Ever heard someone describe themselves as a pear, apple, spoon or diamond? These terms are commonly thrown about to describe the shape of our bodies and are often done so with a roll of our eyes at the inevitable misfortune that we don’t have the longed for female hourglass shape or male inverted pyramid. There’s a lot of talk about how diet and exercise can help to sculpt our body into the perfect shape which many of us fall for as we wage perpetual war on our bodies. We don’t try to fight our shoe size… our height… or our eye colour. So why do we fight so hard against our body shape and weight?
The science of shape
It’s thought that roughly 70% of our body shape and size is predetermined – that is our genetics has already decided where and how our body should be long before we even learnt the word diet. The below infographic shows just a few of the biggest factors that impact on the person we are today, many of which are out of our control and as hard as we try to fight will never result in a lasting change to our physical appearance.
Image: World Obesity Federation
Much of the research into weight science has been shown to be critically flawed and doesn’t take into account important factors that can influence our health such as internalised weight stigma which results from biases against people in bigger bodies or who have ‘imperfect’ figures. Weight stigma has been shown to be a chronic stressor and could be part of the association between amount of fat and fat distribution and disease risk.
One reason (although there are a million more) that we constantly categorise and place our bodies into boxes is that as humans we strive to make sense of our World by sorting it into neat sections and sub-sections. Our brain naturally works like this in an attempt to deal with the huge amount of information it encounters every day. One example of this at work on a global level is with stereotypes. These can innocently stem from a need to generalise about groups in order to make sense of them but are often negative, not overly accurate and lead to prejudice and persecution. Weight bias and stigma are two extremely common examples.
This reductionist thinking explains a huge amount of the misinformation about health and nutrition that is perpetuated by media and in our healthcare system. The assumptions often made in regards to our weight and shape don’t stand up to the following arguments: even if we could support people to lose weight and keep it off we (only a tiny minority of people who do manage to maintain long-term weight loss):
- Have no evidence that this would make someone any healthier than staying at a larger weight and incorporating healthy behaviours;
- Have no evidence to show that we can target weight loss to specific areas that would actually change body shape.
Health at every size ® (HAES)
The HAES approach is a powerful health and social justice movement which recognises and celebrates the diversity in body shapes that we have. Every single person’s body is unique and therefore special. No-one else in the world is quite like you so instead of constantly wishing and begging it to change, think for a second about how unique and useful it is instead.
Once we acknowledge that our body is what it is we can start to take care of it; where it is right now and as it is right now. Taking care of your body doesn’t mean that it will change and you can absolutely make it healthier without it physically changing one bit; contrary to what we’re told as a society day after day. Below are some of the common misconceptions myths about the HAES approach (credited to Tiffany Roe).
Myth: HAES supporters claim that everyone is healthy regardless of their weight.
Myth: HAES is just a new approach to weight loss.
Myth: HAES requires adherence to organic, natural foods.
Myth: HAES is just another one-size-fits-all idea that won’t work for me.
Myth: HAES is the “I Give Up” plan.
Our body shape is a personal topic and every one of us, hourglass or rectangle, has their own hang-ups. But in terms of our health there are a multitude of positive things we can be doing to keep ourselves safe, satisfied and well, regardless of what our body looks like. If you haven’t heard much about HAES I’d recommend checking out the links below for a new approach to take with our bodies that embraces them for what they are and not the box that society puts us in.
“You only have one body and despite how well you live your life, it may never change. Can you afford to hate yourself for the rest of your life?” ― Linda Bacon, Health at Every Size
For the keen readers and evidence checkers amongst you:
ASDAH. Poodle Science (Youtube). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H89QQfXtc-k
Association for Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH). Available at: https://www.sizediversityandhealth.org/
Sturgiss et al. (2017). Challenging assumptions in obesity research. Available at: doi: 10.1136/bmj.j5303
World Health Organisation. Weight bias and obesity stigma: considerations for the WHO European Region. Available at: http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0017/351026/WeightBias.pdf?ua=1