The first time I heard about Health at Every Size, I hated it.
It took a while for it to start to feel like a miracle.
I’d spent my whole life believing that the only way to be healthy or even normal was to be skinny.
Growing up, it seemed like everyone around me was skinny. I have two sisters who were both very slender. My stepmother was petite. Most every girl in school was smaller than me.
Everyone was skinny but me and my mom, who went to weight loss meetings and had to sit in the ‘pig pen’ if she gained a few ounces during the week.
I weighed 150 pounds when I was fifteen and I thought, if I could just weigh 135, my life would be perfect. I was convinced that the only thing standing between me and perfection was those fifteen pounds.
All I wanted out of life when I was fifteen was to weigh 135 pounds.
It didn’t seem like so much to ask.
I thought, if I could just lose fifteen pounds, my life would be perfect. I’d be beautiful like my sisters. I’d be popular. I’d be noticed. I couldn’t have cared less then about health, but I did think that I might be able to swim faster and make my coach happy.
I never lost those pounds. Instead, I developed an eating disorder. I got bigger. And bigger. And bigger. Until, by the time I was forty, I weighed nearly 400 pounds. And everything hurt. And now I cared about my health quite a lot.
I cared about my health when I was forty, because I was afraid that I was dying. I couldn’t breath and sleep at the same time. I was in so much physical pain, I could barely move.
The specter of an electric scooter was right on the edge of my reality.
When I first read about Health at Every Size, or HAES, I thought — how stupid.
How can health be for everyone at every size? How can I be healthy at 380 pounds?
It actually made me angry.
I was so caught up in hating myself, I didn’t want something to take that away from me. What did I have left, then? What could I hold on to, if I couldn’t hate myself for letting myself get to the point where I could barely pull my own pants up?
But it nagged at me.
First, it was the idea that a little bit of exercise was good for me, even if it never made me lose a single pound. That it was good for my heart, for my brain, for my blood sugar, for me, regardless of how it affected the number on the scale.
Divorcing exercise from weight loss was a huge deal for me. Because I wasn’t physically healthy enough to exercise enough to actually make myself lose weight. At first, it was a big struggle to exercise for ten minutes a day.
Because I had been an athlete, I thought if I was going to exercise, I had to go for hours. What good was a few minutes? It wouldn’t make me skinnier. It wouldn’t make me stronger, even.
But when I realized that I could build up to thirty minutes a day, and those thirty minutes could keep me from getting diabetes or heart disease — and they made me feel better — even if I stayed fat forever, that mattered to me.
Those thirty minutes a day might never move the scale.
Once I accepted that and I removed my weight from the equation and made it all about how I felt, then exercise made perfect sense. Because I felt fantastic. And the more I did it, the better I felt.
And the better I felt, the better I wanted to feel.
When I went to the doctor, I kept being told to lose weight, because that’s what doctors do. But I also had blood tests with normal blood sugar and cholesterol results.
Lately, I’ve been dealing with stomach problems.
This might be a little too much info, but I’ve had some pretty terrible acid reflux.
So, I’ve gone to the doctor. I don’t weigh near 400 pounds anymore, but he advised what doctors always advise: lose some weight. He prescribed me some pills to help with that, which I didn’t think I’d want to take, but I’ve actually found helpful for a variety of reasons.
But the thing is that losing weight takes a bunch of time, under the best of circumstances. And I need some relief faster than that.
So, it turns out that the things that sometimes lead to weight loss actually help with acid reflux. Eating smaller meals. Not eating late at night. Not overeating. Avoiding foods that trigger reflux, which for me are very fatty foods and very acidic foods.
Doing those things are good for my health, at whatever weight I happen to be. They are good for me, regardless of whether I ever lose a single pound.
Health at Every Size does not mean NOT wanting to lose weight.
That was hard for me to come to terms with, later. When I had weight loss surgery, I was deeply entrenched in the body acceptance movement. HAES was so important to me, and I felt like I was letting everyone down.
But I needed a CPAP machine to breath in my sleep and I couldn’t stand up for more than ten minutes at a time without crippling pain.
I needed to lose some weight to maintain my mobility.
Here’s what HAES did for me: At nearly 400 pounds, I did not have diabetes or high blood pressure or high cholesterol.
Some of that is genetic. I just have lucky genes. No one in my family has diabetes, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol. (Also, no one in my family weighs close to 300 pounds, much less 400, so there’s that.)
But some of it is because for several years, I’d maintained a commitment to do the things that maintained my health, even though they didn’t make me skinny (or even skinnier.)
I needed to lose some weight to breathe better in my sleep and to deal with my pain. I chose surgery. I lost some weight, I lost my CPAP machine, and even though I’ll never lose the arthritis in my hips, I became more able to manage the pain.
Weight loss surgery was part of my HAES journey. It wasn’t about being skinny. It was about reversing sleep apnea and coping with the arthritis in my hips — things I couldn’t do without losing some weight.
Health at Every Size means thinking about your health as more than the size of your body.
That’s harder than it might seem on the surface.
If you’re fat, you’ve probably experienced going to the doctor for every ailment from a stomach ache to an ear infection and being sent home with a Xeroxed low-carb diet plan.
If you’re fat, chances are good that you’ve internalized the idea that whatever health problems you’re dealing with are your fault, because you’re too lazy or stupid to lose weight.
If you’re fat, chances are that you measure the success of any effort to improve your health at least in part with a bathroom scale.
If you’re fat, it’s a smart bet that you’ve tried every fad diet that’s come along during your adult life (and probably most of your adolescence and maybe into your childhood as well) with only one goal. Not health. Thinness. And failed.
If you’re fat, you’ve been taught that you can’t be healthy until you’ve lost weight.
The things that are good for you are good for you, whether or not you ever lose weight.
You already know the things.
- Exercise for thirty minutes a day.
- Eat a well-rounded, balanced diet.
- Sleep enough.
- Manage your stress.
- Manage your blood sugar, blood pressure, heart rate, etc.
- Drink enough water.
- Don’t smoke.
- Drink responsibly.
Divorce your healthy habits from your weight. Completely.
That doesn’t mean that there won’t be some reason you need to lose weight. It means that you’ll be as healthy as you can be, in the body you have today.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation and the upcoming novel The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer.