Health At Every Size – Fuck Yes.

If you haven’t heard of Health At Every Size, go visit their page & read a bit of the lovely common sense it delivers (for free! No charge!).

HAES-logo

I will confess now that, despite my fervent Catholic-Primary-School-prayers to induce showers of rain on P.E. days or strike down my Phys. Ed. teacher (twist: my evil P.E. instructor was also the jovial school principal. So confusing!), I am now so avidly active that I feel out of sorts if I don’t get to work out almost daily.

Back before I started thinking about bodies & dieting. My little sisters kept me on my toes :)
Back before I started thinking about bodies & dieting. My little sisters (front) kept me on my toes 🙂

But it wasn’t always so. What got me there? A number of things. Insecurity, first, got me trying to work out (rather pathetically, on a treadmill) in the safety of my own home. Because I was always an unfit child, I am now – and probably will always be – extremely careful about who sees me work out. It just does not feel like a natural thing for me to do in public. It’s rather like having to go to the bathroom with somebody being able to hear you. Oh, you’re OK with that? How lovely for you.

While insecurity nudged me in the direction of the treadmill, the HAES movement got me confident enough to start REALLY loving what I was doing with my body.

You see, working out for weight loss and weight loss alone is not really fun. Sure, it can motivate you for a while. A very little while. But, if every time you catch your reflection in the oversized gym mirrors, you feel a pang of disappointment that you don’t look like a fitness model, you may end up quitting the gym altogether. Disappointment and dread are serial killers of enthusiasm. And workouts need a shitload of enthusiasm.

So, why bother? Why bother if you’re not going to lose weight anyway?

Because, it’s WONDERFUL. Exercise is so brain-poppingly fun that I’m unable to truly paint those sedentary souls out there an adequate picture within the confines of these few pages. For some, the workout isn’t even the most fun part (or they may even dread it. Hell, with Shaun T’s workouts, I sometimes do). It’s the buzz that keeps going for days after, the sudden alertness which is injected into your life, the general feeling that everything is just a few turns up on the happiness dial. Does that sound like a drug of some sort? Perhaps. Isn’t that nice?

I’ve been getting back into a decent workout routine after having a fair bit of interruption earlier this year, and now that I have, I’ve noticed a skip in my step which had been missing for a few months. Unlike all the other stimulants I tend to crave (hello coffee, alcohol, sugar, Internet), the ‘buzz’ sort of sticks with you without the inevitable crash, later (e.g. heart palpitaitons, hangover, low blood sugar, wasted time).

But why focus on the HAES movement? What does it even mean?

We’ll start with that premise upon which I based my earliest forays into getting into shape: weight loss & ‘toning’. I tried to link to a few articles which talk about why our obsession with toning is getting out of hand, but I couldn’t find them anymore for all the misogynistic articles which tell women why they should stop doing things that don’t make them thin.

Like I mentioned, trying to lose some weight in my early 20s certainly got me started. But it also saw me soon obsessively controlling my diet & introducing worrying numbers of compulsive behaviours, exercising so intensively that I regularly injured myself, and being unable to sleep or rest if I hadn’t done my quota of training for the day. And the quotas kept getting more and more difficult to achieve because I kept upping the goals. Certainly, setting higher goals is something that helps us move forward. But if you’re doing it with little or no information about the beautiful machine you’re trying to push (i.e. your body), like most of us do, then you’re doing yourself a disservice (and one that could bite you in the lower back later).

THIS was my playground for a short while. Not bad, huh?
THIS was my playground for a short while. Not bad, huh? That cyclist is far too upright on that bike to be me.

When I returned to South Africa after a few years abroad, I started to put on weight at great speed. Ah, the good life. The life of driving cars instead of using public transport or walking, the abundance of excellent wine, the frequency of social events (with snacks! And drinks!). Life was different here, compared to the country I had just come from and, though I missed the simplicity of the life I had lived for three years previously, there was everything to love about being back in Cape Town (except the public transport. I’m still struggling with that).

No matter how ridiculous you feel that having weight-loss goals may be, for most of us, there’s a voice inside telling us that we need to be aiming for them. We might remind ourselves every day of the more important things in the world to be worrying about, the people we could be helping with all the time we spend trying to lose weight, the other goals we could be achieving, the money we could be saving, the brain we are currently frying by filling it with such stupid thoughts. But the voice remains. I imagine it to be a snivelly little voice, belonging to someone who hunches over conspiratorially when they talk, like a cartoon villain. “You can’t wear that” the voice says, “That’s not for you, that’s for people who look thinner than you” (said in reaction to a desire to leave the house today or to go shopping or attend a nighttime social event or… anything), “If you start measuring out your food, you’ll get more control of your diet,”, “Nobody will take you seriously until you’re thin”. All ridiculous thoughts, but all terribly common ones.

This baboon and I are sad, thinking of all the cool activities people are missing out on because they're worried about their weight.
This baboon and I are sad, thinking of all the cool activities people are missing out on because they’re worried about their weight.

Most of us don’t need to lose weight. We’re healthy. Our fat does not endanger our lives. And for those who do need to lose kilos (whose fat does endanger their lives), exercise is usually not something they feel comfortable trying, because the stock image of people working out is thin people working out.

