In the wake of New Year’s and all the resolutions, Instagram diet challenges, cleanses, quick fixes, and promises of happiness, I want to say something simple. It’s something that I believe we’ve all thought and all know deep down, but something that latent desires for healing, status, belonging, and success often encourage us to forget.
Health is not a binary.
As in, “healthy” and “unhealthy” are not catch-all categories.
Health isn’t a black-and-white, all-or-nothing issue.
It’s a messy, complicated, sliding spectrum that itself contains many spectrums, and it isn’t nearly as simple as what someone looks like.
As a very simple example, my heaviest weight was far, far healthier for me than my lightest weight. At my lightest weight, I got sick with the flu every six weeks and constantly felt ravenous. I couldn’t do a pull-up.
But I got far more compliments on how “healthy I looked” at my lightest weight. Isn’t it fucked up how that works–how our society compliments appearances that can be the result of deeply harmful choices?
I’ve been at my current size many times in my life. At this size, I’ve been suicidally depressed, been physically strong and capable, kept up with a lifting regimen, battled repeated rounds of bad colds, eaten ravenously, eaten very little, been contentedly single, been unhappily single, been in a struggling relationship, enjoyed a healthy relationship, hiked long ridges in the Scottish highlands, been told I eat too much, struggled with panic attacks, written my best academic work, battled disordered eating patterns like bingeing and purging, found a balanced way of relating to food, been on anti-depressants, hitchhiked, attacked classical piano pieces, been off anti-depressants, fallen further in love with climbing, drank far too much wine, been stone-cold sober for months, read amazing books, worked extremely hard, been lazy, kept my apartment clean, or had a messy room.
Some of these things have happened all at the same time.
The point is, health is something that can almost never be determined at a glance. You don’t know where someone is based on how they look.
We cannot measure health on a scale. We cannot measure health in mental health surveys. Just as weight gain can function as the body’s response to past starvation or restriction, so sadness or anxiety can be the body’s response and release mechanism after trauma or loss.
Our bodies and minds tell stories, and these stories are constantly being written and, in some cases, re-written. We’re a mess of healthy moments, heartbreak, joy, loss, and belonging, all in a body and a mind.
No wonder that health sometimes feels elusive and hard to define, and no wonder it’s so easy for marketing teams to paint health into a corner of “thin, able-bodied, smiling, young, often blonde.” These marketing techniques are ways of reaching into our insecurities and offering us an illusion of solidity and certainty, when in fact life (and therefore health) is in a state of constant, deeply complex flux.
As a point of reference, the New Oxford American Dictionary defines health as being free from illness or injury, or as a term used to describe someone’s general physical or mental state.
Of course, dictionary definitions are meant to be short and pithy, incomplete and two-dimensional. (Dictionary definitions aren’t meant to be blog posts, which is good, because that leaves room for me.)
But even this definition speaks to an underlying truth: illness and injury are subjective experiences. Health is a subjective experience. That doesn’t mean a broken leg isn’t a broken leg; it just means that each individual experiences illness and injury in context, and that context is inherently complicated, messy, and subjective.
Subjectivity can be terrifying, because, again, it points to uncertainty.
And so many marketing techniques prey upon uncertainty and insecurity, exploiting the subjective nature of our perceptions of illness and injury.
For instance, when the skincare and beauty industry talks about skin “health”, this narrative often treats “signs of having lived a long, full, sometimes laughing, sometimes frowning, and skeptical life” as an injury or illness to be fixed.
The media often renders life-giving softness on postpartum bodies as something to be “fixed.” Um, excuse me? Also, fuck that narrative: mothers are badasses.
Sadness is an experience for which many doctors will prescribe a pill. Sometimes this is necessary, but sometimes sadness is just…sadness, a natural process of grief or loss or wild disappointment that demands to be felt. Only the individual can say whether or not they need and want additional help.
This isn’t to say that many illnesses and injuries aren’t serious, life-altering, or life-threatening, and this isn’t to demean the reality of deeply felt pain. Rather, acknowledging this subjectivity is a way of truly honoring the individual’s experience of illness and injury. It’s about seeing and respecting pain without exploiting the fear of illness or injury for personal or material gain. This perspective creates space for earnest questions, honest reflection, and humble curiosity about the human experience–from the cellular level to the societal level.
The crux of the matter is that life is full of injury, illness, and death–that our bodies and minds and souls are continually healing and re-healing, stitching themselves back together.
So here’s what I’ve learned:
There’s always room for growth, but growth can’t be judged, weighed, or measured. You can also atrophy in one area of life–say, in your relationship with a family member, or in your ability to squat heavy–while making great strides in many other areas of life. It’s all. So. Fucking. Subjective.
As we venture into 2020, let’s not measure fish by their ability to fly or a butterfly by its ability to crawl on the ground and eat a royal crap ton of leaves. Let’s leave room for all the different types of growth and development that need to happen, and let’s honor the experiences of others.
Sources I highly recommend:
Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon
Intuitive Eating by Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole
Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig
This blog post by Jessi Kneeland