The notion of health
As someone who has struggled with both weight and an eating disorder and who works in the world of health and fitness, I consider myself highly attuned to the language we use around our bodies. The Masters in Kinesiology spent analyzing the constructions of healthy femininity in CrossFit magazines (Sorry I’m not sorry for the shameless thesis self-promotion), I get frustrated almost on a daily basis with the way that I notice people and the media talking about health and weight loss almost interchangeably.
So much of what we do in the name of “health”—on health magazine covers, at gyms, in programs we sign up for online, etc.—is actually overly focused imho on our weight and aren’t actually at all concerned with this notion we call health.
Think long and hard about what health means to you, and you can then continue reading and perhaps agree or disagree with me. Is health more important than weight loss? Inseparable from it? Are there times when you could gain weight in the pursuit of health?
What we're really doing
All I really want us to do is to take a step back. I wish that we would stop talking about weight loss as synonymous with health, because I think it does two damaging things: promotes eating disorders, and contributes to shame associated with having a large(r) body.
I’m going to be honest here: I work at gyms. Where of course there are people who want to lose weight. And who often view this as the be-all end-all signifier of whether a program “worked” or not. But I hope that weight loss, even if it is what gets you in the door, becomes a by-product of taking better care of yourself. I hope that people get hooked on eating right and exercising and realize that regardless of the size of their body, healthy habits feel good and are worth taking the time and effort to do. I know that our bodies are smart and will not carry around extra weight if they don’t need it, but they’re also stubborn and might not fit with what you think the ideal of “health” ought to look like.
And that’s where I think we need to separate weight loss from health a bit more. Because it’s possible to be healthy and “overweight” and to be at a “normal” weight and absolutely abusing your body. I know this because during the depths of my eating disorder, I was starving myself and running myself ragged and was still at a “normal” weight. I was bingeing and purging but according to the standards, I was at that healthy weight. Then, I recovered, and the time when my hormones rebalanced and I recovered my missing periods (after years of my body not allowing me to have one), I was just above that darned “normal” weight range. But, I was eating food with less guilt and shame than ever. I was exercising a lot, but capable of taking time off and not obsessed with burning off the food I’d eaten or earning my next meal. I was healthier by a long shot.
So what needs to happen?
Shifting our language
I know that a lot of people use “getting healthy” as a euphemism for wanting to be more physically attractive. There’s a lot to be said for broadening our definitions of what is attractive to include a wider range of natural body sizes, and for caring less about fitting into some arbitrary ideal anyways. There’s something to be said for owning your goals—if you want to lose weight because you think it will make you hotter, call it that. Stop using “health” as a synonym for the appearance of what you think health looks like, doing all kinds of unhealthy things to get there, and going on your merry way without considering what you’re doing to the people in the world who genuinely want to be healthy—regardless of what weight their body decides they’ll sit at.
I’m going to get off my soap box now, but if you’d like to get more fired up, I suggest you read “The Cost of Getting Lean” from Precision Nutrition, a great post. You might read the section “Is that level of leanness worth it?” if you want to think a little harder about what we see on magazine covers offered up as the image of the epitome of “health”:
“In short, being really lean has almost nothing to do with being really healthy. Indeed, being too focused on getting lean may lead you away from good health.”