Health as an enigma: why I think we all need to define what “health” is really about

My sister recently bought a house in Windsor, which is just far enough away by car to require a podcast en route. Last time I drove down, I listened to one from “Office Hours” (a favourite of my nerdy side!) where they interviewed Ellen Berrey about her book, The Enigma of Diversity: The Language of Race and the Limits of Racial Justice. I am not particularly well-versed in this area, but she did speak the language of sociology and as she talked about the way that the word “diversity is a hallowed American value, widely shared and honored,” I couldn’t help but think of my own work and the way that the concept of health has come to be taken for granted as universally worth pursuing, without critically considering even the definition of it. Her discussion about the way that the idealization of diversity can actually obscure real inequalities again got me thinking about the way that we idealize health—and particularly the appearance of it. Very rarely do we sit down and define what “healthy” really means to us.

healthy

I couldn’t help but think of some of the people I’ve met who will do extreme things in the name of health—cutting out all carbs, going on extreme diets, running themselves ragged, spending tons of money to lose weight, etc. I see it all the time in my personal life but also as a personal trainer and a professional in the world of health and fitness. Unfortunately, I often see this turn into a slippery slope. My own experience with taking the pursuit of thinness in the name of health too far and straying into disordered eating territory is just one example of the way that trying to be “healthy” can actually compromise that which we’re after in the first place.

Why is this important? In a world where we see all kinds of images offered up as “healthy” (search that hashtag on instagram, for starters), it is more important than ever to be careful not to unquestioningly assume that “health” is defined in a way that fits with us or that serves us. When I was underweight, the natural association between losing weight and getting healthy proved false—just one example of how “health” is not a one-size-fits-all concept. Consider this: with “health” held as an unquestionably worthy pursuit, the association between a thinner body and a healthier body can drive people to do things that are perhaps unhealthy (going on starvation diets, taking diet pills, etc. come to mind), albeit in the name of health. In my humble opinion, I say we get honest about it: it’s not about your health if it’s driving you insane mentally or compromising your quality of life in the process. If we talk about it as being about our health, we’re contributing to that “enigma.”

You eat whole foods and you have a happy relationship with your body, you move it in ways that feel good, but if you don’t look like the images of health offered up in the media, are you actually unhealthy? If you’re, dare I say it, “overweight” by some chart’s standards, are you shit out of luck when it comes to embodying a healthy subjectivity? I don’t think so, but I do think we need to talk about this stuff more (hence this blog). When the images we see of health are all of a narrow range of body types, and when the fitness models on the cover of fitness magazines engage in arguably unhealthy pursuits (cutting out water for photo shoots, engaging in restrictive dieting, etc.), then it’s easy to get confused—so take it easy on yourself. I don’t see the magazines and marketing gurus out there likely opening up the images of fit bodies to encompass all of those that really can be considered fit any time soon, but I do see blogs, social media, etc. as avenues for us to start to open up the definition of “health” to be more realistic and more based on what’s right for each and every one of us. I did just that on this blog not too long ago, and I have been doing my best to come back to that when I get down on myself or my body.

Cheers to blogging!

Do you consider yourself “healthy”?
Have you ever taken the time to define what “healthy” means to you?
What are the parameters you set for yourself when it comes to being “healthy”?

The bigger the better

When it comes to certain things, my motto is most definitely “the bigger the better”…

desserts

mountains

coffees

deadlift weight

shoe collection

gifts

When it comes to certain things, I’m less likely to be so excited about all things large and in charge.

For instance, my thighs.

Let me give you the background on this so you know where I’m coming from.

Yesterday at work, I decided to buy myself a lovely pair of wunder under crops.

Cute, no? Reversible, too!

Before I go into why these tights are so awesome (sweat-wicking miracle pants, anyone?), let me stay on track.

A few months ago, I started buying my pants in a size larger than when I was at my smallest–an extra small (who was extra cranky, extra hangry, and extra sick). I’ve come to terms with it and really have had no problems buying myself the equivalent of a small.

Yesterday, I decided to try these bad boys on in that small size just to make sure the length was right. Didn’t I have a surprise when they were see-through. According to the gals I work with, it was fine. But according to me, the girl who tries to be honest with anyone who asks me for an opinion on the size of their pants–shiny, see-through = too small, bunchy/baggy = too big <– it’s simple!–I needed to at least try on the other size.

I grabbed the mediums, albeit a bit dismayed. When I put them on, they felt awesome. They also looked awesome.

