“It is no measure of good health to be well adjusted to a sick society”
– Jiddu Krishnamurti, as heard in The Nutritionist by Andrea Gibson
What is health? Western media may say it’s this:
Flat bellies and burning fat?
Or maybe you feel pressure to uphold this kind of ‘health:’
But chances are, the media (and many people around you) are actually leaving your health entirely out of the picture. The idea and ideals of health are too often built around experiences and standards that make abled, white, cis, straight, male, middle class, thin bodies the norm. This leaves so many people without any representation of what health might look like for them. Worse, their bodies and experiences are often made unhealthy, ill and invisible.
Throughout history, many identities have been marked in Western society as illness, putting the achievement of ‘health’ in direct opposition to well-being. This unfortunately continues today. For example, finding appropriate healthcare for people who are transgender can be incredibly difficult, and there has been a well-established and continuing history of people of colour facing unequal healthcare challenges. Mental illness in particular has been used to oppress marginalized people and define them as unhealthy, unfit and even inhuman. Previously on The Body is Not an Apology, we also heard from Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg about how damaging it is to constantly prioritize the ‘ideal’ abled body, as if the only way to be well is to resemble the default diagram in the medical textbooks.
The notion of ‘health’ I’m critiquing here is a one-size-fits-all approach where we are told that our bodies should look and act the same as some standard model, and that the same things must be done to make a body look that way. The same dieting, same exercises, and the same pills are supposed to work (roughly) for everyone, which ignores the fact that we have different bodies, needs and desires. The Body Mass Index is a perfect example of this, as it is often used to measure ‘health’ but it only asks for two measurements (height and weight) to compare to a standard chart. Obviously, its insights are limited. [sidebar: click here if you want a great post exploring why BMI isn’t an effective measure of health.] Even something commonplace for many, like caffeine, can have drastically different effects on people, so how can we expect our bodies to conform to a single model? Sameness does not create wellness.
‘Health’ is too often about ‘solving’ your body like it is a problem, selling a product, and building insecurity, not about prioritizing your actual needs. This version of health actually demands unhealthy actions and attitudes for many people. For example, the weight loss paradigm can be incredibly harmful to those of many shapes and sizes. It is not healthy to hate our bodies. It is not healthy to deny our needs. We needn’t apologize for our differences in ability, neurology, gender, size, race or age. We definitely shouldn’t be asked to sacrifice our mental or emotional health for a strange version of physical health. That isn’t well-being.
Well-being is a term that I’ve found better approximates what I want for my body. To me, well-being is a comprehensive approach that encapsulates physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual wellness and prioritizes unique needs and desires. My well-being requires something different from your well being, although many things may be shared. Essentially, there is awareness that while well-being might be achieved one way for me, the same strategy could have the opposite effect on you. That doesn’t make you unwell or your body wrong. Wellness as a concept can handle individual difference, because it’s unique for everyone. It is most definitely not about chasing an ideal body, mind or emotional state. Wellness doesn’t look like a specific size, hormone level, mobility, body mass or normative response. At its core, well-being is about creating and facilitating radical self love.
The complexity and subjectivity of wellness mean that it generally can’t become a six item list in Cosmo this week. It’s a challenging process, as our bodies are constantly changing, so there is no quick fix in many cases. In fact, well-being often requires individual, family and community resources to be achieved. What makes it even more difficult is that we’re not always taught how to take care of ourselves in this way and we’re actually often coached to ignore what our body, mind and heart require. Where do we turn to get advice if it’s so hard to come by?
Many people, including medical professionals, are getting fed up with ‘health’ and have started to search for well-being. An example of this in the medical field for the specific topic of weight is the Health at Every Size movement, which has received growing support. The Health at Every Size (HAES) approach takes the focus off of weight and acknowledges the stress weight loss actually puts on a body, as well as the very high chance that weight loss is temporary. Instead, some of the tenets of the approach are:
- “Accepting and respecting the natural diversity of body sizes and shapes”
- “Eating in a flexible manner that values pleasure and honors internal cues of hunger, satiety, and appetite”
- “Finding the joy in moving one’s body”
For those who face sizism and fat phobia from even the medical professionals supposed to care for their well-being, HAES could be a game-changer. Fat studies scholars and critical obesity researchers are doing incredible work to challenge the dominant paradigm regarding fat, obesity and health that I don’t have space to get into in this post, but some resources are below.
While the HAES approach is not going to work for everyone, it does show that there can be innovation and new ways of looking at health. We can challenge what health is supposed to look like. We can work together in a community and redefine how we care for ourselves and each other. Well-being could offer an alternative to ‘health’ that empowers people to find what works for them, instead of evaluating themselves based on an unobtainable standard. Well-being is a perspective that honors the diversity of bodies and experiences in hopes of supporting self-care, genuine wellness and unapologetic self-love.
Recommended Resources for critical obesity work and introduction to HAES:
Bacon, Linda. Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth about Your Weight. Dallas, TX: BenBella, 2008.
Rich, Emma, Lee F. Monaghan, and Lucy Aphramor. Debating Obesity: Critical Perspectives. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
Rothblum, Esther D., and Sondra Solovay. The Fat Studies Reader. New York: New York UP, 2009.