So, there’s a lot of discussion of some recent studies that have found a) thin people can have unhealthy levels of visceral fat, b) genetics plays a larger part in body size than people want to admit, and c) fat people can actually be quite healthy.

This is all really interesting news.

But here’s the thing. Health, much like fat, is not a moral issue. Nor is health so easy to define as “all body systems go.” Because if you are in peak physical form but your outlook sucks….

People make unhealthy choices every day. Fat people, thin people, in-between people. They eat undercooked meat, they don’t sleep enough, they indulge in the drug of their choice (nicotine, alcohol, caffeine, whatever). They use blow dryers on their hair (do you have any idea what that sort of heat can do to your hair?) and makeup on their face and deodorant in their armpits.

They wear clothes washed in detergents that are full of chemicals. They eat food grown with pesticides. They walk under the open sky and do not wear sun screen.

There are risk factors involved in BEING ALIVE. And, as individuals, it is our choice which ones concern us the most. For example, I am a total fatty, but I avoid the sun because I don’t really want skin cancer or wrinkles.

My health is a balance of how efficiently my body systems are working and how well my brain is functioning – whether or not I want to freak out and kill things, you know? My mental health is of more concern to me than my physical health because my mental health is… a little more easily shaken.

And my pursuit of health? It’s a personal choice. Do not lord the tyranny of “but you must be HEALTHY” over me. Because I don’t have to be healthy by your standards, just by mine. And that random person over there? S/he doesn’t have to be healthy by your standards either in order to be a good person. Hell, we don’t HAVE to be healthy at all to be good people.

The pursuit of health is not a moral imperative.

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  1. Mel
    Posted May 11, 2007 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    Heat is bad for hair? I wondered why my follicles scream and carry on when I have to use the dryer! I’m so damn impatient …

  2. Posted May 11, 2007 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this! I touched on this in my comments yesterday, but haven’t done a full post about it–and in the meantime, have been posting tons of “fat people aren’t necessarily unhealthy!” crap. So I’ve been meaning to address that other key point–now I can just link to you!

    I think the message that fat people aren’t all unhealthy is an important one to promote, just because it’s an attempt at correcting a really big lie that so many people believe. And yet, it’s equally important to avoid implying that health is a moral issue, or people who are unhealthy still deserve to be judged.

  3. Posted May 11, 2007 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    Thank you so much for this. You’ve just made me realize that after years of hating myself for being fat I’ve simply changed it to hating myself for being unhealthy. Because somehow I’m letting the entire fat population by eating a candy bar or drinking regular soda. Self-loathing is self-loathing, regardless of what reason I give to justify it.

    I’m so ashamed of being unhealthy. Because I feel that it means I’ve failed. That I’m a bad person. Thank you for reminding me that I’m not.


  4. Posted May 11, 2007 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    My health is a balance of how efficiently my body systems are working and how well my brain is functioning

    This is very, very apt. I mean the entire post is, but it’s this snippet that I want to steal for a chapter-opening quote in one of our health textbooks. May I? With correct attribution and all?

    It’s weird reading this and agreeing after working all morning on a textbook that promotes healthy decision making, and whose entire message is that teens can and should make health-conscious decisions. We’re starting from the assumption that health is, if not a moral imperative, at least a Good Thing, and there’s a constant tension between avoiding shaming, and indeed celebrating less-able, less healthy, fatter kids, and encouraging kids to make health-conscious choices. Some days I want to go edit textbooks in something nice and straightforward, like, say geography.

    Because you’re right: health is not a moral imperative, any more than intellect or appearance or left-handedness. I happen to feel that being able to do most things I need to do on a daily basis, being able to enjoy my physicality, being able to cycle, run, hike, and dance without distress or pain are important things for me to be able to do. So are being able to think clearly, work, argue coherently (some days), and write.

    It’s about the balance and the lottery and the priorities. No reason mine and yours should be the same.

  5. admin
    Posted May 11, 2007 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    Heidi, you haven’t failed and you are not a bad person. Trust me on that one.

