I’ve seen a lot around the Internet lately about the link between weight and body size and health. We’ve all been told our whole lives that weight is intrinsically linked to health; that being fat is bad for you and being obese is essentially a death sentence. Doctors tell their patients that in order to be “healthy” they need to lose weight. Alarmingly, even pediatricians are telling their patients, or their patients’ parents that in order to be healthy they need to be a certain size. There is medical research that shows that weight can affect health. It’s harder for the heart to pump blood through the body when the body is larger. People who are larger tend to have higher incidences of high cholesterol and high blood pressure. People who are larger also seem to get diabetes at higher rates than smaller people. So, let it be known, I do acknowledge that there is medical research that shows a correlation between higher weights and a less healthy existence.
Now let it also be known that I think the amount of attention doctors pay to body size when assessing a person’s health is insane. Let me explain. Most of the medical research shows merely a correlation between higher weights and disease states. A correlation means that higher weights and disease states are coexistent more often than lower weights and disease states are coexistent. It does not mean that higher weight causes the disease state. It simply means that the disease state happens to be present more often in people whose weight is higher. The medical community has chosen to interpret this research as meaning that higher weight is a risk factor for disease states, even when there could be alternative explanations for this correlation. The common saying that illustrates this concept is that yellow teeth and lung cancer are correlated, but yellow teeth are not a risk factor for lung cancer. In this case the common factor is smoking. No one would assume that yellow teeth cause lung cancer even though they’re correlated, but that’s exactly what the medical community is doing with higher weights.
It is common practice for doctors to recommend that patients lose weight, even when they are healthy in every other aspect. They assume that weight loss would make the person even healthier than they are now. There is no consideration of the possibility that the patient is perfectly healthy at their current weight and body size. If a person weighs more than “X” they should lose weight no matter what.
The truth that doctors don’t want to tell us, or refuse to acknowledge is that all bodies are different and every body has a healthy size that is specifically tailored to that individual body. When I was at my lowest weight in the depths of my eating disorder I was considered a “healthy weight”. When I was at my sickest my hormones were completely destroyed and my body was operating in famine mode. I was constantly sustaining muscle injuries because my body lacked enough protein to rebuild my muscles after a workout. But doctors were never concerned about my weight and some even praised me for my weight loss. Not a single one of them suggested that my weight loss may have something to do with my chronically sick body, though to be fair, I never disclosed my eating disorder. Mostly because I was in too much denial.
Now that I am healthy I am technically in the obese category. This obese body takes care of a child as a full time job, hikes mountains, does yoga, snowboards, snowshoes, bikes, jogs (I’d be lying if I called it running), and does Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. This body is particularly effective at moving in enjoyable ways when it wants to and resting when it needs to, which is much healthier than before when it moved constantly and obsessively as a slave to compulsive exercising. The last time I had blood work done everything came back normal. I may not love the body I’m in yet, but I can easily say that it’s healthier than it was six months ago.
To be completely honest, I have avoided going to the doctor’s office because I don’t want to be confronted with the weight bias I have experienced in the past, and it is a bias. This medical weight bias is irrevocably damaging to women out there who struggle with their body image or eating habits. Many fall in to disordered eating after being told by their doctors that they should lose weight. Many slip under the radar and do not receive treatment for their active eating disorders because they’re “not thin enough”. Many, like me, just avoid seeing the doctor at all so they don’t have to hear about their weight from yet another person. It needs to stop. More research needs to be done about what it actually means to be healthy. More education about weight bias needs to happen. The media needs to address the fact that all bodies can be healthy, regardless of their size. Women of all sizes need to speak up and say “I’m healthy!”
To learn more about the weight bias in the medical profession read “Body of Truth” by Harriet Brown.