Health and Weight: Why One Does Not Equal The Other


As we move into hotter, poolside weather, I've been seeing a lot of images and memes regarding "beach bodies". I'm pretty sure we've all heard that term, right? Usually in the context of not being beach body ready or summer body ready. Which usually means that you see yourself as fat and that it's unacceptable to be fat during a time when clothes go from pants to bathing suits. But what I was seeing was an acceptance of the body you have, right now and how it's ready for the beach as soon as you put on that bikini, one-piece or burkini and lay out in the warm sun (don't forget your sunscreen!). 

Body Positivity 

The body positivity movement is a movement in which people, but mostly womxn, accept their bodies for what they are, in the moment. Whether skinny or fat, they are beautiful. But more than anything, it has been seen as fat acceptance, or fat-positive, which gets people in a bit of a huffy mood because they say things like "you're just encouraging people to be unhealthy.". It's when people say things like that, I want to tear my hair out. But let's talk about health.

Health is Not One Size

I'm learning as I get deeper into health and as I move from being an organizer to being a grad student in health, we have a messed up way when we talk about health. Health has almost become synonymous with skinny. Like if you're skinny, you MUST be healthy. Or if you've lost weight, then you MUST be heading in the direction of health. I'm here to say that I think that's bullshit!

I have met many people in my life, myself included, that have terrible eating habits but just happen to stay within society's view of what's an acceptable weight. I've stuffed my face with donuts, pizza, veggie burgers and French fries and I've NEVER had anyone say that I shouldn't be eating like that. I've always gotten compliments and questions on how I stay thin while eating so terribly. I've never been told that I'm unhealthy or that I need to eat more salads or lose weight. 

It reminds me of this ideal skinny womxn who can still scarf down a steak and potatoes or a huge double cheese burger with fries and a coke and stay thin without trying. It's like this weird thing that we want womxn to eat terribly but still be stick thin. Yeah no.

Skinny does not mean healthy because that hypothetical skinny womxn that I just talked about is probably not healthy. She probably has high cholesterol, type II diabetes or some other diet related disease. 

So How Do We Talk About Health? 

We don't! If it's not a discussion between you and your doctor, or a client that sought you out because you're a health coach or a personal trainer or something else, you don't talk about an individual's health, no matter how good your intentions are. Because you know what, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

But Ivonne, what about on a systemic level. You're a public health person, how do we talk about health on a community level?

Good question.

My thinking is that we stop talking about weight and start talking about health. And not use them as synonyms for each other. We start talking about actual diseases and not weight. Let's start talking about high cholesterol, diabetes, and high blood pressure and not talk about how much people weigh, because you know what, not every fat person has these diseases just like not every skinny person is without these diseases. Let's start talking about making actual health accessible for people; making it affordable for people. Let's make fresh fruits and veggies more accessible than a burger and fries from McDonald's. Let's have more grocery stores and farmer's markets than liquor stores. And let's have universal healthcare so that people can make sure that they're staying on track without having to worry about how much it's gong to cost them.

But also, let's change the way that we see weight. It's dangerous to see it not only as a marker for health but also as a standard for beauty. Because when those two things are combined, people will go to great lengths to be "healthy" and "beautiful". People, mostly womxn, will starve themselves, make themselves throw up. They'll try fad diets that are not healthy for them because they're usually cutting something out that you need for complete nutrition. And people will lose weight, of course. But this is not health. Just because people are losing weight doesn't mean that they're healthy.

Are you seeing a pattern here? Weight does NOT equal health.

Yes, there is science that states there is a correlation between weight and health but it doesn't say what weight someone has to be. There is no set weight and this weight doesn't automatically mean that you'll now have these diet related diseases. Again, not all fat people have these diseases just like not all skinny people are without them. 

But Ivonne, there is a standard. It's called BMI.

Yeah, BMI is bullshit.

What is BMI?

BMI or Body Mass Index is a calculation used in healthcare settings to see if you're considered underweight, "normal" weight or overweight. But this is an outdated calculation because it was invented almost 200 years ago! It was also invented by a mathematician, not a physician. Though physicians didn't know much back then either about the human body, they definitely knew more than a mathematician. The calculation couldn't be complex because there were no computers to do complicated calculations. And BMI wasn't really meant to be used on individiuals but more on whole populations of people which is why he dreamed it up. This mathematician was tasked to find a way to calculate body mass of populations so that the German government could allocate resources.

Importantly, BMI doesn't account for the complexity of the human body including the differences of weight in bone, muscle and fat, along with the distribution of fat over the entire body on individual people. Someone with little fat and lots of muscles would be considered overweight or even obese by BMI standards. I'm considered overweight by BMI standards! But I'm healthy as fuck, so whatever.

Using this outdated measurement can do a lot of damage in the long term. Many doctors are starting to see the flaw in it and not using BMI anymore and turning to more updated and more accurate ways to measure health. 

So How Do We Get Healthy?

Well, eating a balanced diet and exercising is always a good start. I always like to tell people to eat the rainbow at every meal. That means make sure that your plate is as colorful as possible. Whether it's adding a colorful salad or veggies as a side to your burrito, burger or pizza slice, or just eating a plate full of veggies, do your best. Exercise a little each day to get your heart rate up. Whether its a brisk walk around the block every day, a couple of yoga classes, or a full on work out 3-4 times a week, it all makes a difference. 

Beyond those two things, getting healthy is also a mental thing. Loving yourself for who you are, in the moment, no matter what your health goals are, is important. And also remembering that you don't need to fit into any one person's, or even a whole society's, expectation of beauty and health. 

Here's a recap of what I said:

1. weight does not equal health

2. stop being fat phobic and leave people alone

3. BMI is bullshit and healthcare professionals should stop using it.

4. Eat more fruits and veggies, and exercise.

5. Live your best fucking life.

So get your bodies in those bikinis or bathing suits or shorts or tanks, and get to your nearest beach, pool or lake to enjoy yourself!

Here's some of the articles I used to educate myself on BMI and other body positivity movements. If you didn't know, now you know.