Fitness and Health Are Not the Same (No Matter What Fatphobia Attempts to Claim)

A Venn Diagram shows that there is no direct relation between fitness and health, but rather that they are two categories with some overlap

Source: Everyday Feminism

As a queer, Black woman of size – and by “size,” I mean in body and energy – I am constantly engaging ideas around health and wellness. And inevitably, I frequently find myself faced with sifting through what I need to do for my own health and what I need to undo or unlearn in order to maintain my health.

Can somebody say “decolonization?”

But with this engagement of health and wellness comes the inevitable interaction with mortality: mine, my loved ones’, my clients’, and all of humanity’s mortality, for that matter.

For example, have you ever known someone that dropped dead from strange and unusual circumstances – like an aneurysm at age 40 or a heart attack at age 30?

I have. And these instances are just as “baffling” as when someone that’s used tobacco products for over half of their life dies in their sleep, at 88, from non-tobacco related causes.

This is the case of my great grandfather, by the way. He was a very sweet and equally cantankerous man that left this world sleeping in his favorite chair. And since we all gotta go, ain’t that the way most of us hope to? I know it’s my way of choice!

And it’s this fear of death and of a “low quality of life” that are two of the main excuses people give for sizeist and fatphobic arguments.

But what’s worse is the way that we – people of sizedo this to ourselves.

When I was on the other side of body acceptance and body positivity a little time I like to call “faking self-love in order to survive a fat-hating culture” – I would say fatphobic things to myself and others in defense of what I now know was the part of me that struggled to love and accept myself.

“I’m trying to get healthy, so I’m cutting out fast food and really working to change my lifestyle. I don’t want to diet. I just want to eat better for my health.”

People would nod and agree, assuring me that they believed in me and that I could do it! I would post statuses on Facebook that said things like, “Taking it one day at a time. I’m gonna be a jogger some day.

And once again, the likes would come, then the encouragement, and finally every one would profess how proud of me they were.

And, honestly, I was proud of me, too – because I was really trying. Trying to be healthy.

But here’s the thing: I was not, nor had I been, diagnosed with any illness.

I had been tested for diabetes, high blood pressure, and cholesterol because any time I even thought about looking at a doctor, these were the first concerns they raised.

Both of my grandmothers, mother, and one of my aunt’s had these diseases, so I was sure it was going to happen to me. And these things are what I was trying to keep from happening with exercise and diet and doctor harassment.

I was seeking health motivated by a fear of death.

Yet, I’m not – nor was I then – unhealthy. I was – and still am – fat.

My grandmother died at age 56. I was 18 at the time. I had watched her “battle with her weight” much like most of the women on both sides of my family.

When they told us “complications of heart failure and morbid obesity” were the contributors to her death, I felt deep embarrassment and shame, like that might be me one day.

This shame and fear of dying so young kicked that pursuit of health – despite not having any health issues – into over drive.

Healthism is a term defined by Dr. Petr Skrabanek as a “state ideology” that he explains becomes a “political sickness.” I see it as the way that society coercively and unnecessarily perpetuates its desired standard of living and health onto fat folks through fear and false notions of a “normalized” quality of life.

This idea encourages people to spew false tropes of care for another’s quality of life, health, and even mortality. Further, it encourages people of varying sizes to judge and critique others based on what is assumed about their health based on size.

This kind of thinking has been passed off as reasonable excuses to be hateful.

But there is nothing about yelling out of a car window to a stranger “Damn, you hella fat” that says that you care about the state of that person’s health or quality of life. In fact, comments like that are actually the type of street harassment that fat people regularly have to face, and harassment is a behavior of oppression.

Yet so many people like to pretend that fat hate is not the source of their “concern” with the health of others or the subsequent culture we have of obsessing over our health.

As a faking-it-till-I-make-it fatty, this used to confuse me so much. I would fall for the concerns of others and thought that meant that I, too, should be concerned with my own health in this way.

I went back and forth with myself about fatness and health for a very long time.

I believed that being fat automatically made me unhealthy.

I mean, everyone said it – other fat people, doctors, strangers, concerned friends and family.

But eventually, I realized that when we say “health,” we are usually talking about a set of behaviors and a size limit – not the actual functioning of someone’s organs.

For example, when a person that has run a marathon, rides their bike daily, and drinks green smoothies every morning gets diagnosed with cancer or dies of an aneurysm, the whole notion of health is terribly turned over on its head.

We think, “Wow, that person ran every day and ate the right things? Why did they die?!”

Sometimes, we even ask the same questions when not-fat, non-athletic people have health issues or die earlier than we expect.

But if health is heavily associated with a set of behaviors that so many people cannot perform –  such as people with limited mobility for various reasons, and those people out live the “jogger person” – then the functioning of the person’s organs has to be the way we measure and think about health.

And since we are not walking X-rays, MRIs, or endocrine tests, can we really determine someone’s health – or even our own! – based on body size?

The reality is, when we go in to see a doctor or get back the cause of death from a coroner, like the one that determined contributions to my grandmother’s death, we are essentially engaging with the opinions of medical practitioners.

That’s right. A medical opinion, also known as an educated guess, often depends on the philosophy and prejudice of said medical professional just as much as their education.

This is the case more often than we are taught to believe or consider it to be the case.

It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way!

What if I told you that there are healthcare professionals that do not automatically assume you are unhealthy based on your size and that will treat you and your body with a kind of respect and medical curiosity that other patients receive?

