affect. Bingeing is also the body's physiological response to dieting, ultimately leading to weight gain.1

While having a military that is fit and prepared for the demands of service is a legitimate priority, the bias inherent in current fitness standards, and efforts to promote weight loss, are problematic. Service members are faced with negative occupational consequences—e.g., denial of career advancement opportunities, possible separation, frequent weighing, and taping—compelling them to use extreme measures such as crash dieting, diet pills, or even surgical interventions in a desperate attempt to avoid the weight stigma inherent in failing to measure up to fitness/weight/body composition requirements—and to keep their jobs. The cost these standards have on service members' physical and psychological health is too high, and it includes losing valuable potential or active members who happen not to fit this arbitrary standard.

Source: Image by 12019 from Pixabay
Source: Image by 12019 from Pixabay

Flawed Assessments

Continued reliance on outdated metrics like the Body Mass Index (BMI) and tape tests for assessing fitness highlights a fundamental misunderstanding of health dynamics. A Belgian mathematician invented BMI in the mid-1800s to measure the average weight of a population. The population was white men in Belgium. It was never intended to be used to measure individuals' health status. It does not differentiate between fat, muscle, skeletal tissue, or fluid weight. Muscle and bone are associated with fitness and health but would make someone's BMI higher.

Tape tests have their own problems. Despite efforts to eliminate inaccuracies in body-fat measurement methods, disagreement persists among military branches on where to measure a service member's waist during the tape test, reflecting a lack of standardized assessment protocols. Similarly, tape tests overlook diverse body types and biological differences between individuals

Additionally, it's essential to recognize that one's body fat percentage alone doesn't provide a comprehensive measure of health and fitness. Factors such as age, ethnicity, genetic predispositions, and overall body composition significantly influence body fat levels. Health and fitness are multidimensional, influenced by factors including cardiovascular health, muscular strength, flexibility, and overall lifestyle habits such as diet and exercise. Therefore, relying solely on body fat percentage as a measure of health and fitness oversimplifies a complex issue and may lead to inaccurate assessments.

Yet, the military persists in using these assessment tools, perpetuating weight stigma and fostering a climate ripe for disordered eating behaviors and body dysmorphia. These flawed assessments not only perpetuate weight stigma but also jeopardize the health of service members. By prioritizing appearance over actual fitness, the military inadvertently fosters a climate ripe for developing eating disorders, at the very least, and dangerous and potentially fatal eating disorder symptoms. Many will avoid disclosing these behaviors due to the stigmatization associated with an eating disorder diagnosis and the consequences of being deemed unfit to serve.

Emotional Toll

The emotional toll of weight standards in the military is immeasurable as service men and women grapple with feelings of inadequacy and shame, exacerbated by a culture that equates weight with worth. Countless service members are driven to extreme measures in a futile bid to change their genetic blueprint, risking their physical and psychological well-being.

Call for Action

These shortcomings underscore the urgent need for a more nuanced approach to assessing fitness and health within the military. Relying solely on outdated metrics perpetuates weight stigma and fails to accommodate service members' diverse physiological characteristics. It's time to prioritize evidence-based assessments that genuinely reflect the health and readiness of military personnel and move away from standards that do more harm than good.

The military's persistence in clinging to these measures despite glaring flaws and mounting evidence against their efficacy raises critical questions. To those who defend the status quo, preemptive rebuttals are warranted:

  • Yes, tradition may dictate these standards—but tradition alone does not justify their validity.
  • Yes, service members understand the requirements of their service—but should their well-being be sacrificed for conformity's sake?
  • And yes, concerns about safety and readiness are valid—but can we truly ensure safety when our soldiers silently suffer, their health compromised by standards proven to be unrealistic?

We need to re-examine the validity and ethics of these standards in light of sound research proving body weight is not a reliable measure of health or fitness level. Possible solutions include adopting a Health-at-Every-Size framework and reducing the emphasis on body weight and shape while prioritizing health and fitness.2

In addition, it is crucial to screen service members for eating disorders. While some symptoms may help a member reach an acceptable size/weight temporarily, it certainly does not leave one fit and prepared for the demands of service. It ultimately endangers them and those they are committed to protecting and serving.


It's time to confront these uncomfortable truths and demand change. The cost of maintaining these standards is too high, measured not only in dollars spent on futile attempts to conform but in the lives and well-being of those who serve. It's time for the military to embrace a more holistic approach to fitness, prioritizing mental and physical health over appearance and recognizing every service member's inherent value, regardless of their size or shape. Only then will we truly honor the sacrifices of those who serve.


Schvey, N. A., Barmine, M., Bates, D., Oldham, K., Bakalar, J. L., Spieker, E., Maurer, D., Stice, E., Stephens, M., Tanofsky-Kraff, M., & Sbrocco, T. (2017). Weight stigma among active duty U.S. military personnel with overweight and obesity. Stigma and Health, 2(4), 281–291.

Bacon, L., & Aphramor, L. (2011). Weight science: evaluating the evidence for a paradigm shift. Nutrition journal, 10, 9.

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