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January 18, 2011 / Katie

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?

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* 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.

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5 Comments

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  1. Ashley Pariseau / Jan 18 2011 9:36 am

    You make some good points. You forgot to mention that it also does a disservice to those below 22 as well. I can understand the statistics of certain ranges having higer mortality rates, but you can only take that so seriously.

    And I completely agree with you on how ignorant people are in telling the difference between a fad diet and programs like WW who essentially are a fad diet but they dress it up not to be. It’s so funny. I mean, how hard is it to aknowledge the difference between a restricting fad diet and just eating balanced and nutritious meals? Our bodies require a certain amount of vitamins and nutrients every day, and if you are on any kind of plan that says you should be eating anything less than that, it’s a diet. Call it what they will but a diet is a diet no matter how you decorate it.

  2. the fat nutritionist / Jan 18 2011 10:19 am

    There previously was a “Healthy Weight Journal” that was then changed to “Health at Every Size.” I DO think it was an attempt to co-opt the phrase for good instead of evil. The wording an the concept might be a bit out of step at this point, but earlier on, it might also have been the only way to get a hearing at all, to use the language that people were already familiar with, even if it was code for weight loss.

    Frances Berg wrote a couple of HAES books (Women Afraid to Eat, etc.) in the 90s, and they are good, but as you mentioned, there is still talk about what weights carry the highest risk, what type of eating is healthiest, etc. But, again, I think at the time, this was pretty radical stuff, especially given that Berg is a nutritionist and was trying to insert this stuff into the health care community, not just the radical FA community. So maybe some compromises were made that would make FA folks uncomfortable now.

    Good critique, though, especially about “fat diets” vs. stuff like Weight Watchers. I think food restriction itself, aka “dieting”, is a problem — whether or not it takes on elements of faddishness or severe imbalance. Even the most conservative, nutritionally-endorsed diet plan, like WW, is still restrained eating, which is not healthy eating. I think this point deserves to be made more often, and more strongly.

  3. Mulberry / Jan 18 2011 8:08 pm

    You might also mention that even if these statistics are true for populations, that doesn’t make them applicable to individuals in more than a general way. What’s more important than being in a certain weight range is how you got there relative to your setpoint. And that’s just different for different people.

  4. Patsy Nevins / Jan 19 2011 4:20 pm

    I agree with everything you wrote & have long had big issues with using the term ‘healthy weight’. It does still to me imply that some weight are better than others & smacks of an ‘it’s okay to be a little fat but not TOO fat’ belief system. To me, the healthy weight for your body is whatever it weighs & whether or not you are ‘healthy’ is very changeable, subjective, & usually not terribly related to weight. I also do not like anyone, fat positive or not, presuming to tell me how I should be living in my body.

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