    Zingerella – Wow, yes, you totally can. Just let me know what attribution info you might need from me.

    I don’t think the pursuit of health is, in and of itself, a bad thing. But I think it means different things for lots of different people and we run into this assumption that being in good health only looks like one thing. I’m all for encouraging people to make healthy choices overall, but they have to be healthy choices for them and their lives, you know? In the broadest sense of health.

  6. Posted May 11, 2007 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    Being healthy should be defined much more expansively, too. Fat people are taught to view their eating in a hypercritical way. Anything “bad” is the reason they are fat, the reason they are unhealthy. But thin people eat “bad” things. What we need to do is recognize that being healthy isn’t about doing all the things we are told we must do to lose weight. Those things didn’t work to lose weight, so why should we think they would make us healthy? An honestly self-accepting fat person should feel free to eat without shame. Having dessert doesn’t make us bad or immoral. It just means we had dessert. We can and should lead happy and healthy lives without obsessing over our weight or “health” under standards which have never been shown to be meaningful or useful.

  7. admin
    Posted May 11, 2007 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    I agree that the idea of health should be expanded and I also agree with the rest of your points up until you say we should lead happy and healthy lives – because my whole point is that no one is required to lead a healthy life. We aren’t even, though I choose it for myself, required to lead happy lives. And I don’t think health and happiness necessitate one another either – I know tons of healthy, unhappy people.

    And some people ARE unhealthy and they are not bad people because of it. Bad health isn’t even a choice for some people – I totally recognize that I am privileged to be healthy.

  8. Posted May 11, 2007 at 11:47 am | Permalink


    I have your full name, somewhere, i think, but just to be sure, would you e-mail it to me (e-mail above). I don’t know which book, or which chapter, but often the opening chapter in a health textbook is about defining health and healthy decision-making (since that’s usually the theme of the course). We encourage students to look at their health as something they can affect, even if they can’t control everything about it, and healthy living as a product of conscious, informed decision-making and action. We try very hard to explain that health is about your mind, body, and social relations all working to the best of their capabilities.

    We don’t talk a lot about appearance or thinness (except for a couple of features on media awareness and body politics, because, well, thin and healthy are not really all that relevant to each other, and we’re interested in healthy.

    I would like it a great deal if the curriculum had more of a focus on social health, stress relief, and life-management, but we’ve packed a lot into one course and one book, and, well, little steps, you know? At least phys-ed is no longer all about being fantastic at team sports. And we have fat kids being healthy and active in our photos, which makes me really happy.

    And Heidi, dude, don’t feel guilty about the candy bars mmkay, if you can avoid it? I work on health textbooks and what did I eat for lunch? Cornchips and salsa, dude. What you eat is about you, not about representing the fat team. Sometimes you just want a chocolate bar. Or chips and salsa.

  9. Posted May 11, 2007 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    I think that part of the problem here is that “health” is a noun used to stand in for a ton of different concepts and processes. What your post gest at, in its mention of body and brain functioning together in certain ways, is that health management (or negotiation, or some sort of process-y word!) looks very different in different people. The goal of Good Health as a sign of morality smacks not only of fatphobia but also of able-ism. Good Health is not achievable for everyone, but that doesn’t mean that people aren’t taking care of themselves because they don’t look/act a certain way.

    Sorry, my brain is tired and this is a little rambly, but I guess what I’m trying to say is that the idea of health as a moral goal fundamentally construes disabled people as immoral (or at least incapable of achieving morality).

  10. admin
    Posted May 11, 2007 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    Laura – that is EXACTLY what I want people to understand.

  11. Shoe
    Posted May 11, 2007 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

    I think ‘health’ has become a polite stand-in for ‘not fat.’ “But don’t you want to be healthy?” just means “But don’t you want to be not fat?” Because when people are espousing the virtues of ‘health,’ it’s not because they’ve found out the person’s blood pressure is sky-high or cholesterol is rocketing into the mid-200s, etc., it’s that they’ve noticed that person is fat. Nobody tells the skinny person eating the chocolate bar she needs to think of her health, because the assumption persists that if she’s already skinny, then she’s already healthy.

