Is Healthy The Opposite Of Thin? How Body Image Messages Can Backfire

by | Aug 29, 2011

Photo by AmandaBreann

When I was 18 few things were further from my mind than health. Sure I enjoyed my status as a thin, relatively fit teenager, but there was virtually no connection in my brain between what I put in my body and how long or happily I would live.

At that time I saw healthy eating as a fringe activity, for granola crunching hippies or men over 60 with beer bellies. I had no reason to worry about heart disease at my age and organic food was way more expensive, so why bother?

But that wasn’t the only reason I avoided the issue. As a self-conscious girl from Southern California, I was very concerned with my weight. People considered me thin, and I had every intention of staying that way. I knew that my obsession with my body image and constant dieting was considered “unhealthy,” but I didn’t care.

From my perspective the message from the media was clear: healthy is the opposite of thin. And when you’re young and think you’re invincible, the choice is obvious. Getting kids to worry about something in the distant future is difficult enough, but when you set it up as the antithesis of their immediate goals you make it nearly impossible.

It wasn’t until years later that I started to appreciate the value of health as an objective. I now understand that healthy is beautiful, and that thin and healthy are not mutually exclusive. Your ideal size is determined largely by genetics, but if you eat well, exercise and take care of yourself not only will your body look the way you want, you’ll also have nicer hair, a clear complexion and brighter eyes. You’ll likely have more energy and feel happier as well.

Sadly, body size is still the focus when most people talk about health. When you’re “too thin,” healthy means eating more regardless of quality. When you’re overweight, healthy means losing weight no matter how you accomplish it. But in the long term health is a reflection of your daily habits and is determined by things like the quality and diversity of your diet, how often and vigorously you exercise, exposure to environmental toxins and other factors.

While body weight can certainly be an indicator of health problems and sometimes reflect improvements, it’s important to understand that the message we send about health can backfire if these two things are inextricably linked.

How do you define health?

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19 Responses to “Is Healthy The Opposite Of Thin? How Body Image Messages Can Backfire”

  1. I never thought about this until before now, but why does, “He has a healthy appetite,” mean, “He eats a lot”? Why do we associate “healthy” with “ample”? Why, now that I think about it, does “ample” mean “more than enough”?

    • Tom says:

      Because language takes a while to adapt to changing conditions. It would not have been that many decades ago that obesity as a national problem was unheard of and starvation was common. In those circumstances there would really be two categories of people: ‘thin’ (meaning starved or sickly) and ‘healthy’. Since food was not abundant, having a healthy appetite did not mean you would be obese. The same appetite that would have kept you healthy 50 years ago would now cause you to gain weight uncontrollably, and it’s not just our language that has to change to fix it.

  2. Brian says:

    Very interesting topic. I’ve noticed that health often comes up as a form of rationalization, especially from people that go to extremes in pursuit of fitness or athletic accomplishment. Athletes and bodybuilders often have numerous physical problems and injuries, so it seems to me that going to those lengths can actually be counter to the goal of achieving good health.

    We all know that being too fat can cause health problems. Similarly, being very thin can interfere with the natural functions of the body in various ways.

    For me, it comes down to two things: are you happy and is your body functioning smoothly, in the way it was intended? Obsessing about body size does not lead to happiness, nor does worrying about every morsel of food that goes in your mouth. If you are very fat you might have trouble walking up stairs, interfering with your daily life and preventing your body from functioning well. If you’re very thin you might be lethargic and irritable, again negatively impacting your life. We can look at a thin model, wearing beautiful clothes, photographed artistically, and be drawn to her. Yet, how often do we read stories from people who lived that life, saying what a nightmare it was to be constantly judged on their appearance, addicted to drugs to stay thin? There’s always another side to the story.

