It’s Not About Size. It’s About “Health.” (But Really, It’s About Size)

By Nadine, Already Pretty Contributor

Young african american woman making thumbs up

A while back I was having a Twitter discussion with some folks about Maria Kang (of “What’s your excuse” infamy) and her recent criticism of Curvy Girl Lingerie, a store here in California. CG’s Facebook page includes selfies of their size 14-plus customers looking sexified in their scanty wares. Apparently Kang has no problem with loving your body, as long as that love is conditional. “I feel like it’s OK to love and accept your body, I think that we’re normalizing obesity in our society,” she says.

I read this, did the Twitter back and forth with some equally indignant pals and then I had go lie down because I had an anger-induced headache. When I got up, I decided a blog post was in order because sometimes there’s just too much indignation for 140 characters.

I’ve noticed over the past several years that the mainstream media obsession with women’s size seems to have given way to an obsession with our “health.” Those quotation marks are meant to denote my sarcasm, because I think the word “health” is often used as a red herring. There’s still a whole lot of fat-shaming and size-bashing happening in the media dressed up as concern for women’s health. Feeling good about yourself is an idea whose time has come. And for the most part, I’m down with that. Authentic self-esteem, self-acceptance, and body-positivity are pretty rad in my opinion. But there’s also a version of “feeling good” that companies and publications use to target women.  They capitalize on the appeal of self-acceptance by using concepts like health as a barometer to measure how much self-esteem we have. If a woman truly feels good about herself, she will take care of her health. And we’ll know she’s taking care of her health because her body will be “fit” a.k.a. thin a.k.a. the same narrow ideas about acceptable bodies we’ve been hearing about for years.

I’m not criticizing anyone making a sincere bid to improve her actual health. But an individual’s health isn’t something you can discern from the size or shape of her body. My healthy body may not look like your healthy body. The person who is n pounds, may or may not be healthier than the person who is n + 50 pounds. Weight and size are not an accurate barometer of how healthy a person is.

Which brings me to my second point. Health is not a barometer of how worthy a person is. Yes, health affects our quality of life. I certainly don’t fault anyone who wants improve their health, develop healthy habits, or adopt a healthful lifestyle. By that same token I’m not super-comfortable with the idea that if you’re healthier than someone, you’re better than them. Frankly, a lot of health is luck. Going to a gym, jogging, walking, doing yoga, eating certain foods are only choices you can make if you enjoy certain economic and able-bodied privileges. Even when we have those advantages, circumstances beyond our control may change that. Our bodies get sick. Our bodies get hurt. Our bodies experience chronic pain, loss of mobility, and aging. We encounter life challenges that make health maintenance a less urgent priority. These things may happen and none of them make us bad people. Even if our health is imperfect because we choose to kick-back and watch TV more than we  workout, that doesn’t mean we aren’t entitled to feel OK about who we are. None of us is perfect. Whether we’re athletes, couch potatoes or somewhere in between, ultimately I believe it’s what we say, how we behave, and how we treat others that truly determines our worth.

So can we maybe say it’s OK to love and accept our bodies, period?  That no matter what size or shape, any body is worth being seen, accepted, and admired.

Image courtesy of Pond 5

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Already Pretty contributor Nadine Thornhill is a sex educator and blogger at Adorkable Undies. She is a new resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, having recently moved from Ottawa, Ontario to pursue a Doctor of Education in Human Sexuality. Her writing tends toward subjects such as clitorises, feminism, vibrators, body image, gender politics and non-monogamy. She is a passionately committed Scrabble player and lifelong klutz, having sustained 16 concussions to date.

  • niki

    This topic is a very touchy one. While I agree that weight and size are not an accurate barometer of how healthy a person is, I do think that North America has normalized obesity in its society. I also think this woman, Maria, lacks tact. Sometimes it’s not what you say but how you say it and even then everyone still won’t agree with you and may still take offense.

  • Emily

    Well said, Nadine!

    X

  • http://debutantemedia.com/ Hayley

    Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    The whole Maria Kang debacle gave me a headache as well. This post articulates a lot of what I felt that I couldn’t put into words myself.

