At the end of my Health At Every Size Facilitator training last week I was in Coventry in a room with no windows, having as close to a religious experience as a totally heathen non-believer like me could possibly manage. Like a beam of light through a glass of water, my world-view had been all bent out of shape and was refracting at strange angles, breaking up into tiny shards before my very eyes. Even surrounded by a group of like-minded individuals, the world seemed new and bewildering. At the end of the day I trailed silently down to the station and got on the train home feeling emotionally bruised, unsettled and more than a little bit overwhelmed.
Health At Every Size (HAES) might be an idea you are familiar with – it incorporates elements of mindfulness, such as intuitive eating, something Susie Orbach writes about so clearly and beautifully in her book On Eating. HAES is a philosophy on health that steers us away from assumptions based on appearance and suggests that a little more compassion for ourselves, and then others, could do wonders for our well-being, as individuals and on a wider scale.
So far, so manageable. These are all ideas I felt comfortable with – ya, ya, self-acceptance, listening to your body, blah blah, compassion – I was down with all that stuff. I couldn’t exactly completely do it, but I got the idea and I thought it was a grand plan in theory. I knew the basics, I had the t-shirt and I was ready to learn how to teach the good word to the rest of the world: “Being fat is fine, people!” I thought I was prepared.
As you can guess, it doesn’t go well. I wasn’t prepared at all. I wasn’t prepared to face myself with such honesty. I wasn’t prepared to give up the “ideal me” that I had been striving vainly towards for virtually my whole life. I wasn’t prepared to be moved and challenged by the Health At Every Size philosophy, the enormity of its meaning and its powerful argument for change, awareness and acceptance. I wasn’t prepared to be pulled apart, pummeled and reformed, a new, more resilient me
So, I know that it sounds a little like I just got smacked out on a heady combo of mushrooms and Marxism or signed away my first born to a fantastical cult – philosophy, you say, profundity and ideals? All that can ever lead to is a terrible come down or stockpiling for Armageddon. Well, yes…. And no.
In some ways, HAES requires such a shift in world-view that it is comparable to gaining or losing a religion. It encourages the kind of switch in perspective I associate with the fuzzy, fishbowl views and sudden epiphanies of being high.
It’s not just understanding the science of why diets make you fat, it’s asking you to abandon the binary system of good/bad, healthy/unhealthy, right/wrong that we have grown up with, and grown into, that forms the basis of our ability to categorise and understand the world. It’s asking that you not only throw out all the pots and pans of the BMI as a tool to measure health, it’s asking that you burn down the kitchen and rebuild from scratch our concept of what health is and the ways in which we affect changes to it. It’s not just re-evaluating which nutritional expert is the best. It’s insisting that we interrogate the way we value information, and make a system where different forms of knowledge, such as lived experience, are just as valuable as biomedical or academic knowledge, where teaching and learning are one and the same. It’s not just about size, it’s not just about food, shit, it’s not even just about health – it’s huge.
But on the other hand, HAES is also the small fry, the every day. HAES is having a bad day, eating a whole packet of biscuits and, crucially, not feeling bad about it. Because the problem is not eating the biscuits, the problem is the judgment that leads to the cycle of shame and guilt that follows. HAES is being able to tune in to what you need right now to enable you to do whatever it is you’re doing, to begin to unpick the difference between a tool that serves a useful purpose for you and a learned behavior. For me, part of HAES is beginning to understand when I’m mistaking a non-food need as hunger. I might think I’m hungry for cake but I might just be feeling angry and have learned to self-soothe always with food. It’s also reassuring to know that food can serve many purposes including nutritional, social and emotional, all of them valid. HAES is a tool that can help you to choose whether it’s ironing, or running or cheese that you need – whatever it is that nourishes you and helps you fill the needs you have. HAES is keeping the faith and staying open to possibilities. More than anything it’s giving yourself options.
It’s not easy. Sometimes I wish that I hadn’t set my feet on this path and that I could return to the comfortable discomfort of knowing that all I needed was the right kind of hair to be happy. It’s been a grieving process to give up the perfect me I knew I could become one day, to let go of the familiar smokescreen of fat as the root of all my unhappiness and my old friend, the cycle of dieting that I knew I could fail at so successfully. It’s hard to meet yourself where you are. If, as HAES suggests, your socio-economic status and your environment have as much impact on your health as lifestyle choices, then the problem with people’s health is as much the massive inequality in the world – in education, income, rights – and what the hell do we do about that? The day after I took the course came a crash and burn into despair at the seemingly insurmountable obstacles of social injustice.
But I have recovered and am putting the pieces back together, renewed and hopeful. HAES gives us the tools to be proactive at every level – at a personal level, at a peer level and politically (with a small ‘p’, y’all). It gives us agency and the ability to understand why agency is crucial to health and making positive change. HAES is a philosophy of health that is relevant to everyone and it gives us options outside of hating our bodies, beyond competing fruitlessly against ourselves or each other, and the chance to be connected with others in a powerful, compassionate way. If you can just sit with the discomfort until it settles, the future looks bright.
I’m only halfway through my training and there’s a long way to go. Accepting that you are a process, a messy, non-linear process is key. To take your eye off the physical perfection that seems tantalisingly just out of reach and to fix instead on the distant goal of equality and the broad expanse of horizon, is no mean feat. But it can make the process more pleasurable in realising that, with a switch in perspective, your ultimate destination is the path you’re already on.
I’m still afraid that if I begin to believe that this really is a genuine shift in my relationship with myself, with my body and with food, then it will escape and disappear into dust like any previous dieting ‘successes’. I am terrified, and exhilarated – the possibilities for joy and pain are all too real – but for now I will just keep putting one foot in front of the other, be brave in my contentment with myself and hope that this one, this time is for keeps.