The DoD's Body Composition Standards Are Harming Female Service Members

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female Marine Corps recruits Parris Island
Recruits of Papa Company, 4th Recruit Training Battalion, sprint to improve their speed and stamina during a circuit course Aug. 30, 2013, on Parris Island, S.C. (Caitlin Brink/U.S. Marine Corps)

Major Sharon Sisbarro is a Communication Strategy and Operations Officer assigned to Headquarters Marine Corps and temporarily supporting the DOD Board on Diversity and Inclusion. She has eleven years commissioned service. Major Kerry Hogan is currently serving as the Adjutant, II MEF Information Group. She has sixteen years commissioned service. Major Sara Kirstein is currently serving as a Manpower Officer with Marine Corps Installations Pacific. She has nine years enlisted and thirteen years of commissioned service. Captain Catherine Baniakas is currently serving as the Assistant Aircraft Maintenance Officer for VMM-362. She has nine years of commissioned service. All are members of the newly formed Marine Women's Initiative Team, a grassroots organization of female Marines who seeks to improve the recruitment, retention and employment of women in the Marine Corps.

The Department of Defense continues to introduce physically demanding requirements for both men and women, yet little research has been done to address the possibility of an outdated body composition standard that may place more emphasis on being thin versus being fit.

The body composition standard has been discussed in countless articles, and even the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services 2019 Annual Report, but additional context may be needed to help encourage change by the DoD.

First, it's important to point out that the current DoD body composition standard, codified in DoDI 1308.3, is dated 2002 -- nearly two decades ago, and well before the repeal of the Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule, which opened all jobs to women. However, the current standard dates much earlier than that -- to 1984 from a study of Navy sailors.

What's interesting about this date is that, prior to 1976, women were involuntarily discharged from military service if they became pregnant, so the evaluation did not include any postpartum women. Additionally, thanks to improvements in modern medicine, easier access to medical care, shifts in physical fitness styles, and advances in nutrition, it is very likely that the 1984 sample of sailors is anthropometrically different from today's force.

In 1984, the most intense military physical fitness standard for women was the Marine Corps' physical fitness test, or PFT, which included a 1.5-mile run, a flexed-arm hang, and sit-ups. A lot has changed in nearly 40 years, and the Marines and other services now boast a unisex physical fitness standard. For Marines, the PFT evolved into a 3-mile run, pull-ups and crunches or planks, along with a combat fitness test conducted during the second half of the year, which includes events such as carrying a Marine of similar weight over a sprinting distance and lugging a combat load through a dynamic maneuver course.

Physical expectations for female service members not only changed with the semi-annual physical fitness standards, but also in the everyday execution of service as gear increased in weight -- from ballistic SAPI plates to packs. In order to simply keep up in a training environment, let alone a deployed environment, a woman needs to develop a stronger frame to carry a fighting load and help decrease injury.

Why is this important? Because the current standard was not built with these expectations for women in mind. Let's take a closer look at the two parts of the DoD body composition standard: the weight for height calculation and the estimation of body fat percentage.

The first part, the weight for height calculation, is a measurement of kilograms over meters squared, often called the Body Mass Index, or BMI. This standard was developed in the 1830s -- nearly 200 years ago -- by a Belgian astronomer using a non-diverse, Belgian sample and was intended to monitor dramatic weight-loss shifts in large populations that might indicate rampant disease and illness. It was not intended to be a reflection of individual health.

Recruits stretch between obstacles during the Confidence Course.
Recruits stretch between obstacles during the Confidence Course aboard Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina on June 26, 2019. (U.S. Marine Corps/Pfc. Michelle Brudnicki)

In fact, the BMI has been shown to negatively label people with an athletic or muscular build, and those of non-Caucasian ethnicities, as obese or morbidly obese. The same is true when applied to our diverse military population -- when they are compared to the 1830 standard of Belgians. This categorization is much more than being mislabeled; it has adverse impacts on health, careers, retention and Total Force readiness.

The second part of the body composition standard, the estimation of body fat percentage, is used only when a service member fails to meet their respective weight for height, essentially serving as a "safety net" for those with a more muscular build. It is calculated by measuring men around the abdomen and the neck, but measuring women around the buttocks (despite being referred to as the hip), the abdomen and the neck.

The buttocks measurement is included as it is believed to hold the largest female deposit of fat -- or it did in 1984 when this measurement was developed. However, it must be noted that the buttocks is a muscle group comprising the largest muscle in the body, the gluteus maximus, which makes up most of the muscle bulk in, and curve of, the butt. The butt measurement is identified by female service members as the measurement that skews the tape test most since it is a muscle that they train, and thus gets larger as it gets stronger. The butt measurement is not an indication of health, like an abdominal circumference infers, but rather an indication of body type, or glute strength, depending on the individual and their genetics. Additionally, a postpartum service member's hips typically do not return to their previous width after having a baby. For these reasons, the body fat estimation does not serve as a safety net for muscular or postpartum women, as it does for our male counterparts.

