Breaking the connection between “thin” and “healthy”

The first time in my adult life that I lost a lot of weight and became extremely thin happened when I was 18 and I was in my first year of college.  I was infatuated with a boy I was dating, who happened to still be in love with his girlfriend from high school.  It didn’t quite occur to me that this was a less-than-ideal arrangement, and I thought I could just wait it out and one day he’d be ready to be in love with me.

During those months, I found that I had a really hard time eating, especially when I was around him.  I would choke down a quarter of a club sandwich and half a pickle, then excuse myself to go to the bathroom so I could puke it right back up.  It wasn’t that I thought I needed to be thinner for him to love me or something like that; my stomach just refused to accept the food.  I realized, after we broke up and my appetite returned, that this was my body’s way of coping with anxiety.

The second time took place when I was in my early 20s, and I had become immersed in Florida’s omnipresent drug culture.  I’d been a pothead for a few years but then we moved to Florida and I quickly learned that the opportunities for chemical alteration were limited only by my imagination and the depths of my recklessness.  By the time I was 24, I was basically a less-pathetic Cat Marnell (and that’s only because I refused to do things like smoke angel dust).   Entire three-day weekends would pass in which I ingested no actual food, because who needed food when you were high?

I remember once going to get my hair done one Saturday morning after a night of partying – and by the way, has there ever been a sadder euphemism for drug use than “partying”? – and when I stood up to walk across the salon so I could get my hair washed, I blacked out.  I blacked out a lot in those days.

Plus, my personal life was utterly chaotic at the time, and my body dealt with the anxiety the same way it had before: by destroying my appetite.  So even when I was sober, I couldn’t force myself to eat.

In retrospect, at both times in my life, I was clearly in some deep shit.  My vertebrae stuck out so far that when I’d get out of one of my epic three-hour-long baths, I’d actually have raw spots that sometimes scabbed over.  My skin was sallow with dark under-eye circles, hair falling out everywhere.  Just an utter mess.

And yet only once did anyone express concern for me and my health.  One time, out of all of those years, did anyone say anything, and that was my dad.  My dad came to visit me at college while I was in the midst of my unintentional bulimia, and when he hugged me, he must have felt all the sharp angles through my baggy sweater, because he asked if I was okay and if I was eating properly.

That was it.  That was the only time anyone ever said anything to me about my obviously unhealthy weight loss.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in recent days, with the latest spate of research coming out showing that being fat isn’t necessarily the indicator of poor health that so much of the establishment has said it is.  How this false equivalence means people who live healthy lifestyles but are not thin are shamed and humiliated, while people like me, who abuse our bodies terribly, are given a pass because our bad habits manifested themselves in weight loss. How self-destructive behaviors are overlooked if they lead to thinness. How putting so much emphasis on weight loss means people are discouraged by their attempts at healthy living when the scale doesn’t budge, and in the process losing out on all of the crucial benefits that come along with a healthier lifestyle.

It’s never been all that hard for me to accept the idea that “thin” doesn’t necessarily mean “healthy” because I saw how this equation failed to hold true in my own life.  Consequently it’s also not difficult for me to accept that someone can be fat and healthy.  Of course, a person can be thin and healthy and fat and unhealthy, but the common thread here is not the person’s weight – it’s their habits and their lifestyles (and in the case of many, whether they have underlying health conditions).

But when we accept the dominant paradigm that says “fat=unhealthy” then it means “thin=healthy,” which means that others would have perceived me, with bony bod and my cigarettes and my pills and my powders, as healthier than a fat person who does triathlons and eats lots of fresh vegetables.  This is a fatally flawed concept of health, and I’m hopeful that as more research comes out and more people share their stories, that this way of thinking will soon be a thing of the past.

24 responses to “Breaking the connection between “thin” and “healthy”

  1. There is also a really troubling connection of getting all up in people’s health-business once their bodies are no longer thin. Can a person be fat and unhealthy? Sure, it happens. And it is business that is between them, their doctor, and their family (if they choose to involve others at all).

    I feel you on the connection between thinness and health having been broken a long time ago for me. As someone who is in recovery for an eating disorder (and as someone who has released recently), I know full well that the times that people have nothing but good things to say about my body is often when I’m relapsing. Which is awesome – thank you, I’m glad that my lifelong battle with anorexia makes people think that i look CUTE.

