When that inspirational quote popped up on my Pinterest feed last week, I rolled my eyes so hard they’re only just back to normal. No, I am not anti-health. But that new, oft-repeated sentiment (,which, by the way, has also been co-opted by a modeling agency) is pretty hollow. The backlash against fat phobia and fad diets has caused those that profit from women’s insecurities to be more careful with their words. Now, it’s not about hating your body, but supposedly loving it and wanting to be healthy. But the reality is, in most cases, healthy is just the new way to say skinny. Health becomes a cudgel to make skinniness a moral imperative. (You know you need to be on a diet. Do you want diabetes?) Women are still encouraged to judge their health based on adherence to a narrow body standard and not more important markers, such as blood pressure, cholesterol levels, A1C results, the ability to move, soundness of overall diet, etc. And there is no acknowledgment of differing body types or that a woman can be big and healthy, too.
I will believe healthy is the new skinny when mainstream coverage of health is less about weight and more about getting back healthy numbers from the doctor. (Though we cannot always dictate our own health.) More about being able to finish a 30-minute run than about looking like the actresses and models on the cover of Women’s Health, who are overwhelmingly skinny, young, white, and of a particular body type.
It’s a safe bet we won’t see this amazing and beautiful belly dancer in Women’s Health or Shape anytime soon:
Despite the dancer’s ability to perform a very rigorous and complicated dance requiring exquisite control of her muscles, one commenter on YouTube laments that “if she didn’t eat so much, she would be really fit.” Because fitness isn’t about what your body can do, but about the flatness of your abs. And we can totally tell what she eats just by looking at her.
Here’s someone else apparently not the mainstream poster child for the new healthy — Wimbledon champion Serena Williams, who told Tyra Banks back in 2009 that her muscular body is often deemed fat and unhealthy. Fox Sports columnist Jason Whitlock is among those who criticize the athlete’s physique:
Serena Williams has all the ingredients to be Michael Jordan, Jim Brown, and Muhammad Ali rolled into one made-for-TV package. She is quite possibly the most gifted female athlete in our lifetime.
Unfortunately for us, she lacks the courage to fulfill her destiny.
She’d rather eat, half-ass her way through non-major tournaments, and complain she’s not getting the respect her 11-major-championships résumé demands.
She complains about being ranked No. 2 in the world when she’s not bitching on Twitter or her blog about new rules that forbid Wimbledon players from eating in the locker room.
Seriously, how else can Serena fill out her size 16 shorts without grazing at her stall between matches?
Oh, that lazy Serena, with her fat, lazy ass (and 27 Grand Slam titles, but, you know, who’s counting?)! My roommate freshman year was a college basketball player who wore size 16 jeans. I bet she and Serena could bench press Jason Whitlock. But that’s not the point, is it? It doesn’t matter that both my old roommate, a college athlete, and Serena Williams, a world-class athlete, are physically fit, athletic, and healthy. When we say we want women to be healthy, we still mean small and skinny. (Just not too “gristly.” See criticism of Madonna’s body).
I would invite Whitlock to kiss my size 18 ass, but I’m not sure he could catch me. I’m training for a 5K. OK, I’m pretty slow; he might catch me. Still, I am a runner. And I’m not alone. Check out any race — 5K to marathon — and you’ll spot large-bodied runners, dubbed Clydesdales (men) and Athenas (women). Now, if I continue to run regularly and eat a generally healthy diet, I might get smaller, but I’ll never be skinny. I’m just not made that way. I’m always going to have large bones, wide hips, and wobbly thighs (with cellulite, natch), but none of those things precludes my being healthy — just maybe getting the cover of a fitness magazine.
I love that black women are taking control of their health, eating right, running, dancing, and pumping iron. I love that women are pushing back on efforts to make most of our natural bodies somehow wrong. I would really love it if more women embraced the idea of health at any size. But I resent the way the weight loss industrial complex is leveraging our desire to feel good and live longer to sell the same skinny shit to us, under the new banner of “healthiness.”
Healthy is the new skinny? I wish.