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August 5, 2011 / missmarymax

Out with the Old, Out with the New: On “Healthy” as the “New Skinny”

There’s this meme going around the recovery and body-positive communities that “Healthy is the New Skinny.”*  This meme worries me for several reasons. First and foremost?

Because we do not need a new skinny.

I don’t mean that we need to eradicate “thinness” — or that there’s something fundamentally wrong with those who lack a certain amount of chub. I mean that the thin ideal — the holy grail that skinniness stands for in our culture — is destructive. And something fundamentally destructive does not need to be replaced.

The thin ideal works to create a notion that certain types of bodies are beautiful, acceptable, and desirable — while others aren’t.  It facilitates a common non-sense that says everyone should (and can) aspire to thinness, and that not attaining thinness is a sign of personal deficiency.  Most of us, at this point, pretty much understand that. And most of us take issue.

Understandably, in our desire to impeach the thin ideal, we see “health” as an improvement. We hear, “Healthy bodies are desirable, beautiful, and acceptable,” and we see an expanded range of what those categories can include. We hear “everyone should aspire to health,” and we imagine hordes of people replacing self-destructive weight loss strategies with healthy self-care. We imagine “healthy” as an inclusive alternative to “skinny” — a skinny 2.0.

But we’re wrong.

We’re wrong because “health” is not an inclusive category.  As Arwyn pointed out in a really marvelous RMB post a few months back, whether or not health is a laudable goal, it cannot be a mandate.  It cannot be a mandate because no number of healthy choices and healthy behaviors actually guarantee health.  We can make all the right choices, do all the right things, and still develop an illness — even a chronic or fatal one.  Them’s the breaks, kids.  We are all mortal beings and, as such, we are an at-risk population.

Another thing: When we talk about being healthy, what exactly do we mean? The absence of sickness? — as defined by whom?  “Obesity” is still considered pathological by the American Medical Association; hyposexual desire disorder in still listed in the DSM.  At the same time, other apparently self-destructive conditions — orthorexia, for instance — are not considered sicknesses per se. So what do we count as sickness — and what do we count as health?

Another problem: if we rest the right to good body image or the right to have the bodies we do on health — what happens for all of those people who simply aren’t healthy? What happens for the spoonies, the cancer-fighters, the disabled? Do we hand out passes? Do we create tiers of deviance — the people whose unhealthiness is their own dern fault and the people who had unhealthiness imposed upon them? (Kind of like those people who are fat because they’re totes lazy and the people who are fat because they have a legit and thus more-or-less pardonable genetic condition?)

I’m guessing y’all see where I’m going with this.  “Health” is pretty problematic, too,  — and it would be so even if it weren’t (as it is) a sort of politically-correct code for “thin.”  As long as the majority of media outlets, scientists, and American first ladies conflate fatness with pathology — (cough- obesity “epidemic” -cough) — fat and health cannot logically coexist.  So in our culture, the pursuit of Health funtions as a socially-acceptable substitution for the pursuit of Skinny.  “It doesn’t bother me that you’re fat; I’m just worried about your health,” is such a common concern-trolling trope, it’s included on the fat-hate bingo card. See also: “I’m not exercising because I want to lose weight; I’m exercising because I want to improve my health.” It’s not that these statements are never true; individual people, for instance, do enjoy movement for reasons other than weight loss/ control.  But it’s worth noting that our concept of health — what it is, who qualifies– remains (for damn near all of us) pretty tied to beliefs about weight.  And if that’s the case, how able are we to say who’s healthy, without falling into the old trap of  “well, that person ‘looks’ as if they are”?

In effect, while our culture’s lip-service to body diversity and ED awareness is effectively making “skinny is best” politically incorrect, we’ve yet to successfully convince people it’s inaccurate.  There’s a difference between getting people to stop saying “fat is bad” and getting them to quit believing it.  (We haven’t, for the record, managed to do either.)  Moreover, even if we effectively distinguish between “thin” and “healthy,” we can’t guarantee that people won’t again pursue that ideal in dangerous, self-destructive ways.

