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What would happen if we stopped bullshitting ourselves about health?

Today is the conclusion of Eating Disorders Awareness Week and all I wanted to write about in this week’s essay was angry, ranty things. But I didn’t want to send out a newsletter with just an angry rant because I felt I should write something loving and compassionate, because I have nothing but love and compassion for folks living with eating disorders and disordered eating.

But I gotta go to the angry place, too.

As a recovered/recovering orthorexic, I can tell you that living with disordered eating feels like living in a box that you can’t fully stand up in: it’s constricting, painful and requires you to live your life on your knees; yet it simultaneously also feels like the safest way to live your life. You don’t know any other way of doing things. An alternative to this life does not seem possible, at least, not until you hit rock bottom. 

(And then you get help and you slowly open up to freedom and possibility and self-trust and it’s amazing.)

No one should feel guilty or wrong for having a disordered relationship with food. If this is you, know that it’s truly not your fault. Both eating disorders and disordered eating are tightly correlated with anxiety and anxiety disorders, and it makes sense, right? Controlling our food is a way so many of us deal with anxiety because it is an accessible way of creating a sensation of control in a world where we so often feel like we’re not in control. 

Indulge me, though, with a reason to be angry about the culture that fosters and promotes eating disorders and disordered eating: a child is 242 times more likely to have an eating disorder than type 2 diabetes.

A child is 242 times more likely to have an eating disorder than type 2 diabetes.

A child is 242 times more likely to have an eating disorder than type 2 diabetes. (Lindo Bacon & Lucy Aphromor, Body Respect)

And yet! The “childhood obesity” epidemic, amirite???!!!!

If we truly cared about children’s health, we wouldn’t allow children to be put on diets, in no small part because, you guessed it, adolescents who diet are at risk of going on to develop eating disorders. In other words, putting kids on diets is unsafe.

But also? Because putting kids on diets is unethical.

If we truly cared about children’s health, we would stand up against weight stigma, the use of fat suits in movies, and body shame-y comments /abuse/ bullying.

We wouldn’t allow racist cops, schools and the carceral state to keep killing and harming Black children.

We wouldn’t accept that there are countless First Nations children in Canada who don’t have access to clean drinking water.

I mean, forget about the kids for a second, and let’s think about ourselves. If we lived in a society that truly promoted actual health—not the pretend health of the weight loss/wellness industrial complex—we wouldn’t be expected to shame ourselves for our pandemic weight gain, because we would know that surviving a pandemic is far healthier than dying in one.

We would know that health is on a spectrum, is never a permanent state of existence, and that actual health goals can always be pursued in a weight-neutral fashion.

We wouldn’t fall for pseudoscientific “wellness” fads, and we would not allow research studies on fatness to be funded by biased interests. We would have a high level of scientific literacy. Researchers would not have coined the phrase “obesity paradox,” because they would just accept that fatness has a protective function—no “paradox” about it.

We would entirely detach health from morality. We would entirely detach exercise from morality. We wouldn’t feel morally superior for going for a run, and we wouldn’t feel morally inferior for spending a day being sedentary.

We wouldn’t be complete hypocrites about the extent of the health and social damage caused by alcohol.

We wouldn’t villainize the processed foods some people rely on to live, and we would actually give a shit about the millions of people who don’t get enough to eat every day.

We would grasp that racism, along with our access or lack of access to money, housing, social contact, employment, and food security have far, far, FAAAAAAAAAR more impact on our health than what we eat.

We would all know that fat bodies have always existed. We would know that “fat” is a normal body size.

Instead of praising weight loss, we wouldn’t comment on peoples’ bodies, knowing that we could be praising a person for having cancer, or lupus, or because they’re grieving, or they have an eating disorder. And because we now understand through painful experience what an actual pandemic is, we would register that “obesity” is not one.

It is time to start admitting that, in the vast majority of casual conversations about our own bodies and that of others, concerns expressed under the guide of “health” are almost always a flimsy pretext for what is actually going on: an intolerance to the idea that fat people should be allowed to exist, and the sensation that the existence of fat on our own bodies is intolerable.

Once we can get real about this, we can go deep into why this is (hint: Eurocentric beauty standards that keep women docile and prop up white supremacy while creating a pretext to continue to marginalize Black people, Indigenous people and people of colour). And once we do that, THEN we can have a real and honest conversation about whether or not we truly value health in this society.

If you have an eating disorder or engage in disordered eating, you can get help. If you have a doctor you trust, you can start with them, or with an eating disorder organization like NEDIC. Sometimes what stops people from getting help (and I speak directly from first-hand experience) is that they suspect that their disordered eating falls below the definition of an eating disorder. If this is you, you might find resources like The Fuck It Diet useful.

This essay originally appeared in This Week in Bitchcraft, the weekly newsletter covering pop culture, current affairs and spirituality all through a funny, feminist, anti-diet lens. Don’t miss an issue! Subscribe here and instantly get your free guide, 8 Steps to Putting Your Wellbeing Above the Patriarchy (or, How to Be an Uppity Bitch in 8 Easy Steps).