Why we need to weaken the link between appearance and health
It’s important to emphasize how one feels instead of how one looks.
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By Carlett Spike
I still recall the doctor’s visit in my late teens where I was told I needed to lose weight. According to my body mass index (BMI) reading, I was overweight, despite being a pretty active child. In the years since that doctor’s visit, I’ve probably put on another 30 pounds.
There have been tons of other situations where my weight has been called out. Family gatherings where multiple relatives have pointed out that I’d put on a few pounds since they last saw me. I even do it to myself, when I poke and prod at my reflection in the mirror. Many women can probably remember plenty of times when people make offensive comments about their weight.
While it should be obvious, it’s easy to forget that you cannot tell how healthy a person is just by looking at her. I’ve experienced the looks of shock when I tell people I work out about five days a week or the suspicious eyes in the gym before I perform a squat with 200-plus pounds of weight on the bar, as if my short, Black, round frame is somehow incompatible with that amount of work.
The irony of all this is that we are in an era that promotes self-love and appreciation of all bodies. Yet many of the messages we encounter daily largely conflict with those ideals. Even when advertisements try to be inclusive by showcasing plus-size models and bodies with visible disabilities, they often still fall short of representing all women. Google the phrase “healthy body” and most of the images that appear are of thin white women.
How one looks has long been linked to one’s perceived health. In many historical cultures, larger bodies used to be idealized because they signified wealth and security. This seismic shift in ideals shows how fickle that link really is.
I recently spoke with Elizabeth Lynch, an associate professor of preventive medicine at Rush University Medical Center, to understand why health and appearance have been so heavily linked. About a decade ago, Lynch worked on a study that looked at body size perception in Black and white people. Participants were asked to point out their own body size and their ideal body size on a chart that represented nine body shapes, from smaller to larger.
The research found, for both Black and white women, the more educated they were the smaller their ideal body size became. This makes sense given the fact that higher education means more exposure to whiteness and a socioeconomic reality that allows a person to spend time worrying about their weight as opposed to survival. It also found that if you took a white and Black women of the same weight, the white woman would chose a larger body shape as a representation of herself in comparison. Lynch theorizes that this is because Black women tend to carry more weight, so the weight they see as “normal” is different from what a white woman sees as normal.
As a white woman, Lynch said she knows first-hand the obsession with thinness among her peers. “For white women, it’s an obsession,” Lynch said. “White women and maybe Black women’s stigma about weight comes from white women. It could be because most of the media we are talking about is white. It could be that really this is a white thing and Black women are absorbing it.”
As a Black woman, I thought of her findings in regard to my own life. Many of my female friends and family members that obsess over their weight are college-educated. It also made me think of the mixed messages I constantly see from white fitness influencers on Instagram, who claim to finally be at peace with their bodies although they are no longer at their smallest weight, the irony being that—at both weights—they are still thin.
It would take a long time to wade through the complex history of “health” and why the way a women looks holds so much value within society. But I think the key to begin to untwine this harmful connection with appearance on the individual level is to put more focus on one’s mental health, because appearances are fleeting. For the most part, you cannot easily control how you look and what you weigh.
Since the beginning of this year, I’ve been doing a lot of work focused on mindset. I’ve participated in trainings and discussions aimed to challenge some of my blindly accepted beliefs. I am constantly left to unpack the question: Why do I really believe something is wrong with me?
To truly accept all bodies, Lynch argues that we need to challenge ourselves to practice what we preach. We have to make an effort. “I think what we need to do is notice women who are beautiful and celebrate women who are beautiful who have ample bodies sizes,” Lynch said. “So I think we have to celebrate those women, [including] ourselves.”
Doctors and medical advice should be followed as necessary, but if you are healthy, it’s important to emphasize how one feels instead of how one looks. It’s okay to have physical goals, but that won’t sustain you. I have to ask myself what I really want, whether it’s to be stronger, to eat foods that give me energy or to create an outlet to relieve stress, and take note of my progress. It is not going to be perfect, but I try to celebrate and be proud of the little wins along my journey.
I workout because it makes me feel good. It has become part of my routine and I like to challenge my body to see what it can do. Progress for me is when I can lift a few pounds more than I was able to the previous month or when a class that was once exhausting becomes a tiny bit easier. I’d be lying if I did not admit I still sometimes hope I’ll lose weight, but I’m learning to let go of that as my sole motivation.
What are your mental health goals, and how are you using your body to achieve them?
Carlett Spike a is a Delaware-based writer and editor. She’s a Jersey girl at heart who loves to tell others’ stories, uncover truths and share knowledge with the world. Her work runs the gamut from race issues to health and food. Her work has been featured in Columbia Journalism Review, New Jersey Monthly, and Centennial Health among other publications. Follow her on Twitter @CarlettSpike