The Healthy Size Myth

TruthGreetings from Austin, Texas!  I managed to hurt my shoulder and since I was here I went to see my favorite chiropractor. In her waiting room was a so-called Health magazine full of “the best diet tips.”  I started to read them and they spanned the gap from completely disproved, to ridiculous, to patently offensive. One that stuck out at me was “Buy an outfit in your healthiest size and put it on the door for motivation.”

What with the who now?  Your healthiest size?

Of course the idea that there is a “healthy weight” – as if there is some weight at which you will be immortal until hit by a bus – is an ubiquitous myth.  But the idea that you know ahead of time what size clothes you’ll wear when you get to your “healthy weight” adds a charming air of the ludicrous to an already tired myth.

First of all, there are healthy and unhealthy people at every size, so reaching a certain body size can neither be a guarantee of health, nor a sure preventative or cure for disease.  Body Size and health are two different things and people can, and often do, pursue one without the other.

This comes up sometimes in talks and people will tell me “Well, I know that when I’m a size 6 I’m healthier.”  When I ask them how they know that they will typically point to a time in their life when they were that size as proof.

Often they say it’s the size they were in high school and that’s when they felt the best they ever felt.  Ok, dude… in high school you were 17 years old – you could eat tupperware and your body would process it, (10 points for the TV show reference) your body size was probably not the magic ticket to the fact that you felt better and healthier 30 years ago.  And therein lies the problem with this method of “evidence.” It assumes that the only reason someone felt healthier in the past is that their body size was different, and that’s a Texas-sized assumption.

Sometimes it’s not high school but a specific time in their lives.  Often if I ask a few questions, people will talk about how their diet or movement has changed since then, how they are under way more stress now than then, how they hate their body now, how they’ve had four kids since then.  All of these things and more can affect health, especially when we are talking about how healthy we subjectively feel.  There’s also the tendency to romanticize the past and that can certainly come into play here.

I think that trying to attain a specific body size in a effort to be healthy/healthier is putting a middle man where no middle man needs to be.  I think that the research is pretty clear that, knowing that health is multi-dimensional and not entirely within our control, if we are interested in pursuing health (which is absolutely not an obligation) then healthy habits are the best way to increase our odds for good health, rather than chasing a body size and hoping that we’ll find a bucket of health at the end of the weight loss rainbow.

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Published in: on April 18, 2013 at 8:11 am  Comments (25)  

25 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. This might be my favorite line of yours ever. “Ok, dude… in high school you were 17 years old – you could eat tupperware and your body would process it, your body size was probably not the magic ticket to the fact that you felt better and healthier 30 years ago.”

    • It’s actually mostly stolen from a show called The West Wing. I meant to put a “10 points for the TV show reference” after it but I see that I did not. i will fix that now!

      • People keep telling me that I need to watch The West Wing. Clearly, they are right.

        • TWW was AWESOME. I miss that show and the machine-gun repartee.

        • We are watching it now… on season 6 and it’s SO good. Netflix has it.

  2. ooooh, how appropriate to read this today. I’ve been overwhelmed by the ‘prom is coming!’ ‘summer is coming’ “im in a wedding in June’ kinds of panic around me from every corner… be it high schooler or my own peers.

    I do agree with you regarding size and ‘healthy weight’ as something that is thrown at us in the media. And, I have to admit to using some psychologica tricks on myself in the past… like putting up a picture of myself when I was smaller as motivation… or a picture of the outfit I want to wear for a special occation. I think the second thing stemmed more from the fact that I could not find cute stuff in my size back then and felt I had to loose to get the dress.

    One thing I do know about my own body. I have a ‘critical mass’ point for my blood pressure meds. No matter if I am muscular or fluffy at 300 pounds (which makes a huge difference in the clothing size I wear), if I exceed that number, I have to adjust my blood pressure meds.. and if I drop below, then my meds are too strong. Since I don’t often get on the scale (don’t own one), I am sometimes caught off guard by my blood pressure dropping or raising and causing issues. So, for me, I think of my healthy weight as under 300 (is that vague enough) becuase I can take less bp meds. LOL. I’m sure that would really tweek some of the health professionals I deal with. I know it would certainly put some of my female coworkers into a tailspin.

    Ragen, you are so right about romanticizing. In my memory, the times I was most confident, self assured and happy with my size/body were times when I was doing the things that I truly loved. Bellydancing, being pregnant with my kids, being in loving relationships.