Now, understandably, these health-seeking self-destructive practices — for instance liposuction to “tone” abs, over-exercising, etc — aren’t understood as “healthy” health. They’re  health taken to an unhealthy extreme.  But we — in the HAES, recovery, and fat acceptance communties — have long argued that the middle-ground of diet culture is as detrimental as its edge. In other words, it’s not just anorexia that’s dangerous; it’s also Weight Watchers.  It’s not just purging that’s dangerous; it’s also the Biggest Loser.  If we know this to be true in terms of weight, don’t we owe it to ourselves — and our movements — to consider how it might apply to health?

“Healthy is the new skinny” implies — all too rightly, I’m afraid– that health will come to take skinny’s place.  This means health will be the cause for concern-trolling, discriminating, and declaring figurative wars. Health will be our guide for drawing lines between who deserves (life, love, custody, sex, work) and who does not.  Health will be our new moral standard, our new system of oppression, our new ideal.

But we don’t need new versions of these ideas. We don’t need to replace the thin ideal; we need to eradicate it. We need to create a system so radically divergant from our present one that nothing can be called the “new” anything.  We need to revamp this ideology, so thoroughly,  that even our current grammar fails to hold.

We are not required to replace the standard, friends. We have the right to simply dismantle it.

*It’s worth noting here that there’s also a website with this  title.  Just to be clear, that site (like the work of other fab activists who might use this phrase) is not what I’m taking issue with here.



Leave a Comment
  1. Deanna Jent / Aug 5 2011 12:31 pm

    But I had so much hope for “healthy”!
    Your caution is well-stated, and yet …. what do you call it when people end “self-destructive” behaviors (of which there are many and not all are categorized as illness)? Is “friendly” a better word than “healthy”?
    Hmmm….. off to eat my friendly breakfast. That kinda makes me smile!

    • missmarymax / Aug 5 2011 2:16 pm

      Ha, I totally understand. I’m a big fan of (breakfast! nom! 😉 and also) of the friendliness you’re referring to — which I guess I’d (in the spirit of my therapeutic upbringing) term “self-care.” I think those kinds of behaviors are really useful and important; it’s just when it becomes a standard of “self-care or health or [whatever] looks like this (always!) and (always!) has these consequences, and if you don’t look like that or do those things you are somehow deficient”… that’s where we start to have a problem.

  2. VoiceinRecovery / Aug 5 2011 4:01 pm

    Yup Yup Yup.

  3. Mary (A Merry Life) / Aug 5 2011 4:07 pm

    This was a fantastic post Mara.

    • Mary (A Merry Life) / Aug 5 2011 4:08 pm

      Sorry, Mary! LOL. My typing skills aren’t so great apparently. 😉 Feel free to fix my name typo in the other comment. 🙂

      • missmarymax / Aug 8 2011 7:09 pm

        Ha, no worries. Thanks for letting me know you liked the post.

  4. Amelia Jane / Aug 6 2011 1:19 am

    I agree! I had a reasonably amusing discussion with my Mother who claims to only be concerned for fat people’s health, in which I asked her if she accosted everyone in the street whether fat or thin to make sure that they performed healthy-living according to whatever her terms were and pointed out that fat people could not smoke, not do drugs, cycle to work, eat fibre & salads & three meals a day * STILL BE FAT and basically proved that she just doesn’t like fat people, plain and simple. She didn’t like that. And she still thinks she’s ‘right’, we just talk less about it now. She’s actually afraid of getting fat.
    I’m just flicking through the website of the same name, and I wonder what do you think about it? Quite a bit of it just seems to adhere to certain ‘beauty’ tropes and another chunk of it seems to be shaming people for being too thin, or losing weight, or children’s behaviour…that’s just what I get from it after some brief browsing, but it just doesn’t seem super positive the way I think it means to be.

    • sui solitaire / Aug 6 2011 6:41 pm

      Yeah, that site is giving me a lot of weird mixed messages. It’s hard to find body image blogs I truly love + that resonate with me… and unfortunately, it seems that the most popular ones are the ones I have the most problems with.

