Healthy Weight Week: I’m not sure we all agree on what that means
Like many of you probably do, I receive NAAFA’s email newsletter, and I was interested to read in this week’s that January 16th-21st is Healthy Weight Week.
The phrase “healthy weight” has been used so often in my life as a synonym for “thin” that I was really leery when I first saw this. In fact, to be honest, even after finding out that this is a body-positive event, I’m still a bit confused as to why they chose a title that is so fraught with body-obsession and diet mentality.
Here’s what the week is technically about (according to NAAFA’s email):
The 18th annual Healthy Weight Week is a time to celebrate healthy diet-free living habits that last a lifetime and prevent eating problems. Our bodies cannot be shaped at will. But we can all be accepting, healthy and happy at our natural weights.
Respecting size diversity makes sound scientific sense. Research at the CDC shows the “healthiest” weight (the weight at which people live the longest) is in a broad range from a body mass index of 22 up to 40.
The 18th annual celebration is January 16-22, 2011, and includes the following highlights:
Tuesday, January 18: Rid the world of Fad Diets & Gimmicks Day (22nd annual)
Thursday, January 20: Women’s Healthy Weight Day (18th annual)
Healthy Weight Week promotes a lasting, healthy, diet-free lifestyle for people of all sizes.
So some of this language is a little concerning to me. For one thing, I think it is important for people to know that the BMI range with the lowest mortality rate is wider (and heavier) than what most of us think. But, highlighting 22-40 seems to do a disservice to folks who are above that. I say this as someone with a BMI of 39.9 (I just checked it, to see where I fit on that range). What happens if I gain 10 pounds, putting me at 40.5? Am I somehow magically way less healthy? The truth is, from what I’ve read by Campos and others, there is a range with the lowest mortality, but it still hardly differs from those with BMI’s lower and higher than that range. In fact, there is a bigger difference in mortality rate based on handedness (with right-handed folks having lower mortality) than between any weights! So I guess I’m just worried that this line of thinking—talking about the “healthiest” range without mentioning that there’s very little difference beyond that range—will still stigmatize those whose BMI’s are higher than the magic number. What they are doing is raising the magic number. What I am saying is there shouldn’t be a magic number.
The second thing that worries me is the focus of the two days. One is to get rid of fad diets. Well, the thing with that is that most people, even ardent dieters, will agree with that. Companies like Weight Watchers have so thoroughly co-opted the language of “it’s not a diet” and “it’s a lifestyle change” that unsavvy consumers literally can’t tell the difference anymore between a fad diet* and healthy diet**. So the most fatphobic, body-hating person can still agree that “fad diets” need to go, but still be totally cool with unhealthy and miserable restrictive dieting with a goal of weight loss. And the second day comes right back to the problematic “healthy weight” phrase. Again, the most ardent dieter can get right on board with a “women’s healthy weight day.” She doesn’t mean it the way the people running the event do, because for her, “healthy weight” equals “being thin” and therefore healthy weight day is about identifying what her healthy weight “should” be and figuring out a program of food, exercise, pills, and/or surgery to get there. So what does it even mean if a fatphobic person can get on board with this, and we just mean different things by the same phrase?
Can we really use the language of fatphobia to effect cultural change? Is it enough for us to claim that all it takes is giving new meaning to these familiar phrases? That even if everyone else means “thin” by “healthy weight” it doesn’t matter, we can have a “healthy weight week” and we can make it what we want it to mean, dammit! Like all it takes is sheer willpower***, or something?
* here I define “fad diet” synonymously with “diet” in the sense of an external eating plan that restricts calories and/or types of food. I believe all diets of this type are “fads” in the sense that none of them represent the way that any cultural group have typically eaten for any extended period of time. Their popularity always ebbs and flows with whatever the latest trend it (often supported by shoddy research) and because the diet industry itself is designed to keep us trying new and different diets periodically throughout our life since none of these diets actually work (i.e. make us thin).
** here I’m defining “diet” as just the description of what we eat. “Healthy diet,” then, is a diet that is body-trusting, food-positive, enjoyable, filling, nutritious, and whatever else YOU, the eater, determine that to be.
*** “willpower,” another favorite buzzword of the dieters in my life.