There is a registry that lists doctors who will treat you like any other patient and make diagnoses based on the actual state of your body and functioning of your organs in their current and potential state – without sizeist bias.

And while they might consider your family history, they will not scare you and pre-diagnose you with out considerable cause. Imagine that!

Anti-fat and sizeist rhetoric can seep in there for the most self-loving and self-affirming of us. This journey can be a long hard one – one that you might find yourself questioning from time to time, one that might leave you struggling with what you believe about your health.

And sometimes this process interferes with our ability to determine, for ourselves, how wellness and self-care feels for our bodies.

When bodies like ours are the ones that are constantly scrutinized and used to determine what “healthy” is not, it can get even harder.

We are encouraged to compare our abilities to one another as though those things are a marker of health.

Quite honestly, this kind of thinking rides that slippery slope of ableism, and it’s time that we all stop assuming everyone wants to be able-bodied.

It’s time we stop internalizing other people’s ideas about how our bodies should look and function.  

The Difference Between Health and Fitness

What most people consider “health” is really “fitness.”

Using language like “fit and active” to define and inform health has been a strategy to guilt and shame those of us with varying abilities around movement and mobility.

While physical fitness has marked health and the likeliness of living a longer life for years, it is not the determining factor. There are so many people like my grandpa who never ran a mile a day in their life, lived to be 88, and got to die in their favorite chair.

So what does healthism really do? It makes people at odds with their bodies’ inability to do physical tasks, like running a mile. It makes people associate that inability with their health – or worse, their mortality.

For years, this was how I talked to myself.

This was how I rationalized admitting to strangers that I was “trying” and “still at it.” This was how I guilted myself into another fast-food fast and attempted, yet again, to walk a mile a day – all the while hating every minute of it and feeling hopeless because my body would only lose about a pound every couple of months.

Y’all, my happiness plummeted with that lifestyle.

I am not here for fast food as a daily diet. I am also not here for any kind of stress- and fear-induced eating regime that serves to make me feel worse about myself.

I just want to be clear that for all the ways we think about caring for ourselves, I know that what we put in our bodies does have an affect on our organs ability to function. .

So why was it that with “balanced eating” and daily movement, I was still fat? And more that that, why was I not very happy?

It was this kind of questioning and reflection that helped me transition from faking self-love in order to survive our fat-hating culture to choosing to learn how to interact with my body out of love and acceptance.

This made my choices love-motivated rather than fear-informed.

This made my love of myself – and my desire to love and enjoy my body and my life – the center of my eating habits, my water in take, and all the other matters of caring for my body.

Heads up, the next sentence is a bit of TMI, but there is totally a method to my over-sharing.

I now poop twice a day! I used to go once every other day if I was lucky. I felt sluggish and tired, and my face was broke out. My hair wouldn’t get past a certain length, and there were so many other things I noticed.

The change in my bowel movements came from changing the way I eat, as well as my increase in water intake. I won’t list what I now eat, because ew, I’m more grossed out by a play-by-play of food choices than talking about poop. Seriously, I refuse to play into the only-certain-kind-of foods-are-the-right-kinds-of-foods culture.

My point is that by listening to my body and being patient with her in this way, I shifted the functioning of my vital organs – my waste management system!

For me, getting to this place is body positive.

No longer is it about the size of my body. It’s about how my body functions.

Something I never noticed or considered that might contribute to me being tired all the time was how my body was processing and expelling waste. My grandmother was being tested for kidney issues literally right as she passed away. The doctors thought her body was not expelling waste properly.

And I’m not saying that that is why I have paid attention to the way my body processes waste. But I am saying that is something I am conscious of at 32 that I’m not so sure she was at 50 something.

So What Am I Saying?

I’m saying we have to build a new relationship to health and wellness that does not include assumptions about size, ability, agility, flexibility, and all the things associated with fitness.

We have to rethink just how much fitness is associated with health and wellness and how much the pursuit of either can take a toll on our mental and emotional health.

Fat people are the most speculatively diagnosed group of people I know of, and not only is this rooted in prejudice, it’s pure ignorance as well.

This is like assuming bald people have cancer or that someone who walks with a cane has issues with their hip. These are all absurd assumptions that we should not make nor infer based on appearance.

Yet people do this to fat people all the time!

In short, if you find it rude to assume the health of anyone else and diagnose them with some sort of disease, its equally ridiculous and out of line to speak to it in regards to fat people.

Medicalization has taught us that there are all kinds of non-health related reasons to form a “medical opinion.” I refute these sizeist assumptions, and I most certainly refute them from strange Internet trolls and street harassers.

More than that, I encourage you – self-love light beam – to reposition the way you engage your own health and use body positivity and body love to help think about ways that you can seek fitness (if that’s what you want), own that that is what you are truly looking for, and stay away from notions of health in the pursuit of it.

And no, I’m not knocking anyone’s fitness steeze.

I’m saying that its time we think a bit deeper about calling our pursuit of fitness “healthy living.”

TaMeicka L. Clear is a life coach and consultant, writer, educator, and spiritualist. She runs her own coaching business, CLEAR Coaching and Consulting, and is on a mission to CoCREATE spiritually creative and educational spaces that meet the needs and interest of womyn, LGBTQIA people, and youth at the center as well as any other individuals, groups, and institutions. You can check her out on Twitter @TaMeickaClear