THINNESS DOES NOT EQUAL HEALTHY, AND WHY IT’S TOXIC TO BELIEVE IT IS

Health cannot be defined by size or appearance, yet our society insists that it is. Understand the harmful effects of equating thinness and health.


BY: PAIGE SMATHERS, RDN, CD

If I could wave my magic wand and change one thing about how people thought about health, it would be this –

You cannot look at a person and know whether or not they’re in good health

You know nothing about their eating patterns, exercise, stress or anything other health-related behavior by the way they appear.

There are so many reasons why it’s toxic to equate thinness with health. This might be hard to acknowledge given the fact that it’s a huge paradigm shift from how we usually talk about bodies. But, I encourage you to lean into the discomfort you may experience, and continue to honestly explore what is about to be explained here. 

It may just save a life: your own, or someone else’s who you love.

First of all: let’s be clear about what the word healthy even means. To put it short: health is more than what we put in our mouth—many factors of one’s health status relates to elements out of their control while other elements are within the sphere of influence. 

We can’t control our genetics, environmental factors, oppression, or socioeconomic status – all of which can play a role in a person’s health and well-being. The only thing that’s within the sphere of influence of our own well-being is our behaviors, and how we are caring for ourselves.

So how can some of these misconceptions around healthiness and size be harmful? Let’s take a closer look at both sides of the spectrum.

SMALLER BODIES

First, equating thinness with health is damaging for the person who is suffering from anorexia who happens to be at non-emaciated weight. I wish our collective society could recognize that their struggle is as real and as valid as someone in a smaller body. 

Having a non-emaciated body and suffering from anorexia is the more common scenario than the one we typically see in the media. When we assume that eating disorders have a “look”, people fly under the radar who are sick but appear “healthy”.

Let’s be clear: in order to know whether a person is getting adequate nourishment or not, you have to ask them questions about their eating, self-care and other behaviors. You simply cannot look at their body size and determine whether or not they are eating adequately.

When we assume a person with a BMI of 22 is automatically healthy, we don’t ask questions about their nutrition, sleep, stress, or movement because we already assume everything is fine. But what if that person is engaging in dysfunctional eating patterns and doesn’t have a period anymore due to the overexercising and undereating she’s doing in order to be at that weight? 

Eating issues and health pathologies often go undetected in routine doctor visits due to the way their body appears.

LARGER BODIES

Equating thinness with health is dangerous for the higher weight person who’s constantly dealing with stigma associated with their size, and feeling the need to “fix” their bodies with diets. 

Weight discrimination can activate the fight or flight response, which is adaptive in times of acute physical threat but is maladaptive if chronically activated in response to social threat. This could lead to cortisol secretion and stress-induced eating, detrimentally affecting metabolic and cardiovascular system functioning. 

Weight stigma is related to higher blood pressure, binge eating behaviors, bulimic symptoms, negative body image, low self-esteem and depression in children, adolescents and adults. Furthermore, identifying oneself as overweight, irrespective of actual body mass, predicts impaired physical and psychological health outcomes long-term. 

The bottom line: weight stigma does not promote well-being. 

And it’s up to all of us to take an honest look at how we may be perpetuating these harmful effects on others. 

If you love someone who is struggling with food and you want to know how you can help, it’s important to suspend any ideas, assumptions or judgments about the way they appear. Ask questions, don’t immediately assume you know about their behaviors and really take the time to understand their struggle. 

If you’re the one struggling with food: please know that your health is not your weight. If it’s important for you to engage in your well-being, focus your pursuit on behaviors that promote health for you, such as sleep hygiene, hydration, balanced and nourishing meals, and movement. 

The best part? These are available to you now, and you don’t have to wait for some magical number to determine whether or not you’re worthy of care. You already are – 

Right here, right now.

Adapted from the original article.

Paige Smathers, RDN, CD is a nutrition therapist based in Salt Lake City who helps individuals find positive ways to overcome struggles they experience with food and body image. She specializes in practical, down-to-earth solutions for those in eating disorder recovery and chronic dieting through a weight-neutral positive approach. Paige hosts the popular Nutrition Matters Podcast and runs her private practice, Positive Nutrition.

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