Wow. You’re so beautiful. Look at those curves, those planes and angles, those intricate patterns of stretch marks, scars, hairs, dimples, and folds. I’ve never seen anyone just like you before and I’m so grateful that you exist and that you look exactly as you do.
If you happen to have a belly that pokes out a bit in front like I do, maybe sometimes hanging over your pants, I really can’t thank you enough. Despite my best efforts, I still struggle with body image, and every time I see you looking so cute I breathe a sigh of relief and know that me and my belly can be cute and lovable too.
(If you are thin, by the way, I still think you’re beautiful, and I know that you can still feel all kinds of body insecurity and that you can certainly be struggling with your health. So don’t worry, this article is for you, too.)
How did we get here? Why is it so hard for us to see our own beauty? And even when we can see it clearly, why do we have to wonder if our fat is a sign of ill health? Said another way, why do we equate thinness with health? Is there any truth to that idea?
As usual, we should look to the power of words. The medical industry has determined a “healthy range” for body mass index (BMI), a ratio of height to weight that supposedly gagues how much fat a person has, as compared with other types of tissue. This index is heavily relied upon by the insurance-driven assembly-line medical system and often leaves people whose bodies are judged to be “overweight” or “obese” feeling guilty about their health problems, without offering any helpful solutions.
And it doesn’t start or end in the doctor’s office. Messages in television, movies, commercials, and other media tell us that the thinnest people are the healthiest, that fat is shameful, and that if we don’t fit the mould we aren’t trying hard enough.
Of course, those of us still willing to trust our own eyes can see that many healthy happy vibrant people have layers of cushion on various parts of ourselves. We can also see that many thin people are far from the picture of health, that in fact those who stay very thin through middle age have more health problems on average than those who expand into their roles as elders.
However, as with so many things these days, the backlash has almost as much sting as the original insult. I consider myself an active member of the Body Positivity movement, but I am disturbed by certain trends I see within our ranks. It seems that in some circles all attempts at healthy eating are deemed to be part of “diet culture” and as such shunned. Some advocates of “pleasure activism”—a good idea in and of itself—seem to be unwilling to allow people to consider whether they wish to pursue immediate pleasures or the deep pleasure of long-term good health.
We got an amazing array of homebaked cookies from neighbors and friends this year and they were, without exception, delicious. But by day four of several cookies a day everyone in my family had short tempers, slight coughs, achy backs,and/or trouble sleeping. For a few days out of the year I really feel that is part of living a full healthy life. But we were all happy to see the cookies finished and the herbal tea and vegetable drawers still well stocked.
This is my recipe for good health—intake lots of water, herbal teas and infusions and fresh, real foods with their fats, proteins and carbohydrates intact, all the time, get fresh air, exercise and fun in large doses, and have as many cookies, cocktails or other treats as you feel like eating, up to the point where you see consequences for your health and happiness.
Even as a teen I questioned the validity of the BMI system. I could see for myself that plenty of perfectly healthy people, myself included, fell into the overweight category. I had the opportunity to ask a doctor (not the one who laughed at me when I responded to his comment on my weight by pointing out the obvious fact that I was fairly muscular, with muscle weighing more than fat) about the BMI categories and their relationship to overall health. He told me that it was far more dangerous for someone to be ten pounds underweight than ten pounds overweight.
But that means that the entire scale is skewed, that the “normal” category could be much larger than it is, including hundreds of thousands of people with higher percentage body fat. Essentially, I realized at seventeen years old that the whole scale could be drawn to be more inclusive of more bodies, and have more validity as a tool for helping identify people whose weight might truly be an indication, if not a cause, of ill health.
Certainly that exists. There exists for everybody a healthy range of how much fat, muscle, bone, blood, skin, and all the rest, is optimal. It is different for every body. And if we stop worrying people living normal lives in normal bodies about their size, we’ll have time and resources to help people truly struggling to identify underlying issues that are causing them to hold so much extra fat.