    I go for ‘functional.’ That means everything working as well as my body can make them. I looked really healthy when I got very skinny, but I’m pretty sure making my periods stop and being cold all the time meant I wasn’t functioning correctly.

  12. Posted May 12, 2007 at 4:28 am | Permalink

    The first time I became conscious of food being a moral issue was as an adolescent in the 70s; a campaign for fresh cream with the slogan, “It’s naughty…but nice”. It seems to me that the attribution of vice and virtue to certain foodstuffs, (and, by extension, the attribution of saint or sinner to those who eat them), is so deeply entrenched in public consciousness that it’s become second nature to almost everyone, even naturally slender people who’ve never dieted in their lives. The self-flagellating language most people use prior to “indulgence” serves as some kind of prememptory Hail Mary; it’s permissable to eat it…just as long as you are seen to admit it’s very, very wrong. How anyone can think that’s in any way indicative of a healthy society is beyond me but, as others have already observed here, health has come to be more about surface appearance than anything else.

    Still with the religious analogies, I find it curious that money – the root of all evil, no less – is so often used to justify the moralisation of health. The “not looking after your health pushes up my insurance premiums” argument seems to be popular in the US, while many UK citizens seem to think it’s perfectly fine for me to pay towards their healthcare should circumstances dictate it, while begreudging me the same or insisting I should pay a premium on account of weighing more than they do.

  13. Meowzer
    Posted May 12, 2007 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    What I usually tell people is, “Look, I wasn’t any healthier when I was thinnier than I am now. Every health problem I had now, I had when I was a size 10, except then I also suffered from killer depression and killer cramps and killer fatigue, and could barely function. The treatment for those things made me gain weight, but I’d rather be fat than nonfunctional anyday.” Nothing they can say to that, usually.

  14. Posted May 12, 2007 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    The thing about the pursuit of “health” that gets me is that it so quickly becomes another stick to beat yourself with. A blog I read (though that may be stopping soon, and it’s none of the ones in your blogroll) goes on and on and on about helping young women find a healthy and happy body image – but the blogger is obsessed with personal health to the point that he undermines his own message. “See yourself as a valued young person despite your outer appearance!” and “I’m not valuable unless I am holding myself to strict ascetic habits of running, eating, vitamin-taking, and self-control” don’t really jive.

    I actually read this in an article about jealousy in personal relationships, but it transfers well (I’m paraphrasing horribly. ;) ): If you assign yourself value based on what you DO rather than who you ARE, you will never find peace.

    Balance is everything, mental and physical. I have SO far to go personally in realizing that…but it’s a hugely important message. Thank you. :)

  15. Gina
    Posted May 12, 2007 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    “The pursuit of health is not a moral imperative.”

    And does your doctor agree with you?

  16. Posted May 12, 2007 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    I totally agree that the conflation of “health” with “morality” is unbelievably pernicious. Once you start defining health as a moral imperative you start down this really slippery slope. You start getting people saying “fat is bad,” pretenging they’re meaning “fat has health risks” but REALLY meaning – “fat people are bad.”

    How relly is the use of health risks against fat people different from the religious right using “health risks” of gay men as a way to moralize against homosexuality?

    But I think you have to be a little careful here. Because being fat is NOT like how you dry your hair or whether you wear your seatbelt. It’s not even like smoking, IMHO. I think most of us here understand that the measures that most fat people would have to take to “not be thin” really ARE draconian. Fat is not the same.

  17. admin
    Posted May 12, 2007 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    Gina – The moral code of my doctor is not really something that concerns me. My doctor is neither a priest nor a counselor.

    fatfu – You are right, being fat is not like drying your hair. It’s definitely a limited analogy.

  18. Posted May 12, 2007 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    The other thing is fat is not something I “DO.” It’s not a behavior. It’s my body.

    This is, btw, another fantastic post. Thanks for writing this.

