Clarifying "health" and making it easier to find

When I posted my most recent blog about the struggle I’ve felt since getting engaged around “fixing” the size and shape of my body, I got very warm feedback and encouragement. Friends suggested articles to read and the discussion got me thinking about what really matters to me. Today, more people than ever talk about values. I’m fairly certain at any point since I’ve become aware of what a value is and that I ought to clarify mine I would have placed “health” on the list. Defining our values gives us a chance to turn them into guideposts or guiding principles, and I’ve tried to do that with “health,” reminding myself that “skinny” is not a value I want to spend my life living out.

My current thoughts go like this: I won’t do anything that compromises my mental or physical health for the sake of changing the number on the scale. However, if something’s good for me—drinking more water, cutting back on sweets—that may or may not affect the size of my thighs, it’s fair game. Now, for people who are health-oriented and perhaps haven’t thought of doing things out of desperation to lose a few pounds, this might seem like an obvious, common sense philosophy to adapt. But for those of us who have done things like skipped meals, paid for strange supplements, pushed our bodies through sickness and exhaustion, or have made ourselves throw up after eating too much, that simplicity is perfect.

There are tons of people who prioritize their weight over their health out there. They’re the ones who want to lose weight without addressing anything big in their lives. They look for loopholes or ways to “get away” with continuing to eat this or that, or look at the number of calories they eat and the number on the scale without looking at the bigger picture of whether they’re eating lots of nutritious food, moving their bodies in ways that make them feel good, and taking better care of themselves in the process.

But when we focus on the outcome—our weight, our size, etc.—we are freed from the hard work of doing the right thing. We can get away with eating Cheetos and still celebrate a weight loss victory, even if it required that we skip a meal and thus ate not a single vegetable along the way. It’s a slippery slope towards being excited about fitting into our skinny jeans thanks to a week of starving ourselves, or of bingeing and purging.  

It’s not surprising that it feels like a radical idea to let go of the attachment to the outcomes with our bodies—it’s kind of a foreign pursuit for us to think about changing our habits first and foremost and letting the weight be secondary, I know. We see weight loss shows with weekly weigh-ins, we’re bombarded with programs promising results in the form of smaller sizes and lower weights, and we are used to things being right at our fingertips. I think the answers here when it comes to figuring out how to take care of and accept our bodies take longer to land on. There’s no perfect program that will do it for us, there’s just a commitment to figuring out how to navigate this and a willingness to look at ourselves and our lives holistically, honestly. If we hope to improve our bodies and our health, we’ve got to look at what we do on a daily basis. We need to build healthy habits for the sake of those habits—not what may or may not come from them.

It’s this kind of thinking that diet books and most health and wellness programs don’t take the time to address. It’s a lot easier to sell someone a training program or a nutrition plan and let that be that than it is to dive deep into thinking about our philosophy on health and what that means for our daily actions. For me, though, with the guiding idea that I won’t do it for the sake of changing my body if it doesn’t improve my health in some way, it’s easier to look at the urges I have—to sign up for a marathon, to give up peanut butter, to cut back on coffee, to stop eating out of the fridge standing up—and question if they’re worth my energy and investment. Yes, a marathon would be a great achievement, but now is not the time. No, quitting on peanut butter isn’t a solution, but learning to eat it in a way that doesn’t involve a spoon and shame is a good idea. Yes, cutting back on coffee might mean I’ll take in less calories (um, yum cream) but it also would help me sleep better, save some money, drink more water, and back off my adrenal glands. Sitting down with my food—or with my feelings, if I’m eating not out of hunger—is probably a good idea, too, when it comes to eating in a way that feels respectful of my body.

With the clarity I’ve gotten from reflecting on what it means to value health, it’s a lot easier to see my thoughts and feelings for what they are—rather than getting caught up in the emotion of it all. I hope that sharing helps someone to make sense of their own relationship with their bodies or their own ideas about health, whether you agree with me or not! I’d love to hear from you in the comments: how do you define a value of health? What do you use to guide your health decisions?