14. Health and body fat

IMPORTANT: This blog represents just PART of a WHOLE journey. You’ll get the most out of it if you start from the beginning.

When I owned a gym, it was my aim to help my clients become fitter and healthier.  Once the gym closed in 2018, I took my fitness services online and started to create programmes with the same goals in mind.

Even though making people thinner was never the aim of my programmes, I assumed, like many, that being fitter and healthier would probably come with the side-effect of making someone thinner.  And I wasn’t mad about that.  After all, being thin has been an aspirational body shape in our culture for hundreds of years now, so if it happened, it wasn’t a bad thing.

I took my job very seriously because by making people both fitter AND thinner, I knew I was helping save lives and prevent sick people from burdening the healthcare system… or at least that’s what I believed I was doing.  I was basically a MF hero in a tracksuit!

Although by around 2020 I was starting to learn things that went against the cultural stories and truths I’d always believed to be true.  It felt like my hero cape was slipping a little and I didn’t fricking like it. 

One of the things that started to enter my consciousness was that being thin wasn’t revered in ALL cultures.  That even though it was “known” that being thinner is better in OUR Western cultural story… that wasn’t by any means a global “fact”.  In fact, other cultures longed to have the types of figures that we tend towards hating.

This idea is beautifully demonstrated in this clip of a 2019 documentary, in which an English TV personality spent time living with and sharing their cultural beliefs with a hunter-gatherer Himba tribe in Africa.

I don’t know where the Himba ideals of beauty came from, but the Western cultural origins are well documented.  We think being thinner is better because of five main stories:

  1. Racism: In Western societies, colonialism saw Eurocentric ideals of thinness become dominant. This happened because rich, white, dudes spent decades creating social and political campaigns, lies, myths, and fake science that taught an entire culture to associate the naturally larger, curvier bodies of different ethnicities with laziness, lack of discipline, and lower social status.   White Europeans didn’t want to be associated with a ‘slave class’ or these made-up associated traits.  One of the ways they did that was by forcing their bodies to be the opposite shape: thin and shapeless instead of large and curvy.  This shitty move was so successful and insidious, that most of our modern society doesn’t realise that’s where our hatred of fat bodies is a direct result of racism and eugenics.
  1. Religion: Europe, the dominant global culture for centuries, was fronted by the Catholic and Puritan religions. Both reckoned the key to getting into heaven was to be “pure of body”. And like white people trying to make their bodies the opposite of what they believed black bodies to be, religious people tied to get as far away from looking and acting “pagan” as possible. The body went from being a place of joy, sensation, and connection, to a thing filled with shame and mortal sin. No one wanted to be associated with any traits that could be associated with greed, sloth, or gluttony, hence a culture of restraint.  And what better way to prove how restrained and Godfearing you were, than by making yourself look as if you’re so pure because you have the willpower and dedication to eat as little as possible.
  1. Sexism: Women who are hungry, weak, and light enough to push are easily controlled. But the worst thing about the centuries-long campaign to stop women’s equality within the patriarchy was to have them gaslight themselves into believing that a perfect woman is restrained and doesn’t fall prey to her ‘primal’ unfeminine desires.
  1. Classism: Being thin used to be a bad thing because it revealed that you were too poor to afford a lot of food. But that story had changed by the Victorian times, when having plenty of food but the restraint not to eat it, became a sign of how much more refined and disciplined they were than the lower classes.
  1. Health: Body weight and health have often been linked throughout history but up until recently, a low body weight was always a bigger concern than a higher weight. Quetelet and … set up the foundational idea that an “average” body weight exists.  But it wasn’t until life insurance companies in the 1950s, that the idea of an ideal body weight for health was introduced.  After gathering some pretty tenuous science and a bunch of their own highly skewed statistics, decided that body weight was a reliable predictor of future health.  This was great for business as it meant that they could take a very easily measurable metric – body weight – and charge people who exceeded an arbitrary weight more money on their premiums.

Now, it’s important not to approach this tricky subject with biased blinkers on as many anti-diet, body-positive people do… many studies do show that body weight is linked to health.  There’s no arguing that.  And in cases of extremely high or extremely low body weights, the links are strong.  But and this is a vitally important “but”, what very few pro-weight loss health and fitness professionals acknowledge (or know) is that there’s also a lot of evidence that suggests that body weight has very little to do with health that exists too.

One of the pivotal moments in my own personal journey was when I started to see that maybe what I was being told about health – especially health and body weight – wasn’t quite as simple as we all think.

I don’t want this blog to turn into a huge piece with tonnes of studies and facts (especially as you may have heard a lot of them before if you’re in body positivity circles).  Instead, here are some links that explain the other side of the coin… the side that shows with equally credible science that body weight has nothing to do with health.

The book, Health at Every Size is basically the bible of resources when it comes to studies that refute the traditionally accepted science that body weight causes bad health.  This is a summary of the main principles of that book by the author… but if this idea is new to you then I would encourage you to read the entire book.

This is a summary of a book that was also pivotal to me when I first encountered the ‘crazy’ notion that maybe being fat won’t actually kill you.  

It’s even been shown that not only is the link between health and fatness weaker than we’d imagine but that the anti-fat bias often shown in healthcare can contribute towards earlier death in people with larger bodies and therefore skew the statistics even further.  Here’s a great article that explains that further.

I’m going to leave it there for today as I sort of need you to fall down a few rabbit holes that weaken the cultural link that I, along with most people used to have that says that being fat is unhealthy, when there’s strong evidence to suggest that it’s not. 

Now, I’m clearly not expecting you to read a book summary, watch a TED Talk, and immediately be able to cast off lifelong societal horror stories about the dangers of being big.  Because that’s not how minds get changed.  Instead, I just want you to be open to the possibility that maybe what you’ve always believed isn’t true. 

Just being aware of other perspectives is often enough to start creating doubt.  And it’s only when we create doubt and entertain the possibility that we may have been wrong, that we allow ourselves the gift of the potential of there being a different ‘right’.  Maybe a ‘right’ that fits in better with our own values and that fits better with the type of world we’d rather live in.

Maybe you’ll start to notice all the perfectly healthy fat people that exist.  You’ll see that Joan and Dave down the road from you existed in large bodies and lived to 95 years old.  That so-called ‘diseases associated with obesity’ are in thin bodied people just as often as they are in fat-bodied ones.  That people healed their health without changing body weight, or that people’s body weight changed but their health conditions didn’t.

The blinkers of fat equals unhealthy give you one reality to live in.  But the idea that health and fat aren’t linked at all may make more sense when you consider the facts that are in front of your eyes every day when you remove the anti-fat bias from the sensationalist, hype and propaganda-filled news reports and diet-shilling social media accounts.

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