  19. Marla
    Posted May 12, 2007 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    Fatfu – it’s true that fat is not something you DO. But it is the result of something you do (overeat) and something you don’t do (exercise).

  20. Posted May 12, 2007 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    Marla, I suggest you read more of this blog and its blogroll. It might help you get that foot out of your mouth.

  21. MH
    Posted May 12, 2007 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

    Yes, the deconstruction of ‘healthism’ is sorely needed. I find nothing sadder than when otherwise ‘reasonable’ people choose to do things that are clearly immoral (such as women taking part in unchaste medical ‘exams’) because they think it will somehow benefit their health. As a society, we’ve forgotton the cardinal rule of good health — moral/spiritual health is the *foundation* for all other health.

  22. Meowzerowzer
    Posted May 12, 2007 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

    “Health” is only a matter of morality, IMHO, if you’re doing something that directly negatively impacts the health of others. If you use antibiotics you don’t need (or give them to your kids), or knowingly spread communicable disease, or grossly pollute someone’s air or water (I’m not talking about fart-in-the-elevator stuff, I’m talking having a meth lab in your kitchen or suchlike), or drive while you’re impaired, or get too wasted to look after dependent children, then maybe it’s a moral issue.

    But otherwise, in a free society, what you put in your mouth or don’t is your business and yours alone as long as no laws are broken. If you want a total police state where those things are completely regulated, go find your own mound of dirt and police away. Even North Korea might not be autocratic enough for you.

  23. Meowzer
    Posted May 12, 2007 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

    Stupid Firefox, couldn’t see my name onscreen, sorry.

  24. Meowzer
    Posted May 12, 2007 at 9:49 pm | Permalink

    Doh! My last comment got eaten. Sorry if this double posts.

    As far as I’m concerned, health should only be a moral issue if what you do directly negatively impacts the health of others. If you use antibiotics you don’t need (or give them to your kids), or knowingly spread communicable disease, or grossly pollute someone’s air or water (I’m not talking about fart-in-the-elevator stuff, I’m talking having-a-meth-lab-in-your-kitchen stuff), or drive while you’re impaired, or get too wasted to look after dependent children, then maybe it’s a moral issue.

    Otherwise, in a free society, what you put into your mouth or don’t, as long as no laws are broken, is your business and yours alone. If you want a total police state where such matters are completely regulated and regimented, go get your own mound of dirt and police away. Even North Korea might not be autocratic enough for you.

    And trolling morons, unless you have bugged my home and my workplace and my pathways between both locations and what I do in my leisure time, you don’t have a fucking clue in hell what I eat or how much I exercise, and I’ll bet right now my habits are “healthier” than yours anyway. At least I’m not a drug addict or two-fisted drinker, which most of you antifat whiners turn out to be when one scratches the surface hard enough.

  25. Marla
    Posted May 12, 2007 at 11:46 pm | Permalink

    Meowzer – the fact that you hang around on FA boards gives me a pretty good idea of your diet and exercise regime.

  26. Posted May 13, 2007 at 2:06 am | Permalink

    FYI, Marla, I remained overweight despite exercising for 90 minutes to 2 hours a day, and eating right around 1,200-1,500 calories.

    Now that I exercise 30 minutes a day, guess what? I still weigh the same. No freaking difference. Oh. Except that I’m happier not beating myself with the flail of “I’m bad because I should be doing more even though it isn’t working. At all.”

    For some folks, hell, MOST folks, weight has comparatively little to do with what they eat or how much they exercise. For some folks it does, but that’s NOT EVERYONE.

    Also, even if I were a person for whom lots of exercise worked, that would in NO way create in me an obligation to bust my hump to fit in simply because other people find it repugnant and offensive that I would “want to be fat.” That moral high horse is a DEAD high horse, and all the flogging in the world won’t make it move.

  27. Posted May 13, 2007 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    Marla, the fact that you have nothing better to do with your time and your husband than troll FA blogs speaks volumes to me about the state of your marriage, never mind your exercise regime. Bugger off and take your fatuous remarks and playground taunts with you.

