I remember so clearly walking into Valley View Middle School one day in sixth grade to find two of my friends wearing the same T-shirt. With a strong sense of irony even as a sixth grader, I enjoyed the fact that both of their shirts boasted the phrase "Dare to Be Different" along with a cute turtle. As a sixth grader, I didn't really think deeply about why a cool brand like American Eagle or Hollister would sell a T-shirt proclaiming "Dare to Be Different" to tween girls.
Since that day, I've had a lot of time to think about it. There is something so incredibly alluring about individual free choice. Even in the field of public health, individual interventions are often seen as the way to change societal problems. Worried you are gaining too much weight? Try intermittent fasting or a new gym routine. Worried about mental health during the pandemic? Surely there is an individual therapist who could help you with that. We love individual agency, free choice, the American Dream of self reliance.
But sometimes that breaks down. There are larger systems at play. And by not acknowledging these lager systems and institutions, we are setting ourselves up for failure in our quest for individual change.
One of our most deeply held cultural Western beliefs is the morality of good health (sometimes called Healthism). After all, one contributes more to society when they are in good health. However, our society does not do everything possible to promote the good health of its individuals. A large amount of burden is left to the individual - to find housing, to secure a good food, to secure work, and even to secure healthcare. When one fails to secure these things for oneself, it feels like a personal failure.
In addition, we have visual markers of health and success that we have internalized as a society. At some point, we switched from viewing fat people as those who could afford to eat more to viewing fat people as those who are gluttonous. We view people in large bodies as having made poor individual choices which have reduced their health, and therefore their worth as a member of society. We have extrapolated our belief that good health is morally good and decided that being overweight is morally bad. However, we have not generally stopped to question whether good health is, in fact, tied to being a certain weight.
So, what's the deal? Can I be fat and healthy? Beyond this important question, it's important to recognize that one's worth is not in fact tied to their health. But to answer the question - yes. You can absolutely be fat and healthy. Weight is not a good proxy measure for health. There's a ton of research on this and I won't get into the weeds.
Let's Dare to Be Different and explore the ways in which we think about weight, health and morality. It's more complicated than it seems, but I'm on this journey with you.
Until next time,