    • Good point about people getting up in your shit about your health, like it’s their business. And also, I question the idea that “healthiness” is the standard by which people should be judged. Like, if someone is sick or unhealthy, they are suddenly not deserving of respect or something.

      I’m sorry to hear that you’ve relapsed recently. I know you’ve struggled with your ED for as long as I’ve known you, and I’m sad to hear that this has happened.

  2. Yes! I have been spending time in the same thoughts lately. I was once very thin in my early 20s, due to my own drinking and drug use/abuse. No one ever asked if I was ok or where the weight went… no questions on what I was doing to lose it all (basically not eating between hangovers; getting messed up to cure those hangovers). And now I’m significantly heavier… people are regularly telling me that I need to “watch my weight” because it’s not healthy. It is such a fucked up culture of health fads right now where thin always = healthy. Sad. I’m much healthier now than I ever was back in my thin days.

    • Hey, congrats on getting away from drugs and drinking, and boo to the people telling you to watch your weight. How about they mind their own business?

  3. Amen. The last time I lost a lot of weight was because I was stuck in a relationship that made me miserable. But my doctor LOVED it. Studying public health I’ve learned that weight loss is pushed heavily as a desired end goal less because thin=healthy but more because people wont exercise and eat well just to be healthy, but they will for vanity reasons. (Just like people wont quit smoking if you tell them it causes cancer, but they will if it makes them a social outcast.) This is used as propaganda, but unfortunately it’s reached the point where people don’t recognize it as such. I personally feel that the “obesity epidemic” is unhealthily focused on fat when the real problem is an unhealthy lifestyle enforced by poverty, grain/soy subsidies, fast food etc. The problem is not fat people. Thin people struggle with this shit too. And if the government really wants to fix these issues serious policy reform and funding for healthy community initiatives is needed.

    • I LOVE IT WHEN YOU DROP PUBLIC HEALTH THEORY LIKE THIS. Also, I am fascinated by the fact that they started this whole equation of thinness and health to appeal to people’s vanity. The ironic thing is that it’s been my experience that when a person is doing healthy things just to look better, it’s way less likely to stick than when they do it to feel better.

      I agree with your overall point, that the problems with health outcomes in this country are systematic and need to be addressed at a fundamental level. This was something I liked about “The Weight of the Nation” – that they made these larger points about class inequality and access and subsidies. Any attempt to successfully address the nation’s health issues has to take these things into consideration, because it’s not as simple as “people are lazy” (which is just so unfair and cruel and not even accurate!)

  4. Reblogged this on Fatty Got a Fitness Blog and commented:
    I find so many parallels between my way of thinking and this blogger’s so I’m constantly in love with her posts. This one I find especially influential! It’s so true and awesome to see her sharing her story for others to learn from.

  5. You should check this out, I think you’ll like it. Not only does thinness not always correlate with “healthy”, but fitness doesn’t always either.

    Click to access Athletes-Fit-But-Unhealthy.pdf

    This really hit home with me because I know so many highly competitive athletes that are always pushing through injuries and killing themselves maintain their training schedules… hard to find a healthy balance. Great post!

  6. Great post, and I’m glad you’re doing so much better. I’ve thought about this a lot lately, because I gained a bunch of weight, despite exercising all the time (when I exercise, I eat). So I’ll add my story, in case it helps anyone. Awhile back, I was really upset after getting weighed for a medical test, because the number on the scale was much, much higher than usual, even though my clothing was just moderately tight on me. This really freaked me out, so I dieted to the extent of being pretty much anorexic for a couple weeks – and lost a fairly large portion of my new weight. That’s when I was thinking of my weight only in terms of how I looked, and whether I fit my clothes as well as I used to.

    I eventually snapped out of that mindset in a martial arts class, when I gave my sparring partner way more trouble than she expected (even though I hadn’t eaten much that day). She made some joke about me weighing 5,000 lbs, cause I was so strong. And this was actually flattering for me, because I wasn’t at all strong when I was at my “normal” weight. So yeah, sports are saving my sanity, and I’m better at them for having gained a bit of weight.