I had a moment of “oh man, another size up!” in my head, but I mostly shut it up and decided that my options were to stop squatting (not happening) or to just suck it up, take ’em home, and get on with my life. I chose option B but not after commenting that I’d gone up another size.

The response (and I always feel awkward blogging about what other people say, but this is necessary for me to make my point) was that it was okay to go up a size.

Fair enough.

But, “Just keep going to spin and you’ll get back down.” (or something roughly along those lines)

Ha.

There was a time in my life where I spun every day. I think I was 20lbs heavier than this for part of that period and then 20lbs lighter for another. Spinning has little to no effect on the size of my ass–it’s my mindset that does that.

What struck me about the comment wasn’t that I felt offended–cuz I really don’t every want to be back in those tiny little pants–it was the assumption that I was upset over going up a size that resonated with me.

So now that you know where I’m coming from, here comes the word vomit part of this post:

As someone who is just doing what I know is good for me–working out in a balanced way, eating whole foods that move me towards health, giving myself downtime, etc.–and embracing my body as it comes out, I felt sad when I realized that the thought that going up a size is somehow wrong is totally common. I can’t count the number of times someone at work or elsewhere has complained about, refused to, or been otherwise upset about going up a size OR the number of times I’ve heard people comment how nice it would be to lose a few pounds or to fit into a small or size 2 or 4 or whatever number it is they’ve decided is small enough.

News flash: we’re not all meant to be small. Medium exists for a reason. So do large, extra large, and extra small, for that reason. Bodies come in all shapes and sizes and beyond that, healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes.

You have permission to take up space. Why is small so celebrated? Why is it that when it comes to our bodies, we change our tune from “I want to be big and strong when I grow up” to “I want to lose be a size 2,” “I want to lose weight,” or “My butt is too big.” All of these ideas suggest that we’re somehow wrong but we’re not wrong–our thoughts are. 

The nice thing about thoughts? We can change them!

Instead of thinking you’re somehow wrong by being the size you are, you can think that you are perfect in every way. You can decide that you are here to take up space in this world and move into owning that physical space. I could run away with the idea that when you give yourself full permission to take up physical space you also give yourself permission to take up space in other ways (emotionally, mentally, etc. in your relationships, in your work, in the world at large) but I’ll save that for another day!

If you’re stuck on small, consider this:

For the smalls out there–who are really meant to be small–this isn’t an attack on skinny gals. If you’re skinny and you’re doing the things you need to to be healthy, ROCK that size 4. But if you’re struggling to stay there at the cost of your happiness, healthiness, or sanity…give it up! We are not all meant to be smalls. We are not all meant to be mediums, larges, or any other size we come up with and make “wrong”. We are all meant to be whatever happens when we do the right things. I firmly believe that.

I’d go further to say that while we struggle to buy a bigger size, it’s not really about being medium, large, extra large…whatever. The problem isn’t with our bodies or the size of them, it’s with what we think of them. The sooner we can learn to stop making the size or shape of ourselves wrong, the better off we’ll be.

Please do me a favour: STOP basing your goals on what your body will look like or how much you’ll weigh. Do things that you know are healthy because they’re healthy. For example: if you end up gaining weight from the muscle you’ve put on in your efforts to get strong lifting weights, awesome. If you lose weight because you’ve started walking to work instead of driving every day, bonus. The good things are that you’re stronger and moving more, not that your body composition improved in a certain direction (whichever one you think is “right”).

Reminder: You are supposed to take up space. You are supposed to be healthy. You are supposed to have the body that results from doing healthy things that make you happy.

You can spend the rest of your life thinking that you’re supposed to be smaller, or you can accept your body as it is and do the things you know are good for your mind, body, and soul (eating well, exercising, finding your passions and going after them, and having some chocolate along the way?).

You can spend the rest of your life thinking that you should optimize your body composition, or you can optimize your choices instead and let whatever is supposed to happen happen.

You can buy into the idea that we should be as small as possible and you can pass this idea along to your kids, reinforce it to the people you come into contact with, and leave the world no better, or you can challenge it by accepting yourself and owning the decision to embrace your body at it’s natural, healthy, ideal size.

This is one of those posts that I think needs to be shared. I think a lot of people are probably on the same page as me–and a lot of people are wondering if it’s OK to be on this page. You’re not alone. The more people that talk about this and the more people who start living this self-acceptance and challenging fat talk and the notion that we should always be after weight loss, the bigger the impact we can have.

And just like ice cream sundaes, when it comes to trying to change the world, “the bigger the better” most certainly applies.