    In the end, I think health is a bit of a red herring. We’re all going to get ill at some point, sometimes gravely so. There’s just not much to be done about it. A person could eat right and exercise and still develop cancer as a result of genetics or environmental circumstances. That sucks, but that’s life. Maybe in 100 or a 1000 years science will have eradicated all disease. Until that time, it seems better for us to enjoy the pleasures in life and not worry too much about getting every detail just right. I think cooking and eating delicious, natural food can increase our day to day happiness, and it helps the aspect of our bodies that is a machine function better. So why not do it? :)

  3. Thanks for this post Darya; it’s something that affects men as well. Especially here in New Zealand, guys are bombarded with the whole “real men don’t eat salad” BS. According to popular culture I’m not a man unless I eat two mince-and-cheese pies, a platter of spag bol, and drink a 12 pack of crappy lager before going to the gym and grunting like an ox, trying to put on enough muscle to impress the chicks.

    Ugh, no thanks.

    In high-school my girlfriend at the time struggled with anorexia nervosa, brought about by that whole ’90′s heroin chic wave (wow, that makes me feel old!) but we managed to get over it by realizing the distinction you’ve made here between what is healthy, and what is perceived as healthy. We ate well – and had fun with it too – but we never had to go to the gym or “diet” to stay in shape; It was all about changing our attitude to food.

    I’m grateful for that time, as it’s helped me to be comfortable eating what keeps me healthy and feeling great in a culture that doesn’t understand the meaning of ‘enough’. For me, healthy is listening to your body and filtering that message through the knowledge of what is the right action to take. The message I got today was pretty loud and clear: I had a T-bone steak and salad for breakfast this morning. If that’s not truly manly I don’t know what is!

  4. Rachel says:

    The two are certainly not mutually exclusive. I think that because we’re so much larger as a society now, we don’t want to have to face the fact that being overweight is NOT generally healthy. However, my perspective is a little warped on this, only because I have such a hard time losing weight. For me, it’s always seemed an either or proposition. I can eat healthy, the way I do now, or I can halve that and get to my happy weight, where I can usually stay for a fairly long time, but I usually have to keep my intake well below what would be considered healthy. I realize this is not the case for most people and it’s certainly partially due to some damage that I have done to my metabolism in the past.

    But for 90% of people eating “healthy” should be conducive for staying thin. I think the absolute healthiest thing anyone can do is to cut out processed foods. And I know I never felt better than when I cut all that out of my diet, and weight loss should logically follow. I just wish it applied to me ;)

    • Pam says:

      I am in the same boat Rachel! If I came close to eating 2000 calories a day I would be gigantic. I have chosen though, in spite of being classed as overweight, to eat enough calories to give me energy and all that I need to function, and forget the weight. My blood work is great, my blood pressure is perfect, and my doctor tells me to keep doing what I am doing.
      People who look at me, they may think I spend the day with cookies and chips in front of the TV. I eat healthy (but less calories than most people), I am active, and have learned to be happy with my body… but its been a journey.

  5. I’m a pretty new reader, but I just had to pop in and say what a great post this is! I think a lot of people really confuse health and thinness – at my thinnest, I was probably the least healthy! And I know plenty of women, who, if you asked “would you rather be healthy or thin?” would answer thin. Sad, but true.

  6. Liesel says:

    I am so over going to the gym and obsessing about burning double the calories I ate that day. I get way too OCD about that and just don’t want to do it anymore. Yet, I’m not entirely happy with my larger size, either. I personally don’t find it attractive on myself and my size limits certain activities that I want to do. So I have started thinking more in terms of “functional fitness”, and exercising with some other purpose or outcome other than thinness. Like helping a friend build stairs that will let me down to a patch of dirt behind my house, so that I can plant flowers or herbs, or climbing a trail that winds up a mountain to enjoy the view from the top.

    • Darya Pino says:

      I love that. I’ve also found that I could slave away in the gym and not make a dent in my size, but if I just make an effort to walk more every day a few pounds always drop effortlessly. I once took a 3 week trip to Thailand where I was literally eating noodles and meat or rice and meat for every meal, and had to ask for added vegetables if I wanted them. I was even drinking a sweetened coffee daily (it’s all they had). I expected to put on weight, but ended up losing a lot (it was weird) because of all the walking and sightseeing, despite the bad diet.