So, HAES has opted to combat that image, and to encourage everybody to be physically active – without the constant plug that we’re doing it only to lose weight. Because not only is that false, it’s demotivating, patronising, and gross. Which bodies should be exercising? All bodies! And we need those snivelling voices out of our heads while we’re doing it.

When I was doing the Jillian Michaels workouts a few years ago, I used to feel so irritated with her ‘motivational’ speeches during them, I switched off the sound. Example: “Now, I always think of the arms as the part of your body that’s naked in front of strangers the majority of the time! I mean, this is the only part of your body that most people are gonna see naked, right? So we’re going to make sure that these suckers look hot!” – from ‘No More Trouble Zones’.

Michaels, proselytising about the importance of fat loss.
Michaels, proselytising about the importance of fat loss.

Or, in the Les Mills workout recently, I had to field constant reminders about how this was going to lengthen my body (lengthen my body?) and make me nice & lean. This is the same with absolutely every single workout I’ve tried. I don’t blame them: selling thinness sells products. So that just means I have to turn off the rubbish & play music over it.

The HAES site encourages you to sign up to their site & pledge, the concept of which is:

“Interest in Health at Every Size (HAES) is growing fast. People are tired of diets, tired of feeling like failures, and tired of being scared of food. They are excited to find a paradigm that respects the diversity of human bodies and starts from the very basic premise that they can trust themselves—a paradigm that respects pleasure rather than denial.

We’re at a transition point. Many people are ready to move on from feeling shame about their bodies and being preoccupied with their weight, yet our institutions are still mired in damaging old-school thought. Large publishers hesitate to publish Health at Every Size books, worried that only books promising weight loss will sell. Many health professionals and organizations cling to the belief that fear-mongering about weight and promising weight loss motivate people to improve their health practices. The mainstream media is reluctant to give Health at Every Size sufficient air time, apparently convinced that reinforcing people’s weight insecurities generates more attention. To show your commitment to HAES, sign the HAES Pledge.

Your healty Yoga instructor
Your healthy & ‘curvy’ Yoga instructor

It also offers resources & tools for those who would like to become or remain active but keep their self-esteem up at the same time. Body positivity can only be a good thing, and this project helps people maintain their positive feelings about their bodies (think: you have this pretty awesome body & you spend your life feeling angry with it, disgusted with it, ungrateful for it), while encouraging them to use their bodies in wonderful & active ways.

If HAES had its way, all people would feel confident being outdoors and moving their butts without fear that they’re not the ‘right fit’ for such activity. Earlier, I had posted about the workouts I tried, and realised that all the pictures included were of fitness trainers with less than 3% body fat. That’s marketing for you. ALL the trainers make themselves look like this in order to sell us the hope that we’ll look that one day. I’ll see if I can hunt down some other trainers, but for now, I’ll have to try to ignore the message they’re sending that you can’t enjoy exercise without aiming to reduce our body fat percentage to scarily-low numbers, you can’t enjoy it if you don’t want your abs to show in cut lines across your abdomen, you can’t enjoy it if you’re not going to suffer in some way because of it. In truth, I LOVE to suffer while I’m working out. I like to push myself so that I almost can’t go anymore, but some days I just want to bounce around and enjoy it all. And I can’t do that if my brain is telling me that I have to punish myself, otherwise I’ll get fat or stay fat.

At some of the gyms I’ve attended, I’ve seen a fair number of trainers who had a lot more body fat than I did, and it was encouraging – and their classes were usually more fun. And it’s nice to see that real-life trainers don’t look like the TV ones. Because those guys aren’t really living sustainable lives. Unless you count all day in the gym and eating 2 spoons of quinoa a day a sustainable plan (I’m joking, I don’t really know what quinoa is).

I once had an experience where I was at an advanced level of fitness, and trained up to 6 times a week. I had joined a small gym where I attended boxing classes, and my fitness level was commented on by the gym’s owner. She pulled me aside and told me that my fitness levels were excellent, immediately following it up with: “now if you just focussed on your diet a bit more, you’d be perfect”. There was no winning. This was particularly depressing because at the time I focussed on my diet obsessively. I just didn’t have those magical genes that made fat melt off my body when I ‘dieted’. I had that magical gene that grabbed fat with both hands and pulled it in for a nice, friendly hug before inviting it to join its other friends and stick around forever. And I’m pretty happy with it now!

This is the kind of afternoon one can have if one stops thinking about how much weight one still needs to lose. Cheese! Wine! Sunshine!
This is the kind of blissful afternoon one can enjoy regularly if one stops thinking about how much weight one still needs to lose. Cheese! Wine! Sunshine! Picnics! (Ps – this kind of relaxed happiness is a new thing for me. And it runs deep now. And it’s wonderful).

I recommend that y’all stop chasing the numbers on the scale or on the measuring tape. Enjoy the only body you have, and enjoy that beautiful feeling you get from working out regularly. You will sleep better, start embarrassing your friends/kids/family members by breaking into bouts of skipping down the street, and you’ll feel a great deal more confident. Change the language you use, change the way you think about your body and the purposes it serves.

And enjoy yourself.

Here are some links to body-positive fitness resources:

Health At Every Size

Curvy Yoga

Rebel.org (body positivity for young women & girls)

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