body image

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.


How to Help Your Kids Feel Good About Their Bodies

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Recently a concerned mother wrote to columnist Carolyn Hax, worried and sad that her daughter had gained weight and was struggling to find clothes that fit her. She wanted to know what she could do to help her daughter lose weight and be more active.

Carolyn had some excellent advice for this mother:

“It appears to me there’s one thing you haven’t yet tried: accepting her weight.
As a crucial element of accepting her.
As a crucial element of her accepting herself.
As a crucial element of not layering an emotional struggle on top of physical and societal ones.
In your careful and well-intentioned way, you have drawn thinness as the only path to a good life.
So what is your daughter to think when her body won’t take her there? Her life is bad?”

Carolyn Hax reflects that for this mother, accepting her daughter’s weight is not only an element in helping her daughter, but a CRUCIAL element. She also understands where mom is coming from. In our weight obsessed society, in which there are very real and unjust consequences for being a person of size, it is difficult for parents to not become worried about their children when they seem to be outside what is considered “acceptable.”

Yet, in a world where five year old children are already concerned about the size of their bodies, and in and world where 80% of 10 year old girls have already gone on a diet, what else can parents do to help their children foster a loving and healthy relationship with their bodies? How do parents navigate this culture, their children’s individual sizes, and prevent disordered eating and negative body image?

Besides the crucial element of accepting your child's weight and size as Carolyn suggests here are my top 3 tips:

1. Be a good role model.

Kids are surprisingly adept at seeing and knowing how their parents relate to and perceive their own bodies. Many of my adult clients say they knew that it was not okay to accept their bodies after watching their parents pinch and poke themselves in the mirror saying “I’ve got to lose weight,” or trying yet another Atkins or Weight Watchers diet. Children, who often see their parents as the most wonderful people in the world, reflect that if even their incredible parents hate their bodies, how can they possibly love theirs?

You can be a good role model by accepting your own weight and size, here and now. Doing so sends the message that all bodies are good bodies and your child is much more likely to relax into theirs. You can refuse to diet, eat what you crave and enjoy your food, and you can move your body (if you wish) in a way that is enjoyable and comfortable for you.

2. Avoid making comments about your child’s body or other people’s bodies.

As you know, being a parent often means having difficult conversations with your children. Discussing how your child feels about their body, if your kiddo WANTS to talk about it, can be powerful and important. You have the opportunity to talk about how culture shapes our view of our bodies, how your child’s body can be trusted, and you can help your child process hurtful or confusing comments about theirs or other people’s bodies.

But, it is important to be cautious about any comments you make about your child’s body. Remember, children are incredibly perceptive. There’s no need to point out weight gain, tell your child to suck in their stomachs, or encourage activity in order to “help” your kiddo change their bodies. Doing so reinforces the notion that your child’s body needs to change, and is therefore unacceptable as it currently is.

It’s also important to avoid making any comments about other people’s bodies. It’s really none of your business if someone’s body has changed or what clothes they decide to wear. And in order to reinforce body positivity and acceptance for your child, they need to know that all bodies are acceptable and worthy of respect. Making comments about others reinforces the exact opposite.

 3. Encourage intuitive eating and joyful movement.

Remember when your child was a baby? They knew exactly how much milk to drink. They didn’t have to think about food, what was “healthy” or when to stop eating. The lovely thing is that all of us have innate wisdom about how much to eat and what to eat. Stock your pantry with all types of foods, including ones that may seem “unhealthy” to you. Doing so sends your child the message that their body can be trusted, and greatly diminishes feelings of deprivation that lead to bingeing, sneaking food, or guilt/shame after eating. Allow your child to eat when they are hungry, and continue to feed them until they say they are full and satisfied.

In addition, what activities sound fun to your child? Is a short walk fun? A bike ride together? Shooting hoops in the driveway? Participate with your child in moving their body that is not about losing weight, but rather about enjoying their bodies and moving them in a way that feels good. And if your child is not that into exercise, don’t sweat it (no pun intended)! Remember that your children have innate and intuitive wisdom that can guide their activity levels.

Being a parent is difficult work! Knowing what to say and when to say it is hard enough as it is. Remember to be gentle with yourself. There's no need to be perfect.  For more resources on helping your child develop a kind and healthy relationship with food and their bodies, I encourage you to visit the Ellen Satter Institute, which has resources on how to feed children in a way that is intuitive and non-shaming.