Cover: Impacts of Marine Corps Body Composition and Military Appearance Program (BCMAP) Standards on Individual Outcomes and Talent Management

Impacts of Marine Corps Body Composition and Military Appearance Program (BCMAP) Standards on Individual Outcomes and Talent Management

Published Mar 28, 2022

by Jeannette Gaudry Haynie, Joslyn Fleming, Alicia Revitsky Locker, Alice Shih

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Research Questions

  1. What is the BCMAP, and what are its scientific foundations?
  2. What are the possible impacts of the policy, either clear or hidden, on the individual marine and the overall Marine Corps organization?

The U.S. Marine Corps' Body Composition and Military Appearance Program (BCMAP) standards were not developed from populations that reflect the current makeup of the force and the fitness requirements that they are subject to. Research suggests that the implementation of these standards could drive marines to adopt unhealthy behaviors, primarily those associated with disordered eating, to meet the standards while disproportionately affecting communities of color and women more generally.

Furthermore, these unhealthy behaviors can cause significant short- and long-term mental and physical health problems that could negatively affect individual marines during their service and long after. Although there is some limited research on body-composition standards and eating disorders in the services, there has been little assessment of how the negative effects of policy and the behaviors associated with it affect the mental and physical health of individual marines (particularly those from communities of color and women more generally), career retention, and overall military readiness. Service and U.S. Department of Defense leadership have made talent management and diversity of the force at different levels of leadership an institutional priority; understanding how the BCMAP affects the force will help meet these objectives.

This report will help decisionmakers understand how the BCMAP and its associated policies drive individual behavior, particularly for women in general and communities of color. It will also inform talent-management efforts and discussions about relevant national security implications while providing recommendations and a general framework for policy change.

Key Findings

  • Although the body-composition and military-appearance standards codified by the BCMAP are intended to support the growth and maintenance of a fit, healthy force, the policy is implemented in a way that causes unintended consequences that are at odds with its stated purpose.
  • The policy draws a direct link between a failure to maintain height and weight standards and appearance with whether an individual possesses the qualities necessary to lead marines, which may drive marines to adopt unhealthy behaviors to conform to the standards.
  • Marine Corps body-composition standards have a push-and-pull dynamic between (1) a desire to set strict policy to address concerns about rising obesity trends and to maintain a ready and lethal force and (2) the need to design standards that match changes in fitness requirements and address adverse impacts on specific populations.
  • Over time, physical fitness requirements have increased for all marines. Revisions do not appear to sufficiently account for these increased fitness requirements.
  • Because the roots of the height and weight tables were drawn from unrepresentative populations, the implementation of the BCMAP may disproportionately affect the health and retention of people of color and women.
  • To assess the impacts of the BCMAP on marines and the force, it is important to look beyond marines who have failed to meet standards or who have been separated for failing to meet standards.
  • The stigma and hidden nature of eating disorders often means that not everyone who shows symptoms is diagnosed.

Recommendations

  • The Marine Corps should take a comprehensive, systematic approach to fully understand and address the deficiencies in the BCMAP, develop a more health-focused policy, and mitigate any impacts from the existing BCMAP through research and analysis.
  • For the safety of all marines and the health of the force, pause all height, weight, and body-composition measurements as additional recommendations are implemented.
  • Reevaluate whether height, weight, and body-composition measurements are still necessary for marines and whether those measurements are as representative of overall fitness and health as the BCMAP considers them to be, especially for marines from specific demographic groups and in the context of specific military occupational specialties.
  • Strike the verbiage in the BCMAP that directly links weight and appearance to the leadership, discipline, and character of marines.
  • Develop and implement a body-composition program that directly grapples with the contradictory nature of the existing program and create a new program that delineates requirements both for health and performance and that includes requirements designed to reflect and support the diversity of the force.
  • Explore the risk of disordered-eating behavior and the long-term physical and mental health impacts on marines through a three-pronged approach: destigmatizing eating disorders and building awareness of the prevalence of such behaviors, developing a purposeful education and communication strategy focused on changes to mitigate cultural remnants of the existing policy, and conducting regular screenings to prevent disordered eating symptoms.

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and conducted within the Navy and Marine Forces Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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