  • http://unefemme.net une femme

    Thank you for this, Nadine! I rarely see the same public concern over someone’s “health” when they’re a slim, non-exercising junk food lover. And yes, some aspects of health can be totally out of our control, no matter how “healthy” our habits are. I think the root of a lot of this “well-ism” in our culture is that people don’t want to recognize the randomness of some illness or disability…we live in a culture that wants to believe that it’s all within our control.

    • LIz

      Well said, Une Femme.
      Think of Audrey Hepburn and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, both very slender and well-exercised-looking.
      Both of them dead in their early sixties from diseases they had no control over.
      The “what’s your excuse” people seem to have little or no empathy for the human condition. And, as you suggest, also seem to have the mistaken idea that somehow they’ll be the ones the Grim Reaper will overlook if they’re just willing to work hard enough.

      • Rose

        To take a slightly more pointed edge on your examples -Kennedy lost several babies due to premature/stillbirth- some years later we discover that she was a smoker. At the time it wasn’t thought that smoking was harmful to fetuses, but in retrospect it seems like her slim, practically skeletal, figure was probably not a picture of health.

  • rc

    “Going to a gym, jogging, walking, doing yoga, eating certain foods are only choices you can make if you enjoy certain economic and able-bodied privileges.”

    YES! Even having ACCESS to a grocery store with fresh fruit and vegetables is a privilege unavailable to a lot of those, at least in the U.S., who live in poorer, urban areas.

    Nice post.

  • Kirala

    Amen and amen. My diet is terrible, my exercise nigh-nonexistent, and yet for some reason I rarely get asked or nagged about my health habits – probably because my natural build is lacking in curves. My new meds have made me rapidly lose a tenth of my weight, leaving me near-underweight by even BMI standards, and yet when I worry about it out loud at least one loved one insisted I LOOK healthier than ever (!). (I really hope it’s my better mental health driving that idea.) We should all worry about health, but we should give up the idea that we can gauge health by BMI weight standards. Your healthy weight is the one you have when eating, exercising, and resting well. It’s that simple.

  • Cathi

    Oh my goodness- thank you for this post. Your second point really resonates. The value system that has become a part of the fitness and health movement really irks me, and as you stated, fails to acknowledge privilege. The cynical part of me feels like there is always going to be an us vs them component to society (not that we have to buy into that), and I find it maddening that this issue that is so fraught has become a new way to separate and alienate others.

    • http://www.khinky.wordpress.com Khinky

      Seconded! Thanks Nadine for talking about the issues of privilege and circumstnace. Many people fail to take this into account when judging others for “not taking care of themselves.”

  • Shawna

    Hi Nadine. Thank you for this well written and well considered article. I am someone who is slender ( not Hollywood skinny by any means ) but I am not healthy. This is not my fault. I do everything within my means to support good health. I live with a chronic illness. I will not die of it, but I must live with it and the best I can do is modify my lifestyle so as not to make it flare up. Ironically exercise makes it worse, though in good times I can manage mild-moderate exercise. You would not look at me and see an unhealthy person unless I happen to having one of those days where I am really tired and pale. What bothers me, and I think this is tied into what you are saying, is that our culture has the idea that we can completely control our own health. If we just eat the right things, think the right thoughts, do the right exercise we can improve our mental health and our physical health and there is an element of blame the victim here. I think this is tied in with the fat shaming. Because of course not only are you clearly not healthy if you are fatter than what our culture deems attractive, you are to blame for your size and your lack of health. The skinny people are admirable because they are taking control and caring for their health.

    Some of this comes from the strong force of big companies with something to sell us. It’s easier to sell us things (face cream, cellulite cream, a diet programme, a fitness regime) if we are first convinced we need them. This means we must be convinced that we are flawed, at risk of poor health, and of course hideous to behold. I also think that a second factor here is that it is human nature to have a strong desire for control. People like vitamin pills, goji berries, green smoothies, fitness programmes, because it makes them feel they are in control and doing something for their health.

    Ironically, I am sometimes frustrated that I look healthier than I am because I have difficulty getting it across to people that I have limits imposed on my due to my chronic condition. I look just fine but no I cannot give up my seat on the bus to that pregnant lady because I need to sit down just as much or more than she does.

    Rant over. I hope you are having a lovely weekend.

