You Don't Have to Value Health

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My official title is “Licensed Mental Health Counselor.” By definition, my job is to help people improve their mental health. Health is in the definition, and therefore I *should* value health for all people.

And let me say that I DO value health for everyone. But we need to unpack this, because I firmly believe that you personally do not HAVE to value health. You do not have to believe that health is the utmost important thing. In addition, health is simply not accessible to everyone, and if we want to improve societal health, we have to improve access for folks who embody all sorts of identities and have all sorts of different situations.

When I talk to people about body positivity fat acceptance, body acceptance, positive body image (whatever you’d like to call “loving your body!”) one of the most common responses is “yes, yes, I TOTALLY agree that people need to feel good about their bodies, BUT HEALTH is the most important thing!! And if you aren’t HEALTHY then you can’t really accept your body...”

Here are the faulty assumptions underneath statements like that:

  • In order to love your body, you must be healthy.

  • There are certain weights/body shapes/sizes that represent health.

  • Everyone must always be working on their health.

  • Individual choices make people healthy.

  • Health is achievable for everyone

I would love debunk these faulty assumptions for you, so let’s get on it!

1. Faulty Assumption #1: In order to love your body, you must be healthy.

I say this to everyone: you are allowed to accept your body, right here, right now, no matter what condition it is in. You can say “yep, this is it. This is my body,” and incorporate kind, loving, and friendly behaviors toward it simply because it is your body. People often believe that they need to lose weight or achieve a certain health marker and THEN they can accept their body. The problem with this logic is that there is no way to hate your body into health. People who chronically diet, yo-yo exercise, or constantly beat themselves up about their body shape and size don’t actually end up healthier in the long run. People who accept themselves wholly are much more free to make choices that are in line with their values and with what their body actually needs.

Faulty Assumption #1 also leaves a lot of people out. If you can’t love your body unless you’re healthy, what does it mean for people with chronic medical conditions? What does it mean for folks with disabilities? Are folks who are not “healthy” by definition not allowed to love their bodies? In reality, we do not really have total control over our health, and that should not prevent us from moving toward body acceptance.

2. Faulty Assumption #2: There are certain weights/body shapes/sizes that represent health.

Y’all. You can never tell if someone is healthy by looking at them. There is literally no “eye test” to say that someone in a certain body size or shape is “healthy.” To that end, what does “health” mean? What health markers are we actually measuring when looking at someone?

Many folks use the BMI as a marker of health, and yet it was developed by a mathematician, not a physician, in the 1800s (who wasn’t even looking at health by the way!). If you ask any medical doctor if they continue to use any other instrument or test that is over 200 years old as a marker of health, they would laugh in your face. And yet doctors, laypeople, and well-meaning folks continue to use the BMI to tell us if we are healthy or not. It doesn’t take into account anything important, like physical fitness, environment, trauma history, genetic makeup, NONE OF IT.

3. Faulty Assumption #3: Everyone must always be working on their health.

Why must everyone be working toward being healthy? If health is never guaranteed, why must we always be pursuing it?

Some people will tell me “because it’s expensive for all of us taxpayers!” Listen: we will always be supporting people with all types of health conditions (including yours!). That’s a part of being a citizen. In addition, individual behaviors actually do very little for our actual health markers. Eating salads and working out do much less than not being stigmatized, having enough money in the bank to take care of basic needs, having access to safe places to move, etc.

You do not owe anyone health, nor does anyone owe you health. Health is not a moral obligation.

4. Faulty Assumption #4: Individual choices make people healthy.

More and more research indicates that social determinants of health, including oppression, stigma, SES, racism, etc. actually has a much larger impact than any individual choices people are making. In fact, the numbers demonstrate that individual choices actually account for less than ⅓ of health markers (for example, your insulin levels, cholesterol, HDL/LDL triglycerides, etc.) We get so concerned about people exercising and eating vegetables that we ignore the vast majority of what actually affects people’s health. It is lovely to be able to be able to move your body in a way that feels good and eat foods that feel good too. But if we want to improve health, we actually need to look at the ways in which society continues to oppress, stigmatize, and traumatize people.

5. Assumption #5: “Health” is achievable for everyone.

Nope. Sorry to be harsh, but the only guarantee we have in this life is that we will die. The “healthiest” people, including extreme athletes, still get cancer, still have their joints break down, still get unavoidable diseases. Again, individual choices do not make people healthy.

We need to back off this healthist stuff. Say it with me: you do not owe anyone health. You do not have to value health. There are about a million other things to value, including relationships, career, independence, love, compassion, you name it, and health does not have to be on that list for you.

The pressure on being “healthy” is ridiculous, and serves to continue to disconnect us from our bodies. Instead, I am all for finding ways to relate to food and exercise that feel wholesome and connecting and lovely for you and improving access to those ways for all folks in all bodies.