Weight-Neutral Wellness Coach in a Thin-Obsessed Culture
Today, I would like to share my thoughts about being a weight-neutral wellness coach in a thin-obsessed culture.
Without taking us through a historical review of culturally acceptable body image trends over the last couple centuries, suffice it to say that at one time a more voluptuous figure was en vogue. The rounded bellies and ample curves of the models of the Renaissance artists were the thing, dare I say, typical bodies of folks. Fast forward to about the 1920’s (the Cigarette Diet–look it up!) when things like appetite suppressants and smaller frames of the urbanized upper class (think Zelda Fitzgerald and the flapper look) became fashionable and an entire industry based on losing weight started to become popular. Health was not the reason–no one could say smoking instead of eating was healthy–it was purely for aesthetics. Read that again: the desire for smaller bodies was not based on health.
Several diet trends later, in the 1950s, some doctors and insurance companies started using the BMI as a standard to help with insurance underwriting. And just like that health was now tied to a (very arbitrary and inaccurate) size. And like all things in the Western World, the standards were based on and set by white men so there is a decidedly Eurocentric/colonial influence here. More on that another time…
Now in the past 60 years or so, dieting and health have been inextricably linked and learned about simultaneously, both implicitly and explicitly. Only in about the last 25 years have reputable, sound studies been conducted enough to determine one thing: size is not an accurate determinant for health status. This is hard to swallow for a lot. We are so conditioned to fight this “war on obesity”; we are taught that being in a larger body is quite literally a death sentence of sorts- (hello, fat shaming and weight stigma!)-with preventable diseases like diabetes (type 2), hypertension, and heart disease looming to attack at any time. But alas, science has not borne this out–not even a little bit.
What science has learned is that weight, exercise, willpower, and diet is about 1/4 of the health equation. The other 3/4 is comprised of things like environment, genetics, stress, trauma, income, access to nutrition and healthcare, education, stress, sleep and job status to name a few factors. Diet culture, however, places a moral judgement on bodies based on size and then equates that body size to the moral turpitude of the person. The current healthcare system is set up to support this culture because they are two sides of the same coin. Instead of addressing the systemic issues like income disparities, access to food, access to healthcare, or education, a person is simply made to feel bad for not being able to bootstrap their way out of bad health.
So, why be a health coach? I am a holistic wellness coach and in my biz I address many dimensions of wellness that are traditionally ignored for the number on the scale. I work a whole-person across all areas that are out of balance. I do it without taking weight or measuring waist circumference or calculating BMI. I do measure heart rates, blood pressure as well as any lab work (like A1C) to determine progress and improved health. These are numbers that matter.
At this point in history, there is tremendous momentum being gained for professionals like me. As people become weary of the yo-yo dieting, weight gain, and the increasing evidence that diets (restricting what or when you eat) do not work in the long-run, AND are seeing larger bodies as capable, beautiful, and worthy of respect, the tides are a-changing. Right now, in the diet industry’s banner month (January), people are reaching out to ask questions and learn more. Most of the people I talk to have been on at least 3 different diets. If they worked, they would only need one.
Top 3 FAQs
Let’s take a quick look at the top three questions (misconceptions or myths) about being a HAES-aligned/weight-neutral wellness coach. Please comment with any other questions you may have!
- Does HAES (Health at Every Size) or weight-neutral mean you never want to lose weight or shouldn’t lose weight? (Sometimes phrased as how can I focus on eating and exercising without focusing on weight loss?) This by far is the most common question I get. NOT AT ALL. HAES is not anti-weight loss. It just means that I am not going to promote weight loss for the sake of weight loss as a health-promoting strategy, which only perpetuates weight stigma. To put it another way, I coach on behavior changes and there are other acceptable outcomes that are not about weight loss. If a person wanted to lose 20 lbs., I would dig a little deeper as to why and then we would work on the behaviors that improve health. For example, a client states they have low energy and feels like losing 20 lbs. would boost their energy. After reviewing their eating habits, a pattern of low consumption of nutrient-dense foods emerges and they eat only once a day. I would suggest eating more nutrient-dense foods and definitely more often. This may result in the weight-loss (a neutral occurrence), but it is not focus or strategy because for some this may result in weight gain (a neutral occurrence).
- Does HAES-aligned mean you believe that you can be healthy at every size? Health At Every Size is not the same as being healthy at every size. There are large healthy bodies and there are thin unhealthy bodies. Health is not a SIZE. What it means for me and my approach is that I believe that anyone, regardless of size, can practice or develop behaviors that will improve their health. I believe that wellness is a journey and while no one “owes” health to anyone else, you can improve it with behaviors that have a positive effect on health. I believe that regardless, all people are deserving of respect and that includes autonomy to live how they wish (without harming others).
- How does the HAES Framework help with body image? This is a process. There is no switch that I, or any other coach can flip to impart a positive body image. What I feel, and have seen, is that when working within a framework that validates the worthiness of all bodies, it decreases the influence of thin-obsessed voices and shifts you to a place of acceptance of your body and of others. It is usually the value/beauty/acceptance of others first, and then yourself. HAES-aligned professionals include more than just wellness/health coaches. When people are no longer stigmatized for weight, then the worldview changes.
As a wellness professional in a culture that stigmatizes larger bodies and equates thinness with health, it is tough to hear the push for weight loss or witness diet culture co-opting terms like “intuitive” (intuitive fasting? Come on, Gwenyth Paltrow) or fat liberation and changing it to body positivity (so thin folks were no longer excluded but left the hard work to fat liberators). It is tough because as a $90 billion a year industry the pockets are deep and influence is widespread. And it is a little sad to see how damaging the diet culture is to self-esteem, mental health, and to health overall. I know from experience of battling binge eating as a way to control my body–to force my body to conform in one way I thought it could. I could not change being Black, so I struggled with weight for years. After getting help and reconnecting with my body and unlearning diet culture, I am at a lower weight that I had been before (although still thick). I am much happier and I live unafraid of foods, or a number on a scale. That is the kind of radical living I want to help other women find!