    • https://sites.google.com/a/carylyvonnehunter.com/www/home-1 Caryl

      I agree with you. I’ve been struggling to lose a few extra pounds since I was diagnosed with a chronic illness a few years ago. Since I am pretty tall, I still look pretty healthy (I get that “you don’t look sick” thing all the time). My illness has me battling pain and some major fatigue which is pretty overwhelming. I do my best to eat healthy and exercise when I can. Some people are naturally very thin, which is fine. But, there are too many actresses and models which are way too thin and not that healthy, but are still put up on a pedestal and plastered all over magazine covers. I agree it is frustrating that super skinny people are thought to be healthy when in fact they are often just super skinny.

      • Shawna

        Caryl, I have struggled with my weight for years but finally figured out what works for me and can keep it under control. As you said, being taller helps and I could carry the extra weight but I am finally back to my best/healthy size and weight, which means I could be a plus sized model-lol-as so many of them don’t actually wear plus sizes. I wonder if we have the same thing, as pain and major fatigue are certainly a big part of what I have. I have CFS/ME and have had it for about 30 years though was only diagnosed about 13 years ago. I sometimes joke with people, though I am actually telling the truth, that taking out the garbage or doing the shopping IS my exercise programme. There are days when I cannot even do those things.

    • Marnie

      Hi Nadine and Shawna.
      Thanks so much for this. I too have a chronic condition and although it is possible that I did some stuff to contribute (or not, nobody knows) I find myself cringing when there is talk about being healthy and how it does seem like if you “eat the right things, think the right thoughts, do the right exercise we can improve our mental health and our physical health” and I end up spending an inordinate amount of time feeling like I am failing at even BEING somehow because if I could just get it together then I would heal up and be like all the beautiful healthy people. It can feel pretty alienating.

      I’m also a smidge over healthy weight so that just adds to it. I end up feeling like people think that if I just lost a few pounds maybe my illness would go away. Like it is proof that I am doing life wrong somehow.

  • Terry

    Weight is not a barometer of of how worthy a person is. But medical measurements, such as weight, blood pressure and cholesterol levels, are indicators of health. When my cholesterol rose to unhealthy levels I modified my diet and, ultimately, took drugs to bring it under control. It’s unfortunate that weight is involved in people’s self image (and others’ judgement) in a way cholesterol is not, but I’m concerned that ‘healthy at any size’ campaigns are the equivalent of sticking our heads in the sand and ignoring medical research. That said, Kang’s attitude, which seems to be that she should go around pointing at people and screaming ‘unhealthy!’ is out of line.

    • A.B.

      Thin people don’t get the concern of “you’re not healthy” that fat people do. Even when they are unhealthy. They’re taking size as the only barometer of health when they do not know what my blood pressure and cholesterol is nor how active I am.

    • http://www.khinky.wordpress.com Khinky

      At this point in the cultural shift around fatness, I think the “healthy at any weight” idea is more helpful than harmful. It is promoting overall health in a holistic manner, even for those who may have previously given up hope or slipped under the radar. If a person beleives that it is possible to be healthy “despite” being fat, they will be more likely to engage in health seeking behaviours.

    • Thursday

      No one is asking that medical knowledge be ignored. But your health is a matter for you and your health professionals. Whilst there are some common indicators of poor health that may seem easy to spot, if you are not tasked with the health care of an individual, it is none of your damn business. Why is it ok to judge an individual and their circumstances because they look fat to you? There are a variety of reasons why they might weigh more than is ideal, some of which may be within their control. Even if they have chosen to remain at that weight, I don’t believe there is evidence that indicates that making that person feel shame and hate their body will improve their health outcomes.

      Would you deny people with disability positive representation in the media? What about older people? Medical research tells us a lot of things are associated with being unhealthy, but I don’t understand why that should stop them from having positive representation, and deny them the opportunity to love their bodies.

      • A.B.

        Thank you for this. It really does boil down to the fact that anyone’s health is none of anyone else’s business.

        There was a study done recently that showed that fat shaming had a detrimental effect on people.

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  • Sewpdx

    Very good article. Thank you to all for speaking out that weight does not equal health, self – worth does not determine health, illness affects all people (even those with “healthy habits”) and that where we live work, and how much money we earn are important health determinants

  • Aging fashionista

    A great post and many insightful responses. Society oversimplifies thsi issue, alongmwithnothers. Thx for pointing outmthe complexities.