      • missmarymax / Aug 8 2011 7:20 pm

        >>unfortunately, it seems that the most popular ones are the ones I have the most problems with.<< YES. This. It's not true across the board, of course, but I think it's often the case with body-pos activism (as in so many movements) that those who are the most willing to accomodate the status-quo, to simplify their perspective, or to align with – say – a problematic brand … are those who receive the most attention. As for HNS in particular, I hadn't viewed the site before I wrote this post. I went to check it out for the disclaimer at the end and had a lot of the same issues you both describe. It is, of course, always easier to critique other people's actions than to take (perfect, non-critique-able) actions yourself…but that said, I'm always unsettled when a body-positive site reproduces content/ images/ etc that they'd want censored in one context (e.g. images of very thin models that they'd take issue with elsewhere) and expects "context" or "intentions" alone to change the meaning that content carries. I think intentions and context count, but whether you're producing the "thinspiration" pic of a pro-ana website or the "let's scrutinize this celebrity!" pic of a tabloid magazine, I think you have to take responsibility for the broader culture in which that content already has meaning and engage with it in a way that takes that meaning into account. There are many sites, including this one, that I worry don't do that actively — or effectively — enough.

  5. sui solitaire / Aug 6 2011 6:49 pm

    I loooooooooooove your posts, Mary. You have such insight + AUGH, it’s like you make everything clear + wonderful + ergh I love it.


    I definitely agree with a lot of what you’re saying. The problem is that the word “healthy” can be so vague. Definitions differ for so many people, and yes, for a lot of people, they think fat is unhealthy, skinny is healthy.

    Definitely not the case to me when I see young adults in their early 20s who LOOK fit… who go to the gym and cut down on their eating to look good… yet binge on alcohol and drugs and junk food, fast on sleep, and in general treat their bodies like crap (in my opinion). Obviously this isn’t everyone, but I have seen a lot of people who fit this case.

    To me, healthy is holistic. It isn’t just about even physical health. It’s about mental, emotional, spiritual health. It’s about HEART health, soul health. To me being healthy is loving yourself, loving others, living a life based on your values, honoring your hungers + body in a way that feels good to you, taking care of yourself, getting enough rest…

    What do you think of the HAES movement? (I love this comment: )

    Yeah, I definitely think the problem is in the definition, and how that definition can be stretched to imply or continue to propagate fat-shaming or shaming of any body type. (Like saying that it’s unhealthy to be skinny, too. ERGHHH, health is up to the individual, our bodies are all different!)

    Actually, I feel like writing about what health means to me sometime. “Health” should be one of those Word by Word prompts, I feel like a lot of people would offer their own definitions.

    …by word, Mary, you’re a genius! I’ve got lots of ideas now. 😀

    • missmarymax / Aug 8 2011 7:31 pm

      Aw, the love and inspiration and all of it … so very mutual, Sui.

      I think a big part of the problem I see, as I mentioned to you and Amelia above, is that we tend to tell our individual stories without considering how they play into, as you put it, the propogating of body-shaming or fat-hate. In addition, I think — as awesome as the self-care-style “health” you defined is — many, many of us have a tendency to think certain caring behaviors are universal and to presume that others can/ should/ must do them to be healthy (or healthier). This is why I loved Kendra’s post a few weeks back when she mentioned hating meditation; she undercut a pretty common narrative of what’s definitely good for your health with a simple reply of “that doesn’t work for me, but this does.” I think we’re all responsible for walking that line between “this is what works & doesn’t FOR ME” and recognizing that our stories — when we put them out in the world — have meaning beyond that “personal” one. So it’s a tightrope of “I understand that my experience is only my experience” and “I take responsibility for the way I tell my story and try to avoid telling it in a way that props up harmful narratives.” Which is a pretty difficult challenge when you think about it. Guess that explains why I muck it up so much more often than I’d like. (As do we all.) 😉

  6. Wacky Lisa (@wackylisa) / Aug 6 2011 7:20 pm

    I’ve seen people with disabilities and chronic illnesses reject HAES because they feel it has rejected them. Since I’ve learned more about it I don’t see it that way but I can really understand why they feel that way.
    It’s refreshing to read a post like yours. Health is not attainable by everyone. And, to a point, idealizing health is just more moralizing in my opinion.

