Is it okay if I’m fat and not actively pursuing health or fitness? How can I defend this choice in a world that tells me that’s not allowed?
“You don’t owe anyone your health” is one my favorite quotes from body positive personal trainer Rachel Marcus (whom I lurve dearly).
So to give you the short version of my answer to your query: Yes, it is totally OK if you’re a fat person not actively pursuing health or fitness.
But what are we really talking about when we use words like “health” and “fitness?”
It’s important to note that “healthy” is a word we bandy about without much agreement on what it means. I recently wrote an article about asking 60 kinesiology students to define health and got an impressive array of responses.
Often we are doing plenty of things that improve our cardiovascular and immune systems by doing stuff that’s fun and pleasurable, but we don’t recognize these things as health-promoting behavior because the culture constructs the performance of health very narrowly.
So, for example, the culture says that pretty much only eating low-fat, plant-based food and working out constitute healthy behavior. But what about the moments we spend with friends, laughing, having sex, reading a book we love, sharing a cheeseburger with someone we find fascinating, masturbating, making pizza or potions?
I argue that all of the above-mentioned activities create emotional wellness, and if we want to get all technical, then yeah, emotional wellness improves cardiovascular health, your immune system and even your body’s capacity to metabolize nutrients. Linda Bacon recently told me that when people are in a good mood their bodies are actually better able to derive the benefits of the food they’re eating.
It’s important to note that there’s a difference between “doing healthy things” and being seen as someone who’s “doing healthy things.”
It seems that more important than exercising and eating carrots is performing those things. Fat people (and honestly all people) are expected to perform fitness and health in an explicit, intentional and often public way, which is not the same as genuinely pursuing those things. We are expected to showcase our physical and dietary fitness as part of participating in the surveillance of our own bodies.
These expectations set up a contract that says: “as long as you are seen as attempting to assimilate you get a pass.” Well, there are many of us who don’t want a pass. The pursuit of “health” and fitness don’t appeal to me because they are tied up in colonialism, body fascism and the notion of one singular ideal of beauty.
No one has to earn the right to exercise body autonomy. We all just get to have that, but because fat people are seen as violators of social norms, we are seen as people who have abdicated our right to privacy. This is deeply patronizing and infantilizing.
I don’t think it’s your job to defend this choice. I think it’s your job to make decisions that work for you. You owe no one the task of laying bare your personal feelings and motivations for decisions you make. The expectation that you explain yourself is a deeply immoral one.
The choice to actively pursue health (narrowly defined) or fitness is a very personal one. Body autonomy is one of the most sacred things we will ever have, and no one has to prove that they deserve to exist.
Every person of every size deserves a life free from bigotry without exception or condition.
Dear Virgie is a weekly advice column by Virgie Tovar, MA, author, activist and one of the nation’s leading experts and lecturers on fat discrimination and body image. She is the founder of Babecamp and the editor of Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion (Seal Press, November 2012) and the mastermind behind #LoseHateNotWeight. She holds a Master’s degree in Human Sexuality with a focus on the intersections of body size, race, and gender. Virgie has been featured by the New York Times, MTV, Al Jazeera, the San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan Magazine Online, and Bust Magazine. Find her at www.virgietovar.com.