  7. This always makes me think of models, who are often what I call “skinny-fat”. Sure, they’re slim and seem to be healthy, but most of the time they keep themselves slim with cigarettes, not eating or purging, and/or drugs. So the skinny model probably has more health problems than someone who is exercises on a regular basis but is considered “overweight”
    I would rather be strong and healthy than just skinny.

    Thank you for sharing your story.

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  9. Thanks – good points. I had Graves Disease for not quite two years, and was recently treated. I lost a LOT of weight, and wasn’t big to begin with (went from 106 lbs to 83 at my lowest). I had a BMI of 15.1 and I looked TERRIBLE. My eyes were puffy, my hair was brittle and falling out, my skin was dry and sallow – you name it. I looked bad. But strangers would constantly stop me public to comment on how thin I was, and express their admiration (?!) They would sometimes even touch my arm or ribs, as if it were somehow ok to touch a very skinny person, when it wouldn’t be okay to do so with a normal or overweight person.

    It blew my mind that people would point-blank ask me, “how do you stay so thin?” Before I was diagnosed, I truly didn’t know what was wrong with me and I’d just have make some up some kind of general, noncomittal response like “hah, hah, don’t know, this is just me” etc. Now wish I could go back in time and curtly respond “I’m sick. That’s why.” Did it not occur to any of this people that there could be something really wrong with me? And that my thinness was not health or desirable, and anyone who took a good look at me would have been able to tell that I did not look vibrant or healthy.

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  12. Another high five from a reader who just stumbled here. I can’t remember who it was who said :health is something you go through on the way to fitness” — meaning that sometimes you come out on the other side. I was a spectacle when I was in bodybuilding contest training (we’re going back to 1985) but I managed to burn myself out pretty well, and thanks for mentioning that people can be, in effect, bulimic without deliberation, just from anxiety and strain, because I’ve been there too. I don’t think any power on earth would ever make me as thin as you became, but I got pretty tottery for a while, and ironically the effort of losing weight for competition, training night and day and never having any downtime, actually helped trigger the reaction.

    These days I speedwalk and pump heavy iron and do wrestling-style calisthenics because I love it — it was tremendously liberating to say that physique competition was a good way to get sick, at least for me. I range from lean-muscular to chunky-muscular depending on the way I train and how much yard work I have to do — meaning a variation between about size 12 and size 14, which I am amazed to learn is a “plus size” now.

    At nearly sixty — let me emphasize, nearly sixty, meaning you can exercise all-out for decades without your knees or ovaries falling out — I’ve watched in mystification as something called a size 0 came into existence and suddenly anyone who was bigger than that was “fat.” Yes, there is such a thing as too fat for health, obviously — I’ve helped a couple of borderline diabetics train and diet their way out of the danger zone — but there is too thin for health, too, and some people will never be fashionably thin without actually ruining their health in the attempt. Being able to run joyously or pick up the odd boulder is so much more worthy of a goal.

    • Thank you so much for this great comment! I’m so glad to hear that you have been able to find a good balance in your life when it comes to your health and physical fitness. I’ve often marveled at the dichotomy of bodybuildng/physique competitions, how the appearance is of superhuman strength and wellness, but the steps taken to get there are anything but healthy. But then it falls right in line with a lot of the other thinking about health and fitness in our culture, which is that appearance is the most important thing and everything else is secondary.

      Thanks again for commenting!

      • I think for me the Bridge Too Far was when I realized that”natural” bodybuilding is a myth and that anyone who placed in even regional competitions was juicing. The whole thing began to seem utterly wrong despite the many things it got right.

        I’m just cuing up a couple of your other categories: “Fitness Industry Fails” is a great phrase, and boy have I laid that same rap on people about the abductor/adductor machine. The adductor movement is good for therapy in various cases though (it always adjusts my lumbosacral joint and is proving to be useful rehab for a subluxated hip). Looking forward to some good reads.

  13. I definitely sympathize– with you, and with several of the comments here. The first and only time I lost a dramatic amount of weight in my life was following a stomach infection, preceding my IBS diagnosis, during six truly terrible months when I could not keep food in. What appalled me was how people responded– how often people asked me for “my secret” and “what diet” I’d been following. It’s called the Irritable Bowel diet… follow every meal with physical misery… I’m sure they’d love to try it.

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