    • missmarymax / Aug 8 2011 7:33 pm

      “to a point, idealizing health is just more moralizing in my opinion.” << I totally agree. We have so clearly made moral issues of weight and food that it terrifies (and frustrates) me to see those same issues reappearing dressed in this new cloak. Thanks so much for the comment.

  7. Scott / Aug 7 2011 2:02 am

    I definitely see where you are coming from here. It seems like healthy has become something seen as a product of discipline, just as thinness is. Of course neither actually is in entirety, but the repeated exposure to it is not healthy. You’re right, we must dismantle it!

    • missmarymax / Aug 8 2011 7:34 pm

      Great point, Scott. It’s the same old “willpower” narrative wearing a new track suit. I’m excited that so many other people in the community want to resist it. Thanks for the read&reply.

  8. Hannah / Aug 7 2011 4:57 pm

    I LOVE this! Have you heard of “Strong is the New Skinny?” They popped up out of Crossfit culture and have a big following.

    I was very into Crossfit for a period of time, but this always rubbed me the wrong way and had to do with my leaving the community at my gym.

    • missmarymax / Aug 8 2011 7:47 pm

      I hadn’t!– I’m so glad you shared. It’s fascinating (if heartbreaking/ infuriating/ etc) to watch “get skinny” give way to “get toned” and before & after pics shift from the “diet pill” style to the “musclebuilder” type. (As if these are somehow healthier and less problematic by default.) One of these days I’m going to create a 1000-picture slideshow captioned “During.” This was my body during. As was this. And this. And this.

      • Hannah / Aug 9 2011 12:42 am

        Ha, yes! I so love that idea…during!!!!

  9. czechoutthisbaer / Aug 8 2011 6:00 am

    As a college student, I see certain girls only when I go to the gym. They are in amazing shape because they never leave! Healthy is not the new skinny, it is the new way to justify being skinny. Your post so eloquently states this – thank you.

    • missmarymax / Aug 8 2011 7:48 pm

      Thanks for commenting. And yeah, that is the eternal question in a lot of ways… does amazing shape equal amazing health? And is either one worth sacrificing your life? I vote no.

    • Emily / Aug 8 2011 11:18 pm

      I don’t understand what you mean my “justify being skinny.” Why does it need to be justified? Is there something wrong with being skinny? The goal is to change our society so non-skinny people no longer feel the need to justify themselves. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being skinny, and no skinny person should feel that their body type insults those with a non-skinny body type. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying working out, and enjoying the results thereof. I don’t think it’s fair to accuse the girls you speak of of ‘never leaving the gym.’ Even if you see them there every day, all that means is that you’re going there every day as well. I am so so in favor of ending the judgement of non-skinny people, but I will not support any ‘affirmative action’ measures. Skinny people should remain free from judgement as well.

      • missmarymax / Aug 9 2011 4:00 pm

        I can’t speak of course for what Czechoutthisbair meant, but I took it a bit differently. Basically, I thought the comment was intended not as to justify being skinny but to justify pursuing being skinny; in other words, it’s not that skinny is bad and needs justifying, it’s that increasingly we see “I want to be healthy/ fit/ etc” stand in for the old “I want to be thin!” mantra. I completely agree with you that hating on skinny people is not the solution to fat-hate. I’m also curious what you mean by “affirmative action” measures, when you suggest that you couldn’t support them. Could you say more about that?

      • Emily / Aug 9 2011 5:11 pm

        I’m using that term very loosely, hence the quotation marks, as shorthand for the practice that pops up sometimes of judging or sending negativity toward skinny people in response to the judging and negativity our culture sends to non-skinny people. It may be a state of equality if everyone is equally hating every one else’s bodies, but of course, it’s a terrible solution. I’m not a fan of affirmative action in its more literal definition, either. I think trying to legislate equality only breeds resentment and sends the message that no one personally has to do anything to fight prejudice since the government is dealing with it. It does completely change the interpretation of the comment to substitute justifying the pursuit of skinnyness, vs. justifying skinnyness itself. Makes way more sense that way!

