Health As More Than Appearances

Posted by: | April 19, 2011

My Director, Michelle, was kind enough to take this beautiful picture of me last Wednesday, at a potluck in our office. In case you can’t tell: I am devouring a heaping plate of sherbert, with a few cookies and a handful of easter eggs.  It was delicious, in case you were wondering.

We were laughing at my eating choices, and the irony of my work (and the values I espouse) versus what I was eating.  We felt like we should post this to our website, to show the real Suzanne.

It’s true: I’m human. I also happen to be a human with a great weakness for sugar, much to the chagrin of my naturopath.

This picture, however, is an opportunity to bring up an issue that I have come across more than once in my life in the last few years.

We often judge health by how people look. Certainly, there are outside signs of health: clear skin, white teeth, the amount of extra weight on our bones, the way we hold our bodies, etcetera.

The way we judge others’ health (or lack thereof) by the way they look, however, is also a form of assumptions. 

It is what I am commonly calling health lookism.  It means that we assume we can see someone’s health based on how we see them.  It also closely connected in my mind with obesity discrimination.

It seems, as an unintended result of the focus on the “obesity crisis” as well as health magazines etcetera, that people look at skinny people and feel that they are relatively healthy.  Certainly if you try to think of the “picture of health,” I would bet that the image is of someone who is skinny. 

So let’s really take a look at me.  I am relatively skinny.  In fact, I know a lot of skinny people.  I have to point out that it does not mean that I am healthy.   Last August I received so many compliments.  I had lost weight due to pneumonia and seperated ribs, had been unable to sleep because of my inability to breathe and the pain of my ribs. 

I was shocked when I was consistently receiving compliments about how great I looked.  I was so sick, yet in everyone’s minds, I seemed to look so good!  It told me something very clearly about what the world valued: skinny people.  If we looked at me before I lost the weight due to illness, no one would have said that I needed to lose weight.  But after I lost weight (due to illness), everyone rewarded me with compliments.  This has some serious implications for those who are dealing with eating disorders

While I think it is important to talk about the impact of obesity and extra weight on one’s health, awareness needs to equally be distributed to the discussion of the impact of eating disorders.

We, as a society, are also doing skinny people an injustice: enabling them to feel as though they are “off the hook” for health.

While I am very lucky in a lot of ways to have such a fast metabolism that I tend to be able to avoid extra weight. Simply because I don’t have extra weight on my bones, does not mean I am healthy, however. 

I just hope we can move beyond caring about our health because of how we might look, and mature into caring about our health because of how we might live.

On a regular basis, I see how we judge each other about our health based solely on appearances.  The fact is, we don’t have anyway to see a lot of the illness that happens to make each other ill: we cannot see the germs or the blocked arteries or the MS.  So if we’re going to gently encourage our friends and family members about health, let’s consider more than the number on the scale. Isn’t it what’s inside that counts?

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