Health at Every Size

QOTD: How Did I Miss this Line in all my CanLit Classes?

For what is health? I say (and of late years I am astonished that the World Health Organization agrees with me) that health is when nothing hurts very much; but the popular idea is of health as a norm to which we must all seek to conform. Not to be healthy, not to be in “top form” is one of the few sins that modern society is willing to recognize and condemn. But are there not as many healths as there are bodies?

– Robertson Davies, The Cunning Man

(Thanks, iiii!)

14 thoughts on “QOTD: How Did I Miss this Line in all my CanLit Classes?”

  1. I can totally get behind this. I’ve always thought it was weird how so many people in the eternal fat flamewar will talk about health like there’s some sort of objective standard of absolute healthiness that must be reached or you’re doomed to misery. It’s just as unrealistic as the beauty standards we use (and conflate with health). I got into an argument with Hugo Schwyzer (that I didn’t finish) about this, and it went really strangely, where he was claiming that he couldn’t be a good professor and youth pastor if he wasn’t able to run marathons. Huh? Getting winded at the top of a few flights of stairs might be a pain to some, but some of us can deal, and it doesn’t stop someone from being a productive, happy member of society. Though, I wonder how much of it is rationalizing an activity that is ultimately selfish – improving your fitness and looks – as a virtue and community service.

    Hm… I was just kind of rambling, but I’ll have to think about this more…

  2. Kate, thanks for posting this. The healthism in this society drives me up the wall. Why do I owe anyone else my health? People claim that it’s because my being unhealthy costs the common purse, but soe do orthopedic injuries caused by overexercise (injuries that have been skyricketing in the last 20 years, btw), so do sports injuries, so do inheritable diseases that no one can prevent. If my “poor health” cuts a few years off my life, as the healthists claim, that’s a couple of years that they’re not paying for my fat ass. You’d think that they’d be happy about that.

    Sara, terrific observations.

  3. Sara, terrific observations.

    I agree.

    I also think the health-and-fitness as moral imperative thing provides one of the only outlets for guilt-prone people to take themselves away from their jobs and/or kids sometimes. If you lie on your couch and relax, you’re being LAZY! You should be DOING something! But if you spend a couple hours working out, you’re just taking care of your almighty HEALTH, which is good for society and your family; you’re certainly not just stealing some me time you’d otherwise feel guilty about.

  4. The thing is that this really gets at the heart of a lot of my body issues – I have a hard time listening to my own feelings and desires and not looking for some objective standard by which to measure my happiness and success. There are so many external standards you can attach yourself to that once you achieve one, you can move your goalposts and feel bad for not having achieved another. Creating your own metric of what you’re happy and comfortable with – it’s pretty tough.

  5. Creating your own metric of what you’re happy and comfortable with – it’s pretty tough.

    Oh, hell yeah. (I didn’t mean to be dismissive of the people I described in my previous comment, btw.)

    Intuitive eating is the biggest mindfuck ever for me. I’m getting better at it, and recognizing that it really works — what I crave usually IS what I need — but it is so hard to determine what I want to eat just by asking myself what I want to eat — not intellectualizing it, and trying to decide what’s good/bad to eat.

    I’m farther ahead with exercise, because yoga is wonderful for this kind of thing; the thing you learn over and over is that doing it “well” means listening to your body, period. If you want to push yourself too hard or try to measure your success by external factors, a good teacher will be all over your ass, reminding you that it is all about YOU. No pain doesn’t mean no gain; it means you’re doing it right. There’s no race and no finish line. It’s just the polar opposite of working out in the way we’re usually trained to.

    Problem is, that’s exactly why a lot of type-A people can’t fucking stand yoga. :)

  6. I agree with you guys 100% about the strange issue of health as a moral imperative. This was always one of the things that drove me nuts about some “Christian” weight loss programs that I have run across from time to time. Not only are you usually supposed to pray for strength to resist temptation and meet your goals (which I guess is sort of like any kind of prayer where you are simply asking for something you want… not to get into whether that is a good type of thing to pray for or not, but people do it in other areas of their lives). But it’s supposed to be a morally noble thing to do as well. WHY would it be the moral obligation of a Christian woman to be “fit” or “healthy” or thin? The process as most people understand it involves a great deal of navel-gazing, self-obsession, “worldliness” (like buying a bunch of new clothes) and time commitment to things like exercise that really benefit only you. I guess I always thought that if God actually did have a preference in the matter (which IMO is questionable), he would probably rather you stop spending so much time trying to get thin and perfect your appearance, and just head out in the world in your fat body, frumpy clothes, and no makeup (if that is how you roll) and do some volunteer work or something. I mean, do it for yourself if you must, but don’t delude yourself that it does God any good whatsoever for you to get skinny. Unless the most important thing in God’s eyes is that you be a submissive, pleasant-to-the-eye kind of wife, and that’s just gross so we’ll discount that right off the bat. Even when I was totally on Team Diet, the concept of “Christian weight loss” always seemed highly questionable.