        This is such a sticky issue for me because I think it is sad that our culture sends this perpetual message that everyone ‘should’ or ‘can be’ thin. I think that’s terrible, and needs to be combated. But, on the other hand, everyone is going to have their personal ideals of beauty, and everyone is entitled to work to change their body to better suit those ideals if they so choose. The sticky part, of course, is how thoroughly and frequently our personal ideas are just reflections of what we’ve been fed all our lives: that if you’re not thin you’re not beautiful, or worse, not worthwhile as a person at all, as opposed to their own personally developed tastes in the human form.

      • sui solitaire / Aug 9 2011 9:36 pm

        I get what you’re saying, and I agree; it’s kind of like the whole argument about “real women have curves.” No, uh… people who choose to identify as women are women because they are women… a rose is a rose is a rose. I don’t like the idea of “fat acceptance” to be at the exclusion of people whose body types just happen to be skinny.

        This is a random confession, and I recognize it’s a random place to put it, Mary, but in the past I’ve been *self-conscious* to post more than a picture of my face because I’m a positive body image writer but my body type is rather small. I know that one can say I can just not consider that, but I do because I consider how it may affect my readers. It’s not that I’m afraid of being judged, but rather I don’t want people to think I’m a hypocrite because I’m all for fat love (acceptance is too light a word for me :P). But perhaps that’s the whole point of HAES… every size. /random rant over

      • missmarymax / Aug 11 2011 7:09 pm

        Sui, I think HAES is definitely including EVERY size. Of course, the notion that fat people cannot be healthy is the most touted and — in efforts coordinated with or through Fat Acceptance communities — is likely to get the most time. But like you, I certainly don’t support anything along the lines of hating on skinny folk. In part because hating is crappy and in part because I don’t see how it does anything strategically useful.

        As for your “confession,” I think this is a really common issue for allies. It’s easy to feel that if you reveal yourself as not a member of the group you’re fighting for, you’ll somehow be hurting people. But I think hiding the fact that we are what we are — whether that’s straight in a gay rights circle or thin in a fat-positive one — doesn’t ultimately do a whole lot of good. No, you don’t want to pepper every post with “but I’m skinny, blah blah, just a reminder I’m skinny, blah blah, not that this applies to me cos I’m skinny” the same way you wouldn’t want to “but I’m not gay” a gay rights argument. But being aware of the fact that you have privilege, even thin privilege, and being open about that can actually make you a stronger ally, in a sense, because you start to actively determine how you use it — instead of trying to erase the fact that it’s there. (Of course, there are added snares in the body-pos world — because of issues like triggers and eating disorders and general shame and insecurity. But I don’t know how much good hiding does there either. Ultimately, your power is in what you do with what you have, not to change what you have, or to control how other people receive it.)

      • missmarymax / Aug 11 2011 7:16 pm

        Emily, Thank you so much for clarifying. I see the literal version of affirmative action a bit differently than you do, so your explanation really helps me understand what you mean. One of the points I see FA activists make a lot — which I really love — is that it’s not about convincing everyone in the world that fat people are attractive. Likewise, it’s not about convincing everyone to become a fat person. It’s not about these things (for many reasons), but one of the main ones is that this movement isn’t about INDIVIDUALS, as such. It’s about a culture that says it’s ok to charge fat people more to travel, that it’s ok to tell fat people they can’t graduate college, that it’s ok to refuse fat people proper medical care, etc. Taking on fat-hate, the way that I support it anyway, is about challenging biases to end that kind of discrimination — not to convince anyone that fat is superior to skinny or that skinny, too, is bad.