Female service members often hear their male counterparts boast that they exceed their maximum allowable weight by 20 lbs. or more but "tape out," thus preserving them from adverse impacts. This is not the case for most women. In fact, even women who weigh well below the maximum standard would fail if they were to be measured for their body fat percentage using the DoD tape test. In one example, a female Marine officer who earns very high first-class physical fitness scores, and even competed twice on American Ninja Warrior, was measured above her allowable Marine Corps body fat despite being 20 lbs. under her maximum allowable Marine Corps weight and 30 lbs. below the maximum allowable DoD weight. If a tape test fails a female service member when she is nearly 30 lbs. under her max weight, it cannot serve as a safety net for someone who is just 3 lbs. over her max weight.

In 2015, when the University of Pittsburgh conducted research alongside the Marine Corps' Ground Combat Element Integrated Task Force, it measured body fat percentage in both the male and female Marine samples using the DoD measurement and a more technologically advanced method known as the BodPod. Their research revealed that the DoD equation for estimating body fat, when compared to the BodPod, overpredicted body fat in 28% of the entire male sample and 72% of the entire female sample. Seventy-two percent! The overprediction of female Marine body fat percentage was as much as a 10% to 12% difference.

These examples of arbitrary measurements should demonstrate that the standards levied on female service members require scrutiny and further study.

Over the last two months, countless Marine leaders have received briefs about this topic, and we're confident the Marine Corps will soon move forward with changes that will positively impact readiness and lethality. But there are similar stories in each of the other services, and this requires a holistic look from the DoD.

Female service members have long recognized the DoD tape test is inaccurate and does not provide the safety net it does to most male service members, so they take extreme, often drastic, measures to make weight, at an expense to their health and the readiness of the force.

In 2018, the Defense Health Agency released a study on eating disorders among service members. The report reviewed military health records from 2013 to 2017 and revealed that white, non-Hispanic female service members had the largest rate of eating disorders in the DoD, followed by Marines -- both male and female. This report did not receive much attention, possibly because it concluded that the numbers were comparable to the civilian population. It must be emphasized that an eating disorder diagnosis in the military triggers a medical board, and likely medical separation, unlike in the civilian world; therefore, the presumption of a much larger DoD issue of disordered eating is nearly guaranteed. Similar surveys with anonymous responses reveal military eating disorder rates six to 10 times the civilian equivalent, with surges of up to 97.5% of personnel having markers of eating disorders as they approach the biannual weigh-in.

Marine recruits at Parris Island
U.S. Marine recruits with November Company, 4th Recruit Training Battalion, Recruit Training Regiment, at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island. (Photo by Lance Cpl. Aneshea Yee/Marine Corps)

Disordered eating of any kind has impacts to our force readiness, but for women it's especially dangerous, with long-lasting consequences including, but not limited to, menstrual disturbance; low energy; low bone mass; increased likelihood of stress fractures; infertility; early menopause; and disruption to mental health, such as anxiety and depression.

To put this another way: Female service members are unknowingly doing irreversible damage to their bodies to avoid letting down their service, despite knowing the system was not built for their success.

Annual reviews of service data will not reveal this information. In fact, reportable data may even appear counter to this argument, reporting larger numbers of men receiving adverse impacts for weight issues than women, but it must be restated that women will do whatever it takes to make weight and avoid the tape. What we actually measure does not reveal what is really going on in our ranks.

We recognize that not every man or woman who raises their right hand to defend the Constitution of the United States will remain fit enough to remain on active duty, but we cannot ignore that there exists a broken method of calculation that disproportionately affects women, especially Black and Hispanic women.

This issue has been brushed aside for far too long. We propose the following recommendations:

  • Request that the DoD immediately suspend the use of the current tape test for estimating body fat while it researches more effective measurement methods.
  • Request that the DoD immediately place the execution of the body composition program (weight for height and body fat percentage) under the responsibility of a competent medical team, instead of at the unit level, so they can assist in screening for disordered eating, identify neuromusculoskeletal issues and provide nutrition advice.
  • Request that the DoD develop a body composition standard that reflects health and physical fitness performance instead of arbitrary military appearance programs and antiquated physical standards; and that it review the value of using body weight as a marker of physical readiness.
  • Request that the DoD study the behavior of female service members to meet height and weight standards, both before and after childbirth, and the long-term health consequences of these behaviors.

There is little research that has been done on these topics, especially on female service members -- not just those who achieve elite physical fitness standards -- but the everyday women who help ensure the defense of our nation. This is an opportunity for the DoD to not only increase lethality by optimizing its talent, but also to lead internationally in providing groundbreaking research about female service members. We owe it to the young men and women who serve their country and to those we defend.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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