Good scholarship exists which shows that the current BMI rating system was calibrated for those of western European extraction and that it is especially inaccurate for people of African extraction. However there is also lots of solid scholarship demonstrating that race is as much a biological myth as it is a cultural reality, which does not negate but certainly complicates that former statement, so I don’t want to get too bogged down with that. The fact that extreme thinness was not considered beautiful until European colonialist industrialism made cash crop food so readily available that it was more difficult to be thin than voluptuous is harder to argue with. But a deep dive into cultural attitudes towards bodies and food will have to wait for a future post.
So, what is a healthy weight? Fortunately there is no single answer to that question. The only way to know your healthy weight is to be healthy and then step on a scale.
Ask yourself the following twelve questions to start determining if you’re healthy:
- Are my physical and emotional and mental state commensurate with my surroundings and experience? (If you live in a bleak postindustrial cybernetic hell you may be miserable. This would be a healthy response to your surroundings.)
- Do I feel hungry a few times a day and comfortable after eating?
- Do I generally eat fresh nourishing foods when I’m hungry?
- Do I avoid eating when I’m not hungry — out of boredom, anxiety, or loneliness?
- Do I get some exercise every day (this can include retrieving forgotten items from upstairs, vigorous cleaning, exhuberant gardening, any old parenting, walking, etc.)?
- Do I get my heart rate up a few times a week?
- Do I have coping strategies for my emotional issues that do not involve excessive use—or denial—of food or alcohol?
- Do I poop regularly and smoothly, without constipation or diherrhea?
- Do I drink at least 40 ounces, ideally 80+ ounces of water every day?
- Do I rest my body for a significant portion of each day, and sleep for enough of that time to feel good the next day? (Different bodies require different amounts of sleep, but that’s a subject for another article.)
- Do I eat mostly fresh whole real foods as opposed to packaged processed foods or restaurant meals?
- Can I move freely without much stiffness or pain?
If you answered yes to most of these you are almost certainly a healthy weight. You’re giving your body what it needs and expecting a reasonable amount from it.
But Iris, none of these questions have anything to do with weight. Someone who is 5’5″, 120 lbs, could answer no to almost any of these, while someone who is 5’2, 170 lbs could answer clear yeses to all of them.
Yep. That’s true. A healthy weight is the weight of a healthy body.
Now, if you answered no to any of these questions I urge you to consider how you might benefit from moving towards yes. As I said before you’re already beautiful. Your body is a magical manifestation of your life and I for one thank the universe that you don’t look like a paper doll.
But do you wish you had more energy to do what you love? Do you wish you had fewer headaches, clearer skin and eyes, stronger nails, hair and teeth? Do you wish you could think more clearly, imagine more vividly and rest more fully? These are the gifts of good health. These are the true wealth of the world.
Please note that I did not use absolute statements in those questions. If you try to eat all fresh whole foods you’ll either lose out on the joy of your favorite junk foods or wind up eating them anyway, either guiltily, or worse, while lying to yourself. Life should be pleasant and if it can’t be pleasant to you without ice cream or beer or nacho cheez product, please don’t deprive yourself. Your healthy happy body will have no trouble processing moderate amounts of anything.
Want help finding the right balance of inputs and outputs for your unique, special self? InsideOut Wholeness is excited to offer Wholeness coaching! Details will be in the next newsletter, due to come out mid-January.
But the biggest struggle for most of us is in loving what we see in the mirror. Turn off the TV (that includes Netflix and most of Youtube!), cancel all your magazine and catalouge subscriptions, and limit your time online. Instead, go outside and look at all the real, beautiful people living their lives. Look at art that honors and uplifts real bodies, including bodies like yours. And most importantly, look at yourself with a loving eye. Sit in front of the mirror and take time to appreciate the magnificence of your unique figure. Think about all the amazing things your body helps you do. And give thanks.