    Thinking further on this, I actually think that HAES would be the more “moral” way to go, if there is any kind of validity to the idea that taking care of your body is pleasing to God, since he made it and entrusted you with it. Which idea would of course be heavily dependent on your belief system anyway. But HAES is both respectful of your body and an active attempt to nourish it with what it needs, as well as an attempt to fuel it so it can accomplish various goals that you might have, which might include feeling good enough to get on with your day and volunteer or otherwise do good in the world. Whereas dieting is about what you can’t have and about deprivation, and also forces most people to turn inward and become obsessed with their food intake and exercise minutes. It seems like a smaller way to live, whether or not it is really a “moral” issue.

    Kate, I think you are exactly right that viewing health as a moral imperative gives people room for some “me-time” without having to acknowledge it as such.

    I never until recently (based on discussions on this blog) pondered the concept that “health” is a mutable concept that is different for everybody. It sounds so obvious written out like that, but still I was striving for some kind of vague ideal that I guess I thought was the same for everybody. I mean, I don’t remember feeling like everyone should have to meet the “health criteria” I sort of subconsciously set out for myself when I started exercising (with respect to lower heart rate, blood pressure, etc.), but I just assumed all healthy people did fall within these “acceptable” ranges and never thought about it much further than that. Now that seems pretty simplistic. Huh.

  7. This is hitting me especially hard right now given that I’ve spent the last hour or so crying because my endocrinologist wants me to take a fasting glucose test to rule out diabetes. My blood sugar would have been in the normal range a few years ago, but they rewrote the definitions of “normal” and now I’m prediabetic.

  8. It’s not really like I think I do have diabetes, but ED-FJ is going “you stupid fuck for eating cookies,” and even my boyfriend is using phrases like “unmanaged prediabetes.” To which I say, what am I supposed to manage that I’m not already managing? Also, my blood sugar has not changed in at least the last nine months. (Well, it went down from 108 to 107.)

    To be fair to the boyfriend, he just said, and I quote, “possible health problems are not a moral failing even if society likes to make it that way for the fatties.” Which is awesome.

    Ahem, hijack.

  9. Well, also… you have PCOS, for god’s sake. And as you say, you’re managing everything you can manage.

    I’ve mentioned this before, and keep meaning to write a whole post about it, but my mom controlled her diabetes with diet for over 10 years. When the doctor told her she’d have to start taking medication — HALF a pill — she lost it, felt like the world’s biggest failure, cried her head off. Asked the doctor WHY she had to take medication, when she was so “good” about food.

    Doc: Your pancreas got 10 years older.

    There’s only so much you can ever manage, hon.

  10. I really like that definition of health.

    And healthism is a huge problem in my culture. The pursuit of health is what the pursuit of sinlessness used to be.

    fillyjonk, I bet you don’t have diabetes. But if you do (speaking as someone who has been diagnosed type 2 for ten years) it’s not the end of the world. A lot of what people think they know about diabetes is based on way outdated notions from before there were so many good ways of managing it.

  11. FJ, that is absurd. If your blood sugar has not changed, you are not even “prediabetic,” let alone plain old diabetic. The “prediabetes” standard should be reserved for someone whose FBS is persistently escalating but not in the “abnormal” range yet. My GYN, who has PCOS herself, agrees with me that the ratcheting down of “normal” for blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, etc. is a racket to sell pills, pills, and more pills. Geesh, I wish they’d be more careful with the D-word out there. Just habitually scaring the shit out of people for no good reason is making a lot of pancreases go kablooey, I’d guess.

  12. The idea of the moral imperative and “sin” connotation around fat is kind of intriguing. Maybe it’s been written about (not sure), but perhaps now that in western culture, sex has become acceptable and not so sinful (generally speaking – leaving out the obvious question of the religious right), fat seems to be a handy replacement, doesn’t it?


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