If you’ve heard of the Health at Every Size movement, my guess is it was in a negative light, or a skeptical one at the very least, where you wondered how something “so absurd” could be gaining traction. After all, not all body sizes are healthy, right? Surely a body that is obese is not healthy, right?
Well, the right answer from a HAES perspective would be no, not all body sizes are healthy, but all unhealthy bodies are not limited to the “overweight” or “obese” categories. One who is obese can be metabolically healthy. To elaborate, the HAES movement isn’t about connecting body weight to health at all. Instead, its principles are centered around a holistic vision of health — one that is not characterized by appearance, body shape or the absence of any one illness, disease or limitation. The overarching idea is that health exists on a continuum and one’s health status should never be used to judge, oppress or determine one’s value.
The HAES movement is about inclusivity and acceptance, and there is no reason to be opposed to the framework. In fact, many of the arguments opponents put forth against this “radical” framework are simply wrong, rooted in faulty assumptions about what HAES encourages and ignorance about the fact that optimal health varies on an individual basis.
The biggest thing that gets lost in translation with HAES is the meaning around that first word: “health.” It is not — nor has it ever been — the “healthy” at every size movement, and for good reason. This isn’t true and we in the HAES movement are well aware of that. Just like someone in the “overweight” or “obese” category may very well be metabolically unhealthy as shown by indicators separate from weight, like bloodwork, or how the individual feels in their body, someone in the “normal” or “underweight” ranges may be unhealthy, too.
HAES supporters don’t assert that everyone in a larger body is healthy and doesn’t need to lose weight because they’re perfect the way they are. Rather, they stress pursuing health (in whatever ways health is under their control, because sometimes it is not) without an emphasis on weight loss, as such emphasis has been proven ineffective. The connection with further development of an eating disorder or engrained disordered eating behaviors is stark, and it’s usually an overall blow to our morale and sense of self-worth.
Similar to the hastily-reached conclusion that the HAES movement believes everyone is healthy no matter their size, critics have also been repetitive in their whining that HAES promotes obesity. At this point, it’s laughable how overused this fallacy is; nowhere in the HAES principles is it encouraged to pursue a higher body mass index and become “overweight” or “obese.” The principles are far from this. They are instead rooted in the idea that if you are classified as “overweight” or “obese,” according to your BMI, there are long-term behaviors you can adopt that will support a healthier lifestyle without targeting weight loss. In fact, early studies suggest such an approach is better and more sustainable.
Nonetheless, evident in this flawed argument that HAES promotes obesity is the assumption that being of a higher body weight is the worst thing that can happen to you and that it is inherently worse for your health. Anticipating these presumptive challenges, Lindo Bacon, author of “Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight,” constructed this HAES manifesto and refutes beliefs that “overweight” or “obese” individuals are automatically unhealthy and need to lose any weight immediately.
Another major misunderstanding that HAES critics have run with is the idea that the movement gives a seal of approval to “unhealthy” eating or outright encourages the consumption of foods our society deems “junk.” This is wrong, as none of the HAES principles encourage the consumption of any specific foods, nor do any encourage overeating. When opponents resort to this argument, they are taking the principle of eating for well-being to an extreme, and in doing so, they are assuming that when we eat what we want for enjoyment instead of eating to mold our bodies, we’ll throw health out the window.
This says so much about how we view food collectively. As soon as the idea of getting to eat what you truly want is introduced, everyone is up in arms because that means, “I’d eat x all day long and gain so many pounds!” This shows how little trust we have in our incredibly wise bodies, not to mention how uninformed we are about all the mechanisms behind weight maintenance.
The reality is, you likely wouldn’t eat whatever “x” is all day every day for very long, since it might not make you feel well. That’s really what it’s all about — making food choices with nourishment in mind and being aware of how you want to feel when you are eating. To be abundantly clear, no one in the HAES community is saying you should not eat nutrient-dense foods. We do believe grouping these foods as “clean” or “good” and creating a dichotomy where other foods excluded from this category are “dirty” or “bad” invokes a moral hierarchy of foods we can do without. Furthermore, rigidly sticking to the “clean” or “good” food category is a recipe for disaster as the mental restriction only builds up and the anxiety that settles in around eating those “bad” foods is injurious.
With these misunderstandings around the HAES movement clarified, it’s clear that the fear of letting larger-bodied people just be and lead a life where they aren’t trying to change their body is terrifying to some. So, they have resorted to extreme counterarguments that skew what the HAES movement really is — a paradigm for a healthy and happy life where you look beyond your weight and practice mindful, enjoyable nourishment and movement — because it’s groundbreaking in certain ways.
It urges you to question the internalized fatphobia we all hold and pushes us to think of health on an individual basis, and that can be scary. Losing weight or maintaining a “normal” weight isn’t the end-all-be-all guaranteeing health, and that’s frightening. However, the HAES movement is not your enemy, especially if you consider yourself a health-conscious, fitspo-type person. It’s actually the school of thought that upholds those values the most.
Nyla Booras is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.