    • And I certainly remember those times with rosy glasses… if I look hard enough, I see the other nonesence that was going on in my life. Or I realize that I’ve aged and simply won’t be that person again. But it is o.k. I’m more my own person now and when I am 70 I will look back at 53 and think “wow, I was so flexible/motivated/active/idealistic….”

      • There’s a great song on the album Archeology by The Rutles (a Beatles parody group featuring Eric Idle and Neil Innes) that’s a perfect send up of precisely that sort of nostalgia that sees a specific point in the past as utterly perfect:

        “Back in ’64 before you were born
        People had no time for pouring scorn
        On dreams like love and peace
        No one was obese
        Only tight trousers were worn”

        We all do it sometime about something.

  3. You know, I was going to try that hanging outfit trick… except I think I’d actually rather just wear the clothes. They fit me right now, big fat belleh and all. At fifty and roughly 240 – 250 pounds on a short frame, I’m pretty much as healthy as I’ve ever been.

    Well, now that the shoulder muscle I pulled a few weeks back is finally healed.

    I’m sure there are plenty of people out there lining up to tell me how my straining to reach the pots stored over my stove when I’m 5’2″ only harmed my shoulder because I’m so fat… but no, I pulled my shoulder reaching for things stored well out of my natural reach when I weighed a hundred pounds soaking wet, too.

  4. I’m in favor of hanging up the cute dress you can’t wear IF it’s because it’s so pretty, if it can’t be a dress it may as well be Wall Art. But not if it is Wall Art That Silently Nags And Judges Me!

  5. How can a number on a clothing label determine your health? If you go from a size 14 to a size 6 because you’re undergoing cancer treatment or suffering from severe depression, the smaller size is not “healthier” for you.

    • Or go from a size 6 to a size 14. I know people who lost or gained weight because of severe depression and cancer treatments, most often one treatment lead to the other health issue.

  6. I come across it all the time as most of you do. The “Well, when I was in High School……” And I let them know they were kids with a kid body. We arent supposed to fit into clothes we had when we were kids. The body doesnt stop growing into adulthood until the age of 25. Yes some sooner than others, mostly girls. And yes, before kids and all. It is a shame people cant seem to just think about things. And I have said that ageing is unhealthy. The older I get the less hormones I have to keep my body healthy. Ya think?

  7. I’ve had that problem in the opposite direction, which is something that you have mentioned in your blog previously that really resonated with me, Ragen. When I was at my most socially acceptable size and shape, I was 19 and on a cocktail of medicines and punishing myself with not eating and trying to see how much activity I could do on no food. I was desperately unhappy, paranoid, anxious, overwrought, couldn’t concentrate easily, felt tired all the time and was never really “well.” Nobody knew the extent of my eating problems, or cared really. My therapist and doctor didn’t bat an eye when I mentioned I wasn’t eating much, after all, I looked “great.” I was at such a “healthy weight.” I felt awful. The only “bonus,” if you could call it that, was getting hit on by dudes who certainly didn’t care about my intelligence or even my safety, sometimes.

    I’m more than a decade older now. Slowing down, longing for those halcyon “healthy weight” days? HA. I feel about a million times better than I ever did then, and have also stopped picking up every bug that goes around.

    Most of the people I know who say they “felt better” at a smaller size, tended to mean they felt better about themselves because they had self esteem issues that were complicated by size stigma. I remember a lot of their diets… there weren’t a lot of statements that they felt great from a physical standpoint during them. :/

    I can’t blame people for it and I wouldn’t, because I will always remember when I was in that space, mentally, where the foundation of support and self-love necessary to put in the work it takes to fight the inner and outer demons, and give up on fighting the physical self for the sake of acceptance, was just plain not in place. But I really long for the day when we are able to give ourselves and each other a better and more nurturing concept of “healthy.” We owe it to ourselves and to the future to let go of all the stigma and bullying we pile on to our narratives and discourses.

    • That’s awful. Doctors, friends and family these days only care about the “box” and not the contents of the box. :(

  8. Thinking back, I’m pretty sure my healthiest size was… eight months. I don’t think I can achieve that again, even *if* Stewie and Peter Griffin do wear the same size of onesie.