  28. Posted May 13, 2007 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    Troll logic is remarkable, isn’t it? Marla, who magically knows the personal habits of everyone who hangs around FA blogs, is herself hanging around an FA blog. Either she’s filled with self-hatred or she’s extra-dumb. Or a little bit of both!

  29. Posted May 13, 2007 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    I guess both!

    But then, I can’t know the minds of strangers on the internet, because I’m not thin.

  30. wriggles
    Posted May 13, 2007 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    I hate this almost fascistic use of the words health/y, it’s so tiresome. This obsession with eating is health is about class. After civil rights, its gives people a coded way of critiquing classes and races you don’t like. It often about sexism too. The truth is that ‘health’ is incredibly complex to do with genes, environment, nurture, income level, mental health, etc,etc. Food is an easy target and the fact that it has become number 1 tells us about our times, the self-defeating obsession wiith individuality, that pretends we are not products of our society, but absolute individuals. Do not be fooled.

  31. Eden
    Posted May 14, 2007 at 5:15 am | Permalink

    Hey, I don’t have much to add beyond that I am so happy about this post. Autonomy over one’s body has to extend to being free to be unhealthy by some definitions – especially when those making the distinction aren’t particularly qualified to do so, but even when they are. I really like that you said “The moral code of my doctor is not really something that concerns me.”

  32. Posted May 14, 2007 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    Hey, “Marla”, I’m a vegetarian and I walk 45 minutes every day commuting. Did you have a “good idea” about that? Your powers of assumpsion are considerable, indeed.

  33. Posted May 14, 2007 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    I saw this article in the paper this morning.

    As to the health/morality thing…

    The only reason my health (or lack thereof) can impact others is insurance premiums. Let’s assume for a minute (and I know it’s erroneous, so please bear with me), that overweight people really do have more chronic and more severe health issues than thin people.

    This will make an already expensive necessity (insurance) more of a financail burden.

    This is, of course, a load of hooey.

    The only reason a person should strive to be healthy in any “moral” way, is to not burden friends and family with concern and financial and emotional strain. But even that’s a freaking *reach*.

  34. Meowzer
    Posted May 14, 2007 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    I wouldn’t assume insurance premiums would be any cheaper if everyone was thin. Insurance is a profit-making enterprise. They have to make their money somehow. And believe me, there’s wide variability on the incidence of doctor visits among the fat — for every fat person who goes all the time, I know at least one who won’t go even if they’re hemorrhaging. Besides, fat people might see doctors more often because they’re told to — if you’re fat and you have one fasting blood sugar in the triple digits they’ll scare you to freaking death about it, even if they wouldn’t do likewise to a thin person with one marginally elevated FBS.

  35. Posted May 14, 2007 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    Meowzer, there’s currently a UK insurance company that’s offering an incentive of considerably lower insurance premiums to people who join a chain of gyms the insurance company are in cahoots with, thereby allowing their gym attendance to be monitored.

  36. Meowzer
    Posted May 14, 2007 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

    Yes, and in the U.S. there are lowered premiums offered to people who agree to be “tracked” on their “healthy lifestyle changes” (ew).

    But in both cases, it’s a discount given to a few customers who agree to increased surveilance by the insurance carrier, which in turn allows them to market consumers things like gym memberships, drugs, etc. for which the carrier presumably gets some kind of spiff. I don’t think most customers are going for the increased surveillance in exchange for discount, though, and I have to believe that if everyone did go for the discount and it didn’t result in more prescriptions/subscriptions generating more kickbacks, it would become a thing of the past.

    “If everyone was thin we could pass the savings on to YOU, the virtuous skinny customer” is a bunch of horsehockey, in other words. But I’m sure you knew that. :-P

  37. Posted May 15, 2007 at 5:21 pm | Permalink


    i hang around FA boards too, and i’m 120 lbs soaking wet. i also eat whatever i feel like eating and never go to the gym.

    you can’t make ASSumptions about people’s appearances based on one website that you have in common with them.

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