Weight is only a number. And yet, our culture has conditioned us—women especially—to believe that weight is the ultimate marker of wellness and, too often, value. But thanks to dedicated studies, science-based research and movements like Health at Every Size® (HAES®), we know that weight does not reflect a person’s health; that “healthy” isn’t a size.
For too long, Body Mass Index (BMI) has been used by health professionals to categorize people and their supposed risk for developing certain diseases. Yet studies have shown that, on average, people who measure higher on the BMI scale live as long, if not longer, than those with “normal” BMI measurements. And this is to say nothing of the inaccuracy of the measurement itself; Serena Williams, one of the most decorated athletes of all time, would be considered unhealthy if BMI was used as a health determinant.
In reality, health is complex and has many different components. Bodily health is one aspect and understanding your own has nothing to do with weight. Here are some suggestions for other ways to begin thinking about your health.
Measure your quality of life.
When it comes to bodily health, there are several ways to check in with how you feel that do not include weight. Start by asking:
- Can you do the activities that you enjoy doing?
- Do you feel well doing the things you want to be doing?
- Can you go from one meal to another without intense hunger cues?
- Do you sleep well?
- Are you able to live your life and function in a way you like?
Not only can these types of questions help you gauge your quality of life, but they can also help pinpoint potentially damaging thought patterns. For instance, if you don’t engage in an activity you want to be doing, is it because you truly cannot do it, or because you’re holding back until you’re in a thinner body? Bodily health is when you find ways to feel well in the body you have as a means to achieve the quality of life you desire.
Eat mindfully and to your appetite.
Eating for well-being is a core tenant of the HAES® approach, which emphasizes eating “based on hunger, satiety, nutritional needs and pleasure, rather than any externally regulated eating plan focused on weight control.” Tune into yourself to try to recognize what you’re feeling is an emotional need versus a physical hunger. If you’re hungry, eat! It is also okay to eat when the driver is emotional–but it is important to recognize what you’re doing and identify the underlying feelings or needs and consider if there are other or additional ways to meet them.
When eating to satisfy physical hunger, eat foods that help keep you satisfied from one meal to your next meal or snack. Identify when you’re full and stop eating at that point. If you’re hungry even 10 minutes later, then it’s ok to eat more. It’s not about the time or the food you can or can’t eat. If you’re eating mindfully to satisfy physical hunger and paying attention to how food makes you feel, it will help you focus on your body’s cues.
Find joy in movement.
Movement can benefit your life in many ways–from sleep and energy to emotional and cardiovascular health. The least important thing movement does is influence your shape and size.
By choosing movement that is fun for you, it is more likely to become a part of your daily routine (and one you will hopefully look forward to). That might look like sports or dance. It might look like walks or stretching. It might even look like cleaning or yard work. Movement can help you to achieve health goals; being able to play with your children, preventing osteoporosis, or finding peace of mind. The types of movement you practice should be tailored to your goals. However, movement should not be solely defined by its vigor or sweat–neither of which are required to make movement “count.” All that matters is that you’re moving, in your way, every day.
Reframe your thinking.
In addition to checking in on your quality of life, eating mindfully to satisfy physical hunger and finding joy in movement, here are some ways to begin undoing potentially damaging thought patterns:
- Unless you have a very fluid-dependent condition like heart failure, consider tossing your scale. It is too easy to use weight as a measure of worth and that is damaging–not only to you but to any children in your household, as well.
- When buying clothes, try things on without size judgment (sizes are super inconsistent, anyway). Grab things to try on by visualizing what they may look like on you without checking the size first.
- Surround yourself with body diversity in the media you consume and the social accounts you follow.
- Notice how you speak about your food choices and movement, take care to remove value-based labels (good or bad) from types of food or how you choose to relax. All food nourishes, just in different ways.
- You are a whole, wonderful, complex person! Identify things you like about yourself outside of your appearance.
These are a few ways to help folks connect to their bodily health. But I want to acknowledge that being able to approach health in this way involves innate privilege. Food choices and movement patterns are often dictated by access; to stores, to safe food preparation conditions, to space or a safe environment in which to exercise. Additionally, while the ‘virtue of thinness’ has influenced all of our internalized perceptions of what health “looks” like–its origins and insidious use over time has been as a way to discriminate against people of color.
What health means to each person is unique. My approach emphasizes individualized care based on each person’s definition, their history and their current situation. My goal is to help each person feel more empowered in their body as a tool for helping them lead the life they want.
Recommended resources for further history and context on fat phobia and relationships with food:
- Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia by Sabrina Strings
- Fat Phobia And Its Racist Past And Present (a conversation with Sabrina Strings), NPR Short Wave podcast
- Food Psych Podcast by Christy Harrison