  • http://mjchatter.com maumi

    Thank You – I LOVE This and say similar things regularly. I especially liked: “Frankly, a lot of health is luck. Going to a gym, jogging, walking, doing yoga, eating certain foods are only choices you can make if you enjoy certain economic and able-bodied privileges. ” Seriously – my kids try very hard to eat healthy and be healthy but fresh vegetables and gym memberships cost $$ that they don’t always have and that is true of more people than not, unfortunately. So – Well Said and BRAVA !!!

  • Thursday

    Great article, Nadine. Even in Australia, this is the argument that seems to be taking root at the moment for the body police. It’s great to have such an articulate piece that summarises how I feel also, as a quick link for the self-appointed weight police.

  • Brigitte

    Fat men don’t get told people are concerned about their health the way fat women are. Men’s clothing easily goes up to an XXL in regular stores that would only carry an L or XL of the same stuff for women (think sport clothing- it’s SO frustrating to be someone who exercises but who can’t find good workout gear in her size in stores).
    Frankly, I find that what people are really saying with the “I’m concerned about your health, fatty.” is “I don’t find you sexually attractive at this weight and I think it’s your job to make yourself attractive to me.”

  • http://filodimiele.blogspot.it Carmen (filodimiele)

    That Kang is so brain-limited. I don’t even think we must loose our time to listen to her. Full of muscles, no brain.
    My grandfather was big (100 kg) with a big belly, but he lives untill 92 yo, eating and drinking homemade meals and vines and grapes.

    Cheers,
    Carmen (from Italy)

  • Gisele

    Brigitte: “I find that what people are really saying with the ‘I’m concerned about your health, fatty.’ is ‘I don’t find you sexually attractive at this weight and I think it’s your job to make yourself attractive to me.’”

    Exactly, exactly right. YES. and “Don’t you dare *feel* attractive.”

    Nadine, thank you and bless you.

  • Anna

    Excellent article! Misplaced pseudo-morality creeps in everywhere, even where it is not appropriate, making too many people judgmental.

  • Leslie

    I respectfully disagree with some of the opinions expressed. Being overweight is not healthy or desirable. As a nurse, I can tell you that there are many problems that can develop as a result of being overweight. Having said that, sometimes people have medical problems/conditions that make it hard for them not to gain weight. It is impossible to judge someone else just based on weight and appearance alone. We should all check with our healthcare providers to determine what is a healthy weight for us. Lastly, all persons deserve respect, regardless of size. Fat or thin, we all die ultimately. But I think having a fit, healthy, slim body is worth the effort and makes the ride more fun!

    • A.B.

      And there are health problems that develop when you’re skinny. Correlation does not equal causation.

    • Shaye

      And I think that drinking beer, making art and international travel makes life more fun. I mean, as long as we’re sharing what turns our cranks.

      I’d love to have a healthy, fit body, but that ship sailed a long time ago, thanks to some spectacularly crappy genetics. The obsession with thinness in our culture is really just barely-masked ableism. I can tell you that as an overweight person, my cholesterol and blood pressure are just fine, thank you. And even if they weren’t, why is that anyone’s business but mine and my doctor’s? Here’s a hint: it’s not. It is none of your business. It’s none of my friend’s business. It’s sure as hell none of Maria Kang’s business. In reality, my weight is the result of my ill health, not the other way around. And I don’t mean it ‘made it difficult not to gain weight,’ I mean it caused the gain.

      Being fat does not automatically make one unhealthy, any more than being thin automatically makes one healthy. That our society equates good health with personal worth and good character/morals/ethics/sense is absurd. Not to mention the fact that being fat is pretty much the only kind of “unhealthy” that gets this treatment. We don’t shame people for having cancer or alopecia or MS. The people who do that are normally called jerks.

      I’m sure you’re familiar with the statistics on dieting. 95% of them fail in the long run. That’s, like, barely better than using leeches to cure things. And yet when a fat person doesn’t starve themselves to permanent thinness, it’s the person who failed, right?

