Accept your size or fight it?

by Christine on February 18th, 2011

filed under Christine's Life Updates, Diet, Food, Nutrition, Eating Disorders

This week I learned that there is a formal movement and approach to health called Health At Every Size (HAES). The movement focuses on self-acceptance regardless of the number on the scale; it focuses on pleasurable physical activity and “normal” eating (as opposed to being on a “diet” all the time).  The emphasis is on being healthy at any size, rather than on weight loss; weight loss, of course, as we all know, is riddled with heartache, hard work, failures big and small, and a lot of anguish. I really don’t think that it is possible to be in dieting mode and be sane and happy at every step along the way.

In this movement, HAES (often also called “fat acceptance” although HAES takes on a broader meaning) members do not believe that the narrow weight range (the BMI chart) is healthy for every individual. Rather, each individual person needs to find their own healthy range and eat in response to physical cues rather than emotional cues.

A lot of my readers also read Allan’s blog over at Almost Gastric Bypass. Allan is a firm critic of the “intuitive eating” movement, claiming that it is this inability to eat intuitively that has lead our nation into an obesity epidemic in the first place. In my own experience, most people who attempt to embrace “intuitive eating” almost always fail; it seems that our brains and our bodies are clearly at odds when it comes to understanding what we as individuals need to consume to fuel ourselves. Other bloggers (importantly: many medical professionals who also blog) point out that being overweight leads to a myriad of physical issues, including diabetes, high blood pressure, increased heart attack risk, depression, tiredness, joint point, and the list can go on and on. These bloggers all claim that it is not healthy to accept obesity.

Benefits of the HAES Movement:

As for me, I guess I can see both sides of the argument. I’ve been through the mental anguish of trying—and failing time and time again—to diet and lose weight. There is nothing more disheartening, frustrating, and depressing than trying your hardest to lose weight and continuing to fail, despite your best efforts.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said to myself, “Screw it, I can’t do this; I should just accept myself the way that I am.”  I think that if we learned more self-acceptance, I think that a lot of medical issues would disappear as well. While I think that obesity really does lead to serious medical problems (as listed above), I also think that many obesity-related problems are psychosomatic: I hate being fat, therefore I am depressed. I’m depressed, so I’m tired all the time.  If you embraced yourself and said, “I am okay just being ME” without need to change yourself constantly, I think the depression would evaporate, and consequently the tiredness (and stress, maybe even the high blood pressure) would also go away.  (Read more about Compassion and Understanding in an overweight world.)

Furthermore, I think that a lot of the pressure to be thin is created by social pressure. It’s not you and me that want us to be thin, but the outside media that push anorexic models (or big, beefy, muscly men) on the cover of magazines, with encouragement of how to diet, dress, and live life just like them. These physiques are impossible for most individuals to achieve, even at “perfect” weights. I can definitely see the benefit of accepting our bodies as they are, rather than striving for a physique that is impossible to achieve.

I am a huge proponent of finding your own “calorie setpoint,” which is the number of calories you need to sustain your body. I believe that this number varies wildly from individual to individual—I do not believe it is possible to rely on a generic doctor’s chart or generic BMR/RMR calculators because each person has a vastly different genetic makeup. Similarly, I don’t think it’s healthy to assume that every individual who has a BMI of 28 is overweight and therefore unhealthy. I definitely think that there’s something to be said about finding your own comfort zone. I know numerous women that are very comfortable—and look fantastic!—at a Size 14/200 pounds, while I looked unhealthfully overweight at that size. It is important for each individual to discover what works best their bodies and to use that as a guideline.

Downsides to the HAES movement

So while I can see the benefit of the HAES movement, I think it can also be harmful to us. Obesity is unhealthy for all the health reasons listed above. I am pretty sure that HAES refers to those who are only sort-of-kind-of-overweight, not the 600 or 700 hundred pound folks. But, HAES has enough ambiguity in its language that it implies that a 700 pound person should embrace their size and eat “intuitively.”  Clearly this would be a terribly unhealthy way to live at that size, but again—the HAES movement doesn’t clarify this point. Granted, there’s a lot of grey area as to “how big is too big?” Doctors try to quantify this grey area by using BMI charts, and while I think that BMI charts can be faulty, they DO work as a guideline for the vast majority of people.

Furthermore, I think that the HAES movement excuses their behavior by placing blame on everyone else except for themselves and their own actions. Rather than saying, “I’m overweight because I eat too much” they say, “I’m overweight because I can’t live up to the standards in society.” You can blame genetics, medical problems, society’s standards, the way you were brought up, etc., but in the end it’s ultimately your fault that you are overweight. Whether you want to embrace or your size or lose weight, the first step needs to be stepping up and accepting your role in your size. Nobody made you the size you are at except for you. It’s been my experience that those that attempt to embrace their size do so at the expense of everyone/everything else that has made them the way that they are.

We are not victims of our own bodies. You may not understand how to control your body or understand the needs that it has, but we are not victims of our bodies. With proper learning and experimentation, we can gain control of our bodies and achieve the weight loss goals that we set out for ourselves.

What do you think about the HAES movement? Do you believe you should accept yourself at any size, or should you stick with the battle of weight loss until you have achieved a medically-approved healthy body?

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