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.