Is 'healthy' a bad word now?
Our conversations about bodies are a little broken. We can fix it.
Note: Contains discussion of disordered eating behaviors.
I got a newsletter recently with the title: “If My Daughter Wanted to ‘Eat Healthier,’ I Would Respond Like She Wanted to Smoke Cigarettes.”
With such statements, I fear our discourse about bodies is veering off the rails.
How we discuss bodies is colored by collective brokenness—we’re all so wounded from our history with a thinness-obsessed culture that we seem unable to talk about “health” without assuming that every body-related venture is a starvation diet or risky weight loss attempt in disguise. “Eating healthier” has become a harbinger of bodily misfortune because many of us have starved, exercised, pilled, and calorie counted our sanity away in the name of “health,” which really just meant getting thinner.
But we can broaden and deepen what “healthy” means for each of us without summarily punting it into the trashcan of Words That Aren’t OK Anymore.
I’ve explored a bit on Instagram about why terms like “healthy,” “fitness,” and “diet culture” are meaningless without context, specificity, and nuance—I agree that “eat healthy” often means “eat for weight loss.” I get that the mom in the newsletter is likely reacting to that presupposition, and imagining her daughter embarking on a starvation diet or drinking weight loss teas.
The idea that “eat healthier” is a “big red flag,” as the speaker goes on to say, only perpetuates the notion that “healthy” always and necessarily means “essentially a restrictive eating disorder.”
I know why people feel this way. I’ve written that as body talk shifts from, “Thin is in!” to, “The constant pursuit of thinness as an aesthetic and moralistic ideal sucks, and everyone’s body should be respected,” (this is a good thing) we’re on high alert for any thinness-prioritizing behaviors. We’ve become so hypervigilant about dangerous diets and sketchy weight loss efforts that in our haste to beat them back, we seem to forget that there are some “healthy” things our kids—and any of us—might want to do that aren’t actually “bad” for them.
My personal well-being involved learning how to eat less sometimes because I had binge eating disorder, which is three times more common than anorexia and bulimia combined. It’s interesting that there’s such growing fear and condemnation of any eating habits that have even a whiff of “restriction,” but we aren’t much on the lookout for signs of the most pervasive one of all.
At some point in dealing with binging I thought, and probably said, “I want to eat/get healthier.” It wasn’t about dieting, it was about stopping self-abuse with food. I wanted to stop eating 3,000 calories in a sitting to the point where I could hardly breathe. I had to learn how to truly enjoy my food and figure out how much I really wanted to eat—which was not, in fact, six or seven slices of pizza in 10 minutes.
My issues began when I was a teenager. I didn’t identify them as an eating disorder then; I didn’t know the term for what I was doing. I wonder if today’s teens could, given how much online information exists about eating disorders, for better or worse. I don’t rule out that my imaginary future kid could come to me with this issue and say they want to stop, they want to “eat healthier,” they want to treat their body better, whatever “better” means to them.
Also in the newsletter, a dietitian is quoted as saying: “Teens have the ability to know how much they need to eat [...] When we model that we trust our children to listen to their bodies, that they are in charge of their bodies, it also models consent.”
If we can trust teens to know what’s right for them, we can trust that they may want to “eat healthier” and actually mean, “eat in accordance with a safe, sane definition of my own personal health.” We can help them get there, but maybe we don’t always know how. Maybe we’ve not yet found our middle ground between “starve yourself to be skinny” and “indulge in all you want of anything you want, any time.” Some people follow the latter, but that doesn’t work for me, just as starvation diets don’t; I’ve written before: “...giving in to these cravings absolutely any time I have them isn’t what I want for myself, because for too long food ruled my life in the sense that I’d immediately eat what I craved plus a dozen other things anytime I felt emotionally overwhelmed, which was almost all the time.”
I’m drilling down on this newsletter because I’ve struggled with food my entire life and wonder how I’d tackle these issues with my own potential kid one day, so I was left with questions. If my daughter said “I want to eat healthier,” wouldn’t I ask her what she meant by that? Wouldn’t I want to hear what her idea of “healthy” is, and find ways to help her get there?
Wouldn’t I help her to do what I think all of us should do—define “healthy” for ourselves based on our well-being, goals, lifestyles, health conditions, etc.—rather than responding like she wanted to smoke cigarettes, which I suppose means clutching my pearls and hissing “absolutely fucking not”? I want to keep my cool when my kid says something that might worry me, which I’ve been led to believe happens something like every hour on the hour.
My kid might say she wants to “eat healthier” or go on a diet. She might say she wants to lose weight or exercise more. If “healthy” food is considered “bad,” the desire to change your body is considered “wrong,” and we say things like “eat less and exercise more is also a fad diet,” I can imagine my child feeling how I’ve felt—my body and choices were “wrong” when I was bigger and ate in an “unhealthy” way, and my body and choices are “wrong” now that I’m smaller and eat in a “healthy” way. “Healthy” food, wanting to lose weight, or eating less and exercising more can absolutely be harbingers of bodily misfortune—or they could not be. We need the sense to tell the difference.
We need to understand that we know very little about other people’s “health.” We need to recognize bodily autonomy and know that people might change their bodies, and that’s not a statement about any bodies but their own. We need to consider being less reactive and more reflective about bodies—with our kids or anyone else. That’s the only way anyone’s going to want to participate in the conversation.