      Also, I found that I had gained a few pounds this year and was confused. I started watching my diet more closely but realized I was still eating really well. Then I realized I started working from home in January and had cut out a few daily miles of walking I hadn’t even noticed. I’ve added walking back into my routine and my jeans are definitely fitting better. The nice thing about walking is it is also very meditative, and it’s quality time I can spend with my puppy or getting to know my city better. You just need to have comfy shoes :)

      • Alex says:

        ^This.

        Something as simple as walking more, doing some gardening, washing your car, etc… just small tasks where you don’t even feel like you’re exerting much effort, actually do make a big difference!

        Small lifestyle adjustments, that’s what really matters in my opinion (and obviously diet first and foremost).

      • Eleanor says:

        Darya, I’ve noticed the same thing – official “exercise” doesn’t affect my metabolism as much as just getting up off my butt during the day and vacuuming the house, shoveling snow, anything instead of sitting in front of a screen. I think humans were meant to move around all day long, instead of exercising for an hour and being sedentary the other 23. It could be why new studies show that daily workouts don’t offset the harm caused by sitting all day.

      • Shreya says:

        Darya-I read your blog occasionally and I like it a lot. I just finished my PhD and started working. Unfortunately, my job is a desk job and I am no longer running around in my lab or in between departments. I was shocked to see that I put on 5 lbs in 6 months. My diet did not change drastically so I was rather horrified. I have started walking during my lunch break now and I hope the pounds will start falling off soon. I turn 30 next year and I do want to be in shape for my 30th birthday! :-D

      • Darya Pino says:

        Yes, walking makes a huge difference, even though I still work out a lot (~5 days a week) I put on weight if I don’t walk a few miles a day. My puppy appreciates my newfound enthusiasm to explore new parks :)

      • Now that I check my weight every day, I’m amazed at what people think is worth worrying about. Just this weekend I went up 6 pounds in 4 days. And I expect to have dropped it all again by Friday.

        5 pounds in 6 months is not even worth worrying about, unless you’re talking about a two-week moving average.

      • Brian says:

        Good point. It’s a big mistake to frequently weigh or measure one’s body. There’s a TON of day to day fluctuation that has nothing to do with fat stores. It’s the long term that counts.

  7. Suzanne says:

    Bravo, Liesel! What sage advice and inspiring to boot! Thank you for the outstanding post, Darya.

    I lost 70 pounds over an extended period with healthy nutrition and moderate exercise, and now am within about 10-15 pounds of my goal weight. I am far, far more critical of my body now than I ever was when I was heavy. The goal of a socially approved body ideal seems ever more elusive the closer I get to it. I don’t want to think this way, and I challenge these thoughts, but there they are. It’s easy to blame excess weight for unpleasantness that crops up in life, and when that excess weight is gone, then what?

  8. Lori says:

    Wow, this post really resonated with me. I struggled with my body image for years after being an overweight kid. For most of my 20s, I was thin and unhealthy looking, mostly because I ate a non-fat diet thinking this was the key to having less fat on my body. In the last two years, I’ve increased my fat intake, and though I don’t weigh any more than I did before, I now also have a little less muscle (also from working from home).

    I remember my brother telling me last year that I looked different than I used to. He said, word for word, “Wow…you look healthy.” And a part of me thought this was an insult, for pretty much the exact reasons you outlined here.

    It’s been a strange process, rewiring my brain to understand that healthy is not only good, but the most important thing. The skin and hair improvements help a great deal. It’s also nice to not always pass on that pizza, or steak, or cake. But what’s helped me most of all is feeling the effects of healthy. I used to get dizzy in nearly every Bikram class, but now I have an increased sense of strength and stamina.

    As much as I hate to admit this, I think it also helps that there are now a lot of “healthy” looking women in the mainstream media. I grew up comparing myself negatively to Kate Moss, but there are far curvier women posing on today’s magazines. It’s nice to see that healthy is now considered the ideal.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post. =)

    Lori

  9. spookiewon says:

    Really? My experience is that healthy is used as the opposite of fat, which you are considered if you have any curves what-so-ever. And if your focus is on staying thin and not on eating healthy, your approach is unhealthy, it’s that simple. It’s not you thinness that is unhealthy, it’s the attitude that you must be a particular body size. It is Pam who is healthy, not because she is overweight, because she hasn’t confused health with size.

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