Health obsession and “body projects”

Have you ever done a “body project”? To some extent, any diet is a body project, but I did an “official” body project four summers ago, dedicating four months of my life to an online fat loss competition. Like, one of those competitions where you post before-and-after photos of yourself wearing not a lot of clothing, with the chance of winning a trip to Hawaii dangled in front of you as a carrot.

It was one of the dumbest things I’ve ever done in my life and one of the most valuable. Dumbest, because I spent four months obsessively tracking every bite of food (by amount and calorie), every minute of exercise, every pound lost, and every tiny change measured by my plastic calipers and my tape measure. Oh, and I posted all of those details daily on the competition’s online forum. We were encouraged to read other people’s entries and comment on them, which of course lead to constant comparisons. (Look at how much/how little she’s eating? How is she losing inches so fast? Why isn’t she losing at all…what’s she doing wrong? What am I doing wrong?)
To make things even better (and by better, I mean worse), I was simultaneously doing a pedometer step challenge through my workplace. I wouldn’t allow myself to do yoga, because yoga nether netted me any pedometer steps nor burned sufficient calories. And I love yoga! By midpoint of both challenges, I was bitter and resentful, but I wouldn’t allow myself to quit. I was doing it all in the name of “health” (with a good dose of vanity, let’s be honest), but there was not one drop of compassionate self-care in what I was doing.
So what was the valuable part? I finally internalized the futility of dieting, an activity that I had engaged in since adolescence. I got into my best physical shape ever that summer, but as soon as I eased off on my obsessive behavior (i.e., reclaimed some semblance of a normal life), those pounds came back. What I did that summer was not sustainable, and not healthy when you consider all facets of health (physical, mental, emotional).

Of course, it didn’t help that three days after I posted my “after” shots, I quite unexpectedly landed in the ER with unbearable abdominal pain that required surgery and a subsequent vacation from activity. (Not related to anything I did in the competition.) I took this as a sign that the Universe has a perverse sense of humor.

My “healthy behaviors” had clearly crossed over into “healthism” territory. Healthism is one topic that Linda Bacon, PhD, and Lucy Aphramor, PhD, RD, explore in their upcoming book Body Respect.
Aphramor defines healthism as when “The pursuit of health has become the be-all and end-all,” 
Health at every size (HAES) shifts the focus from weight to health, which is good…but can that new focus on health go too far? “It depends on the drive for it,” Aphramor said. “If it leads you into a place of disconnect and disruptive self care, then it’s not about health anymore.”
Aphramor said that our society has come to view health as an individual project, despite that fact that society (and its disparities) itself influences health. This has lead to the idea that it is wrong or even immoral for an individual to not do every thing they can to be healthy.
“It’s the idea that we should put our personal health above of being kind or being fair, that our own body project is the most important thing we could be doing,” she said. “This can be very isolating.”
Isolating, and lacking in self-compassion. That’s where HAES and healthism differ: HAES is about compassionate self-care, whereas healthism leads to disruptive self-care. Compassionate self-care encourages eating for wellness and taste and choosing forms of physical activity that feel joyful, not punishing.
“Respect and acceptance are the key things to integrate,” Bacon said. That’s true in our attitudes toward ourselves, as well as toward others.
Tomorrow: Dieting and eating disorders, plus making the transition from dieting to HAES
Photo source: CDC