      Actual health at every size says that it’s ok to love and take care of the body you have now, not some future thin body you will get once you finally have enough willpower to be one of the lucky 5%. Fat shaming makes people fatter. Dieting makes people fatter. Concern-trolling make people fatter. Eating kale makes you healthier even if it doesn’t make you thin. Moving your body in ways you are able and that make you happy makes you healthier, even if it doesn’t make you thin. Odds are it will probably not make you thin. And as Nadine points out, doing either of those things assumes certain privileges that many don’t have access to.

      Normalizing obesity isn’t the problem. Poverty is the problem. The rising incidence of chronic health issues is the problem. Thin privilege is the problem. The weight-loss industry, which only makes money if people are trying to lose weight, not once they’ve lost it, is the problem. The pervasive message is that thin equals good, and fat equals bad, and you should hate yourself, fatty, until you achieve thinness – and self-hatred leads people to neglect self-care, which DOES cause all kinds of preventable disease. The message that fat=unhealthy is leading people to be unhealthy!

      Everyone, do yourself a favor. Take the red pill and escape the Matrix.

  • http://lowculturescholar.blogspot.com The Raisin Girl

    I don’t understand how anyone can think that American society has “normalized” obesity. Plus-sized people are almost erased in popular media. Size 8 is considered “plus” in the modelling world now, down from size 12 a few years ago. Of the only three plus-sized celebrities I can think of with successful entertainment careers, one of them has only made her career work by making herself into a fat joke at every opportunity, and is now declaring that she intends to drop some weight in order to further her career. Probably because she’s tired of being a punchline.

    Plus-sized clothing is hard to come by, often unflattering and ill-fitted, and more expensive than “regular” sized clothing. The stores that cater to plus sizes are harder to find without shopping online, which makes it even harder to find quality clothing that fits comfortably and looks good.

    Being overweight is considered by many health professionals to be a disease in and of itself. Some doctors will even dismiss a fat patient’s very real health concerns because they assume that all of their problems come down to being fat. Thin women are more likely to be hired to high-powered positions than fat women, regardless of qualifications.

    There is STILL enormous pressure to be thin in American society, to the point that teenage girls are no longer even trying to hide their self-destructive cycles of under-eating and over-exercising in attempts to look like photoshopped models or gain that ever-elusive thigh gap. My younger sister has actually boasted to me about her “thinspo” blog (which is basically one and a half steps up from pro-ana), and considers herself unhealthy and “too fat” at 128 lbs. She will not be satisfied until she no longer has a butt, despite the genetic evidence (my otherwise tiny mother’s backside as well as my own) that she was simply not born to be flat in the back.

    How can anyone look at American society and think that we have normalized obesity? You can’t have it both ways. Obesity cannot be this shameful thing that it’s treated as AND be normal. If it were considered normal, we’d see fat people on television and on the runways. If it were considered normal, blog posts like this one wouldn’t even be necessary. Obesity has not been normalized. If anything, we’ve just found ever more creative and insidious ways of shaming people for their size, while telling them that any self-love that they DO manage to garner is just the result of how we’ve shamefully “normalized” their “wrong” body types.

    • Chelsea

      Yes to all of this! Thank you.

    • Shaye

      Testify.

  • Helen Krummenacker

    Thank you. You’ve put into words something that seemed off to me about some health articles that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

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  • Katie

    Thank you Nadine for such a discussion-provoking post! I too am a registered nurse and it’s so hard to separate my feelings as a health care professional and as someone who finds all men and women to be beautiful no matter their shape or size. On the one hand, I am quick to sincerely encourage people to love their bodies just the way they are. We are all put together differently and our diversity makes each of us beautiful in different ways. I don’t believe we all should be movie star thin because that’s simply not how all of us are designed. On the other hand, I know as a nurse the detrimental effects obesity can have on the body. Increased risk of type 2 diabetes, increased risk of heart disease, increased risk of colon cancer, increased stress on your knees and hips, truly the list goes on and on. And for people who are obese and say they have perfect blood pressures and cholesterol levels, good for you! It’s hard to keep those in a good range. The problem is, we can’t keep ignoring the long term effects of obesity and pretending they don’t exist. I know it is not easy to lose weight and that everyone’s situation for controlling their health is different. But we can’t keep pretending that being obese is good for your body in the long run.

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  • LaPriel

    Yes!