When I meet with a new client for the first time and ask them what they hope to gain from working with me, they almost always answer with some variation of: “I just want to feel healthy and confident in my body.” At first, this sounds great! After all, my goal as a coach, health and confidence are kind of my M.O.
But if there is one thing I have learned from my years as a trainer and a coach it is that the seemingly simple goal to “feel healthy and confident” is actually quite complex and comes with a lot of baggage.
What does it actually mean to “feel healthy?”
The WHO defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” This is arguably a good definition of health, but it is not actually attainable. there is no one who lives in an environment that would allow them to experience “complete physical, mental, and social-well being.” In fact, the majority of human beings aren’t even free of “disease or infirmity.”
When most of us talk about wanting to “feel healthy” we aren’t talking about this absolute definition. Rather, we are referring to relative health. We want to experience less symptoms of disease and more physical, mental, and social well-being than we currently do. By this definition, it is pretty clear that everyone must approach gaining health slightly differently depending on their specific situation.
But things start to get messy when you remember that we live in a diet culture. Any desires to experience health in it’s many forms gets overshadowed by our culture’s preoccupation with body size. Most health issues that we experience, both physical and mental, end up eventually being blamed on our weight, and so “health” becomes synonymous with “weight loss.”
Sometimes, this is perpetuated by the medical community, such as when a doctor only advise weight loss to a patient dealing with joint pain instead of looking at other potential causes. Sometimes weight is used as a scapegoat to avoid dealing with deeper and more difficult issues, like mental health and body image struggles. Instead of addressing the underlying causes of depression or body dissatisfaction, people will often turn to dieting or other weight loss tactics and hope that their mental and emotional symptoms will magically resolve once they reach their “goal body.” But this doesn’t happen and they can end up experiencing a number of side effects that make them feel even worse than they did pre-dieting. When weight and health become conflated, we end up perpetuating diet culture even further and causing even more harm.
In order to actually feel healthier, we must separate the health conversation from the weight conversation. This is the underlying principle of the Health at Every Size (HAES) movement. Frankly, the methods that are usually used to control weight cause far worse side effects than being in a larger body causes. So, when experiencing a health problem, instead of automatically jumping to the “I need to lose weight!” conclusion, you would be better off asking yourself these questions: what are the actual symptoms I am experiencing? What strategies other than weight loss could I use to treat these symptoms? Is there a root cause other than weight that could be causing these symptoms? Depending on your situation, the methods you use to improve your health may also result in weight loss, but this is not the reason you feel healthier. It is just a separate effect of the same behavior change.
Another important thing to consider is if you are confusing “feeling healthy” with “feeling restricted.” One of the effects that diet culture has had on our society is that we tend to assume that anything enjoyable (like tasty food and resting a lot) are “bad” for us and the health requires suffering through restriction. This is a totally backwards way of thinking. A healthy diet can absolutely (and should) include foods that taste good, and rest is not lazy, it is as necessary for health as exercise is! Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that all of the enjoyable things in life are bad for you. “Feeling healthy” should not require you feel deprived. In fact, it is quite the opposite. When you are able to enjoy food, movement, rest, and other aspects of life, you are much more likely to feel healthy and good.
What does it actually mean to “feel confident?”
The answer to this question seems obvious at first. To feel confident means to feel good about yourself, to value yourself, and to feel free of self-consciousness and self-doubt. Anyone is capable of feeling this way, and I consider it one of my most important jobs to help my clients learn how!
However, we have been taught to believe from a very early age that the only people who are allowed to feel confident are the people who “look the part.” For women, this means thin, usually white, feminine, clear skin, well-dressed, ect. Any deviation from these standards means we are not yet worthy of confidence. Instead of questioning the standards we are being held to, we automatically assume it is us who must change before we are permitted to feel good about ourselves.
So, while my clients aren’t lying when they say “I want to feel confident,” a more accurate statement might be: “I think I would feel more confident if I had a body that looked more like the cultural ideal.”
But remember, we are not all meant to look the same way. We have very little control over the shapes and sizes of our bodies, and trying too hard to micromanage them through diet and exercise will only cause stress and more health problems down the road. 95% of dieters regain the weight back in five years and overexercising can lead to injury, hormonal imbalances, and other health problems. Plus, many people report that the farther they get down the rabbit hole of yo-yo dieting and weight fluctuations, the worse they feel about themselves.
One of the most powerful things that anyone can do for their confidence is to work on divorcing their self-worth from the shape, size, and weight of their body. The less concerned we are with how well our bodies fit into the cultural ideal, the easier it is to feel really, really awesome about ourselves.
The restrictions we have put on who is allowed to feel confident are completely imaginary. Everyone is capable of giving themselves the permission to feel confident, but we must give ourselves this permission regardless of what we look like. The truth is, body-confidence has nothing to do with our bodies, and everything to do with our perception. So, even though we have very little control over what our bodies look like, we do have a lot of control over how we perceive them and in what way we let our perception dictate our self-worth. When we can perceive our bodies as unconditionally acceptable, and derive our self-worth from aspects of ourselves other than our appearance, we can create a mental and emotional environment where confidence thrives!
Are you letting diet culture define health and confidence?
We all want to feel healthy and confident in our bodies. But when we let diet culture decide what that means, we only set ourselves up to feel worse than ever. Diet culture’s expectations for weight and behaviors to control it are fundamentally oppressive and destructive. Instead of bringing us health and confidence like it promises, diet culture keeps us in a cycle of continually feeling worse while constantly offering up false solutions to new and worsened health problems.
Enough is enough. Instead of continuing to fall into this trap, we must break out of the dieting cycle and work to unpack in the ways in which we have internalized the messages of diet culture. Only when we realize that how we feel physically, mentally, and emotionally doesn’t have to depend on the way we look can we truly feel healthy and confident.