    Oh, but I have to crow about happy news! :D After months of my joints deteriorating to the point that significant, prolonged exercise (one of my great joys in life) is nearly impossible, I’ve found a water aerobics class I can tolerate! Huzzah! =D I have to do it in chin-deep water, but I’ve got something I *can* do for an hour, three times a week. YAY!

    Weirdly, if you saw me walking around, you’d think I was completely healthy. I don’t even walk slowly. However, I go out, do my errands, come home, and take enough aspirin and Oxycodone that my pain doc would give me a lecture about potential overdose if she knew.

  9. There is one of those silly ecards that says, I wish I were as thin as when I thought I was fat. With the dieting has come the gradual increase in my weight. I would love to be the 175 I was in college but at 230 I’m still healthy, mobile and feeling good. Acceptance is not always present but I’m getting it more each day I just let myself be and love and appreciate all the great things in my life. Thanks Ragen for being a light in the darkness for many.

  10. I want to make little cards that say, “Health is multidimensional and not entirely within our control.” And hand them out to people who feel the need to comment on my health.

    When I was at my thinnest I was living on a diet of vodka, Redbull, and very little food. Sure, I lost weight, I looked “great” according to everyone around me (save my best friend who knew something wasn’t right). I was miserable, depressed, my anxiety was horrible, I was sick all the time, in pain all the time, but darn it my clothing size was smaller so it must have been worth it. None of it was worth it. When I finally stopped living that way I look back on it and can’t understand the appeal.

  11. Reblogged this on Extended Recovery.

  12. Has anyone, anywhere ever done extended studies to see what kind of weights suit people? And I mean without watching every ounce of food and exercise over an hour every day.

  13. You made me think back to the times when I felt the healthiest, and I really equate that with the happiest. They were transitional times, not related to my weight, though I was dieting off and on most of that time. There’s just no direct relationship of being at a low weight and being happy. Instead, it was 1) when I left home for college; 2)when I divorced my husband and 3)those glorious years after the divorce when I was dating everything that moved and ingesting various non-food items, and 4)when I discovered the size acceptance movement, and for the first time, felt I would not be judged by my size. These days I am old with health issues, and I try to be circumspect about why those younger years were “healthier.” Could it be because I had a more youthful, stronger body?? AKA, I could have eaten Tupperware….

  14. Knowing what I know about processed food now, I’ve probably eaten things worse than tupperware as a kid.

  15. High school for me was hell. Yet I am still the same damn pant size I was then, and truthfully, I enjoy life more now then I did in high school, reason being I finally learned to love me.

    Though I do swear I hear “High school was the best time of your life!” one more time, I may snap man. High school/school in general was no picnic for a lot of people.

  16. I agree with you on this, for the most part. However, just to play devil’s advocate, I’m going to say I think that the idea of an individual having a healthiest size isn’t quite as ludicrous as you suggest, that is, if it’s taken as an individual thing that has nothing to do with BMI.

    For example, let’s say that when I’m physically active and eating a healthy diet, my weight tends to fall into a particular range. When I have those habits, I feel strong and bouncy. I have tons of energy, I don’t feel at all weighed down and doctors would say that all of my numbers (except BMI) are pretty much optimal.

    Now, for me the set of habits that make me feel healthy tends to put me into a predictable weight range. For someone else, those habits and that feeling of being healthy might occur at a larger of smaller size. It’s an individual thing.

    I myself link that feeling of being healthy with the habits rather than with the size range. However, some people link it to their weight or size instead, and if habits have a predictable effect on size (as they sometimes do at an individual level), then it’s not that consequential an error. It only becomes important when the habits->weight link gets broken, say after having a kid, at menopause or after a diet.

    If the link works, it’s just an attribution error. However, people can get badly tripped up if the link breaks. They believe that the size is more important than the habits, and they’ll try to get to the size using unhealthy methods. Of course, doing the same thing using BMI rather than their own past experience makes it even worse.

  17. OK, here’s my “Healhy Time” (not size) story.
    Not when I was in high school, but about 4 years after. I weighed 30 or 40 lbs less than I do now, cholesterol was 40 pts lower, and it was about 20 years ago. I wasn’t eating meat, didn’t have a TV and there was no internet to sit in front of for hours. I had only one part time job and one class a semester so I spent hours upon hours bike riding, usually over 100 miles a week. I had 2 boyfriends (one was a sugar daddy type) and I lived on the second floor of a walk up so I had to do the stairs with my bike. I had none of the major obligations I have now (mortgage, spouse, cats, real job)


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