What is health at every size (HAES)? HAES is the idea that all body shapes and sizes can be healthy, and that investing energy and time into weight loss is not necessarily going to produce positive health outcomes.
I noticed HAES emerge as a topic of discussion across social media in 2019 off the back of #bodypositivity – a movement which seeks to challenge fat phobic attitudes and reduce stigma around fat bodies.
Like most people, you were probably brought up surrounded by traditional beauty standards and diet culture messages. The idea that being skinny will bring you success, wealth and happiness and that being fat will make you unhealthy, ugly and a failure was drilled into us subconsciously via traditional media (magazines, TV, movies etc).
So with the majority of people feeling fearful, disgusted and generally negative about fat bodies, the news that a fat body is actually OK to exist and be happy and healthy has ruffled a lot of feathers.
But hold on, where has this come from? Surely there is stacks of evidence proving that fat bodies are unhealthy and that’s why the rhetoric exists in the first place? Well here’s the thing;
The HAES movement doesn’t deny that there is a correlation between obesity and health problems, it suggests that that’s all it is, a correlation. HAES suggests that obesity isn’t the cause of health issues, but more a bi-product. For example, Imagine that you saw the statistics for all those who died in car accidents in the last 24 months. At all of the incidents there was an ambulance present, but this doesn’t mean that the ambulance was the cause of death.
The theory suggests that people who live in fat bodies are statistically more likely to come from poor socioeconomic backgrounds meaning that their access to good nutrition and exercise is lower, and they’re more likely to drink, smoke and have additional stress due to financial difficulties, and that it’s these factors which are causing health problems rather than increased body fat. Body fat is the bi-product (the ambulance). There is now some evidence to suggest that the effects of yoyo dieting are more harmful to a person than if they just lived their best life in their fat body.
This topic has thrown up discussion points such as; ”Why should I lose weight when I’m healthy as I am? Trying to diet and exercise will only cause me more stress and to be unhealthier. Trying to lose weight will only mean conforming to unrealistic beauty standards and making myself miserable.” Are we just giving people who hate exercise a reason not to participate in it at all?
Firstly, even if HAES is a thing, let’s not forget the importance of healthy eating and exercise – they are so important for a magnitude of reasons beyond just how it makes us look. I’m open to HAES, but as I explore the subject I continually have to challenge a lot of my inner fat-phobia and I’ve listened to a lot of podcasts and an audio book to further educate myself. But we can’t ignore the medical professionals ringing alarm bells about HAES. Claiming that we need to stop glorifying obesity and denying the health risks in a bid to be politically correct.
I think breaking the mould and the ‘you do you babes’ movement is very alien to the older generation (in particular) who were brought up so deep within diet culture that this new idea is unfathomable. I know women in their 40’s and 50’s who can’t even come to terms with the idea that a fat person can be happy, healthy, and sexy. It’s actually laughable to them. But I’m not a doctor or a scientist, and to be honest, I’m finding a lot of the information around the subject very confusing. Who do I believe when there is so much conflicting information? How can I have such a solid belief about something without getting a lab coat on and doing the research myself?
However, I am a personal trainer and so can comment on how this movement has been affecting the fitness space. There is now a new movement of personal trainers who are putting health first, so rather than delivering workouts focussed on aesthetic changes, training sessions focus on feeling better on the inside and improving strength, mobility, cardiovascular health etc etc. I think that this is a fabulously positive thing and has had immensely positive feedback from women who are enjoying moving their body without the stress and pressure of weight loss. It is, of course, still the minority of PTs who have adopted this approach, because it’s really not easy to sell a fitness plan when it’s not going to change how you look when fitness is still so heavily associated with aesthetics.
I think there are lots of PTs who are afraid to speak on this subject for fear of offending people. It’s OK to have an opinion and to ask questions though and I think the worst thing we can do is sit back and not investigate stuff like this or pretend it doesn’t exist. But yeah… all of the PTs that I know have originally entered the Personal Training space because they became obsessive about their body and decided to make a career out of it by helping others to change theirs – this is very true of myself, too. That’s not a dig at PTs… it’s just an observation and my own personal experience. So accepting fat bodies and making this transition into being a HAES trainer isn’t easy for a Personal Trainer and they’ll naturally want to push back against it. Especially when before and after pictures are what puts food on the table.
With that in mind, I think that fitness has become much more inclusive of different body shapes and sizes, and this has encouraged people to start exercising which is great, but we still have a long way to go as the gym is still deemed as an intimidating place for bigger bodies. The industry needs to be trying harder to make larger bodies feel welcome and comfortable on the gym floor – everybody has as right to be in the gym regardless of how they look!
As these discussions are happening across social media, it’s important to remember that people will talk about a narrative which best suits them. For example, a size 18 body positive advocate will probably reference studies which support HAES, and a middle-aged size 8 doctor will probably reference studies which show obesity=illness. Just bare this in mind when you are doing your own research.
I have been through my own journey with diet culture and beauty standards, so I can understand why HAES has an appeal. I understand the pain that women go through trying to conform to these ever-changing, unrealistic beauty standards which pre-occupy us from achieving greatness. There’s no question that women should love and themselves at every size.
However, any PT who is fully backing HAES and denying that obesity is an issue, in my opinion, is extremely irresponsible. I think it’s important that we are kinder to people living in fat bodies (there’s no doubt that there is weight stigma everywhere) but we shouldn’t deny that there are health risks associated with being fat.
What do you think about HAES? Are you a healthcare professional or living in a larger body and have an opinion? I want to hear it!