The Problem With Health
Have you seen this diagram before? It’s got ‘energy balance’ in the centre and the arrows link terms that ‘explain’ energy balance. These are grouped into categories as shown, such as individual psychology, biology.
According to these experts, some of the factors that significantly impact energy balance are (apparently) female employment, rate of eating, and demand for health. The whole thing is nonsense: expertly derived, expensive, dangerous nonsense.
Although female employment predictably (and bizarrely?) gets a mention, there is no mention of structural factors like sexism, zero hours contracts or trauma. Even if these terms did appear, it would still be inherently flawed. For the term ‘energy balance’ is a decoy for fatness, where fatness is implicitly and unquestionably deemed
- in need of explanation
- synonymous with poor health
- modifiable and in need of modifying (“treatment and prevention”)
These beliefs emerge within and sustain a Delusional Neoliberal Apparatus. The whole project is predicated on the assumption that fatness needs fixing – talking about ‘energy balance’ as time-out from fat stigma shows an extraordinary level of cluelessness. A society that wants wellbeing for all simply wouldn’t be studying fatness as if fat people needed treating for something. Yes, some fat people struggle, so do some thin people. We would offer everybody support with eating struggles, self-worth, body respect, accessibility, in ways that recognise the links between personal experience and social, cultural, economic realities.
However much we wish for it, radical self acceptance can be hard. Here’s some worked examples untangling weight and wellbeing as a reminder.
‘You can be fat and healthy’ and ‘you can thin and unhealthy’ are both true. Gaining new understandings of the links between weight and wellbeing is often an important step in uncovering fat stigma. These new beliefs can help reduce body shame and improve self-care. However, they can still tie us to ‘health’ as an unhelpful idea. They miss the point that some people will never be healthy. They locate ‘health’ in individual bodies, not social action. They keep us justifying fat (and other) lives in a vocabulary stuck in an old discussion.
In many instances, we can open things up by reframing ‘how can we be healthy?’ to ‘how can we live well?’ Long version “how can we live well, now, all ways?”
Social Factors and Wellbeing
Conventional public health messages advice people to cut down on salt. Do you know why – is it for blood pressure, diabetes, or gut problems?
The answer is blood pressure, and hence also heart health. (The link is arteries: high blood pressure can damage the blood vessels or arteries. Damaged arteries are more prone to develop plaques. If a piece of plaque comes free it can prevent the free flow of blood to the arteries leading to the heart. This can cause heart disease.) The way ‘reduce salt’ messages are presented makes it seem like there is unshakable evidence behind the advice, which isn’t the case.
First, there isn’t strong evidence to support population salt reduction as safe or effective for blood pressure control. Second, even if there was, dietary profile has hardly any impact on the incidence of high blood pressure in a population.
If not salt, then what? Can you come up with factors that could influence high blood pressure and heart health in a population. Think about conventional factors i.e. listed in public health leaflets, and social and historical factors.
Why are some people more affected than others? Why are some groups in a population more affected than others?
How much difference would dietary change alone through a low salt intake and more fruit and vegetables make to social class differences in heart disease?
If someone in a violent relationship has high blood pressure and cuts salt from their diet, what impact do you think this will have on their blood pressure?
I was going to write a glossary of a of the few words I’ve been using to describe belief systems (ideologies) aren’t typically found in nutrition. I started with healthism. It turned into a mini-essay so I will stop here for this week, more to follow – probably shorter!
Physical Activity Timeline
Does being active come easy to you, or is complicated? There are many reasons why people can reach adulthood viewing being active as a duty, something unpleasant, or even a punishment. Mainstream public health messaging doesn’t help: we’re often presented with exercise as a moral obligation to be endured for Health. The implication is that being physically active is straightforward, and of course this isn’t always true. Practical and emotional factors including mobility, disability, time, safety, cost, self-worth and self-consciousness interact to impact our activity levels.
The suggestion here is to draw a timeline where you consider how active you have been throughout different stages of your life. It can be interesting to make links between what is happening in your life that may have impacted your mobility and/or activity levels.
- body ease (feeling safe enough to be embodied while living with trauma)
Some words that I’ve found helpful trying to explain my experience of lack of body ease to myself are dislocation, alienation, agitation, “white noise”, confusion. It was like I just couldn’t get comfortable in my own skin. Shame was huge. So huge and all-encompassing I wasn’t aware of it for a very long time.
This particular feeling of not wanting to, or not being able to, rest in my body had nothing to do with the ‘image’ I had of my body, as implied by the popular use of the term body image. It had everything to do with trauma, (lack of) self-worth, and figuring out identity. On which note (identity), I found it really helpful to read lists of vocabulary related to whatever it was I was trying to figure out. Having more words at my fingers tips helped me organise ideas.
- What feelings/responses do you have when thinking about respecting your body?
- What feelings/responses do you have when thinking about loving your body?
- Is it helpful to think of ‘your body’, which seems to imply that we are not one and the same thing as our body. If so, what is more helpful phrasing?
- Are there any times when you feel more at home in your body than other times, or when it feels easier for you to be at home in your body.
- What can/do you do that helps you to feel more comfortable being in your own skin?
And, lastly for these questions, if you have art materials to hand, can you set aside time in the week to explore “how will it (or does it) feel to be at peace in your body”? Or maybe you can dance the answer, or find some other way of expressing yourself.
Radical Body Love
So, having said I use ‘body respect’ to signal social accountability, I’m now going to share an example of work from a transformational leader and activist who talks about radical self love as the route to collective liberation!