  10. Emily / Aug 8 2011 11:20 pm

    This is so thought-provoking, and helpful, but ultimately, I can’t quite accept the idea that ‘healthy’ isn’t a useful word in our quest to love and treat everyone with respect, any more than I can accept the idea that ‘obesity’ isn’t an unhealthy state. I agree that if all we’re doing is using ‘healthy’ as a euphemism for ‘skinny’ we haven’t actually made any progress, but I think it is legitimate to say to someone with unhealthy habits-chronic sleep-deprivation, self-deprecation, not eating a variety of nutritious foods, not drinking enough water-that you are concerned about their health. That said, I can see the difference between those document-able concerns, and assuming that just because someone is carrying some significant body fat, they are unhealthy.

    think ‘healthy’ needs to be seen as an on-going set of choices, rather than as freedom from diseases however we may define them. In that light, a terminal cancer patient can still be considered healthy, as can an overweight person whether they are interested in losing weight for their own reasons, or not.

    I am still picking apart what part of my views are vestiges of a very body-conscious family who tease me for having a big butt, and what are legitimately my own, but I can’t agree with the idea that it’s ok to be morbidly obese to the point that you’re killing yourself slowly, nor can I agree with the idea that Weight Watchers is bad. If people feel dissatisfied with their size, and wish to be thinner and/or healthier, Weight Watchers allows them to work toward their goals with the support of a community, and the guidelines of professionals. This is not a bad thing. That said, regardless of how unhealthy someone is making themselves through whatever means they may be using, they are human beings who are entitled to love and respect, and help, if they aren’t taking care of themselves. They shouldn’t be considered less worthy than anyone else, even if they aren’t treating themselves as very worthy.

    • missmarymax / Aug 11 2011 5:00 pm

      There is a lot that you’ve said here that I agree with. I agree for instance, that it’s important that we respect ourselves and each other, that it’s important that we work to make the best choices for us, and that we deserve to be treated well even when we fail at this. I also respect you, more than I can express, for working to untangle what you believe from what you’ve been taught, through shaming and mistreatment. I know on a very personal level how difficult that task is, and how frustrating it is not to always be in charge of your own thoughts, or to be able to identify which thoughts are yours and which thoughts are best left with the people who instilled them.

      You note that healthy is a problem when it’s a vestige for skinny, and suggest that linking health to choice makes it possible for cancer patients to be seen as healthy. What I don’t understand is how seeing a cancer patient as healthy is useful. They’re sick. They have a life-threatening illness. The only reason I can think of to call them “healthy” is because we think of healthy — more and more — as synonomous with “good.” And it’s true that someone with cancer is still good. But I do believe that needs to remain separate from their being healthy.

      Because I agree with you that healthy self-care is important, I want to challenge a few of the notions I hear you express about what that is. It is so, so difficult for any of us to trust this (even if we don’t have a history of body-shaming, eating disorders, etc), but our sense that a morbidly obese person is killing themselves slowly and that weight loss will improve their health is simply not supported by science. The body mass index — or BMI — which we use to categorize people as obese, overweight, average, or underweight was originally developed by a statistician, who studied only white men, and who did not account for how these categories actually correlate with health. (His tool was then adopted by doctors and generalized to a much larger population than it applied). While our common-sense understanding is that average weight is best, health-wise, the reality is much more complicated. Weight itself shows very little correlation to health, particularly in studies not sponsored by the diet industry. (Which sounds jaded, but is so, so true). What does matter are behaviors like you’re talking about — moving around, eating well, etc. Those are the behaviors that we actually understand, currently, to correlate with a reduced risk of heart disease, a reduced risk of diabetes, and so forth. Sometimes partaking in those behaviors and reducing that risk also results in weight loss. Sometimes it changes weight distribution. Sometimes it doesn’t do either. But because the behaviors matter far, far more than the weight — fat people, even very fat people, can be healthy. Just as thin people can be sick.

      Of course, your ultimate opinion is yours to decide. But as you — like the rest of us — have taken in so much information from the fat = unhealthy side (whether that’s from the nightly news, or your old health textbook, or your friends and family), I really, really recommend taking a look at Health at Every Size, to see how your perspective might change with different information. There’s a great blog on this — — and Kate Harding does a great job introducing it as well: I recommend these things not because I want to change how you think, but because this way of thinking has drastically improved my life — my health, included. And if we’re going to be making good, healthy choices, we have a right that those choices be well-informed. Best to you.


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