Unless you’ve been asleep for the first two weeks of the new year – and I wouldn’t blame you for going into hibernation – you will have found it well nigh impossible to avoid some kind of ‘New Year, New You’ patter. Most of it will have involved eating vegetables and renewing, or considering, a gym membership; even if you managed to dodge the endless magazine articles and blog posts about detoxes and diets, you probably have at least three friends who have signed up to some sort of fun run or charity event and are posting smug updates every ten minutes about their training.
But that’s okay. There’s no harm in a resolution to be healthier. It’s just that, for the most part, people don’t seem to have any concept about what healthy actually means. To most people,what it really seems to mean has nothing to do with health and fitness, but numbers on a scale. Specifically, a weighing scale.
That’s where Health at Every Size comes in. By no means a new movement, the best-known entry to this philosophy is Linda Bacon’s comprehensive analysis of the subject, which divides into two halves: an examination of diet, food production, fitness and health as related to weight, followed by practical tips towards moving into a healthy mindset.
I’ve been meaning to write about this for a long time, because some of the revelations in the book – including the ones that were so obvious if you just stopped to think about it – blew my tiny mind. I’ve read it four times now, and it clobbers me mentally, every time. No, it hasn’t changed me physically, because 30-something years of conditioning takes more than a few readings of a book to undo, but it has very much changed my thinking. It’s made me both wiser and, as is often the case when you come to a revelation, angrier, because once you realise how poorly fat people are treated by society and, crucially, by the medical establishment, it makes you very mad indeed.
So, what’s made me write about it now? Two things. The first was a family member whose concerns about what turned out to be a potentially life-threatening condition were shrugged off as mere weight gain by a medical professional (it wasn’t, and she’s considerably better now after she insisted on being properly examined). The second was the widely reported news about a study showing people in the BMI category marked “overweight” do not necessarily live shorter lives than those considered “normal”. The funny thing is, this is nothing like the first study of its kind and while, of course, the findings were immediately challenged by critics panicking that it gives people permission to be fat, it did at least mean that some had to finally concede what a completely bullshit measurement BMI is when applied on an individual level.
The problem is that actually, normal is a pretty big range. Where you find health problems tends to be at the extremes of weight, including at the lowest end, but even then we’re looking at the wrong thing. We’re looking at the outside of the person to diagnose the inside, and calling it an epidemic. Worse still, we’re pointing fingers at those people and throwing barbs at them – lack of willpower, lazy, greedy – instead of examining anything about the actual context in which these people are fat, from simple biology through to social (in)justice and modern food production.
The thing is, the prevailing wisdom sounds so sensible; we all think we understand the science of burning more than you put in, etc. But we fail to account for the idea that your body is a bit more complex than that. Furthermore, we cannot seem to accept that fat people can be very fit; somehow, we happily resent that friend who eats nothing but crap but stays thin, while conceding s/he’s “just naturally like that”, but struggle with the friend who eats a balanced diet and works out regularly, but still wears a size 14 – and yes, I do genuinely know people in both camps. And because everything in the diet industry is totally invested in telling us that thinner is better, and they’ve got the medical establishment on board, body fascism – and simple hatred of fat people – has become a disturbing problem. Ironically, it is probably also making people more unhealthy (and maybe, though they’re not equivalent, fatter) what with the plethora of ‘diet’ foods that screw with our body chemistry and disordered eating habits that cause people to look for external, instead of internal, cues when eating. But no worries: since
healthy eating plans diets almost invariably fail, they’ll get their repeat customers either way.
So what do we do to fight this insidious nonsense and shake off feeling bad about ourselves? Well, you can start by reading the book, or considering joining the HAES community. You can get wise about what (some) processed foods are doing to your body, and, better yet, you can start actually reflecting on how your body feels after consuming various different types of food, and trying out various different types of movement. The thing about HAES is that, actually, it’s not about food or exercise at all; it’s about joy. It’s about finding happiness, and balance, through giving your body nutrition that both it and your mind enjoy – which includes all the things you think you shouldn’t eat – and finding freedom and confidence in movement. And because it’s an individualised philosophy, where it talks about medical evidence of health it refers to measures that can only be found on the inside: blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol, for example.
I bristle slightly when people write about how they feel ‘as a parent’, as if that excludes non-parents from the party, but I admit that this has hit me even harder since having a daughter. I’ve stopped anyone from telling her she’s getting ‘heavier’, because it’s not an innocent word anymore, and that makes me sad on all kinds of levels (I prefer to say ‘growing up’ and ‘getting bigger’ which she gets really excited about). I’ve stopped weighing myself in front of her, and forced myself not to project negativity about my body or particular types of food. I don’t ask her to finish her plate, or offer pudding as an incentive to clear vegetables – the only question I ask is “are you hungry?” and, while I might offer fruit or veg as snacks more often, to encourage enjoyment of them, I don’t deny treats and desserts, or make a big deal about them as forbidden, guilty pleasures.
I just wish I could treat myself half as kindly, and trust my body as well as do hers. Perhaps if I keep reading and thinking, while encouraging those around me to do the same, that’ll get easier. At the very least, I hope I’ve given you (ahem) food for thought.