She’s called Sonya Renee Taylor, and founded the digital organisation The Body Is Not An Apology and wrote a book by the same name.
Many Ways of Knowing and Pleasure
“And who asks the question: Am I altering your aura, your ideas, your dreams, or am I merely moving you to temporary and reactive action?” Audre Lorde
Western norms value the intellect and reasoning as key to knowledge creation and devalue other ways of knowing. This assumes that our cognition can be separated from the body, and that our rational thoughts exist independently of non-rational influence. Which is all bunkum.
However, even though these beliefs are disproven within the framework (reductionism) that created them, they go deep in our cultural fabric. As a result, non-rational ways of knowing get ignored and ridiculed.
If we are already feeling at odds with our body, struggling to make sense of our experiences because of trauma, and living with corrosive shame, it can be super hard to turn inwards to meet ourselves, or to take any form of embodied knowing seriously.
Exploring body awareness, deep connection, and pleasure, can help us access a range and depth of knowledges that compliment and interconnect with the intellect in ways that support us to engage with the world from sense of worthiness and wholeness.
If we have lived at some distance from our body because of terror, shame, fear, self-loathing, working with body awareness can help us learn how we call it home. It can let us explore our body as a place of pleasure, knowledge, safety.
Self-compassion is a star player. You may already have uncovered how responding to yourself with kindness has enabled change. Imagine if you could tap into other new knowledge that can help support you in your journey? This is where body awareness comes in.
As activist, poet and intellectual Audre Lorde says (summarised here), being in touch with the totality of our knowing, including the erotic, helps us access power. Writing for black women she says “As women, we have come to distrust that power which rises from our deepest and nonrational knowledge…But the erotic offers a well of replenishing and provocative force to the woman who does not fear its revelation, nor succumb to the belief that sensation is enough”.
Some people find it second-nature to rely on body knowledge. They know when they are hungry. They can identify their emotions. If they are feeling out-of-sorts they know what to do to feel better. They talk about ‘just knowing’ something was right for them. They cross the road because they don’t feel safe. It may never have occurred to them to plan to ‘check in’ with their body because it’s something they do that they simply take for granted. It may come as news to them that other people find it difficult to work out what they are feeling or struggle to read the emotional charge of a situation. Someone who is able to use body awareness has a lot more useful knowledge to guide them in making wise choices than someone without access to body awareness. It’s similar to making choices with the knowledge of self-compassion or without the knowledge of self-compassion. You’re the same person sensing things differently because of the knowledge you can bring to bear.
Body awareness gives us access to information that helps us streamline our actions and values (called congruence). Another way of saying this is that we experience a sense of agency. Agency means a sense of feeling able to choose how we act. At a deep level we feel safer, which enables us to be more open to connection.
Body awareness compliments things I’ve mentioned so far, like realistic fitness, tuning in (think of the vocab sheets), using the senses and mindfulness which are all relevant to wellbeing and vitality. Even so, they don’t capture everything that our physicality has to offer.
Body awareness doesn’t have a step-by-step guide. Some of what we understand this way can be hard to put into words. Creativity and stillness can help us express and know things without words. Letting go of grammar rules can help too.
Beyond the story that the body should be treated as a stand-alone machine to be fixed, measured, fed, watered, exercised, slept, and fled from we can experiment with all this below. You might know some of this experience, some (still) only from intellect:
~ pleasure in physicality, laughter, touch (a hug, a head rub, stroking the cat, holding a baby, sex), sensuality, sexuality, smelling the flowers, feeling the cool, shamanism, tacit awareness (‘gut instinct’, collective knowledge, ‘gaydar’), faith, the aesthetic, connection with non-human nature, energy work, lineage, musicality, the erotic, body memory, body work, being changed in conversation, ancestral wisdom, guided meditations e.g. compassion and gratitude, ceremonies, hearing/performing spoken word poetry, theatre, dance, spirituality, visual art, ritual, prayer, chanting, singing, drumming ~
. . .and more! When we find room for the non-rational in our lives, we move away from the rigid, binary thinking and certainties that underpin thought habits tied to self-blame, stereotype and stigma.
It can be scary to follow the pleasure because of our histories, because of taboo, and because it can come at the cost of professionally credibility if we are in healthcare (in which case, friends, we must simply opt for being incredible). Maybe we are nervous about what we will find there too. Following the pleasure, in a deep sense, means reclaiming our bodies and identities, opening to connection, insisting we act in alignment with our values.
A liberatory approach to personal-collective healing will not tell you what, how or when to think or eat or speak or feel or do or not do but it will help you towards a sense of authentic connection with yourself and others that permits loves’ work, or the practice of freedom. I hope you find some of that in these musings.
A Reminder to Go Gently
This lesson introduces topics that can take us to vulnerable places, perhaps more so than previous lessons. Please, go gently. There’s no level of acceptance, comfort, or understanding you ‘should’ be at with any of this. That’s white supremacy’s comparison and point scoring habits tripping us up.
The most important thing for learning and healing is that you feel safe enough, connected enough, to explore your beliefs and be with your feelings. This means being able to engage, and this means pacing yourself. Don’t worry about doing everything that’s suggested, amount doesn’t matter. Skip areas that feel not just challenging, but unsafe. It’s more important that you can be present with whatever you do, even for a short time and even for a tiny amount.
Have you got plans for relishing and cherishing? Whatever that means for you, I hope you get chance to follow the pleasure.
See you soon ~