What even is "health" these days? Is it all about losing weight and eating less? Eating, but eating the right kind of food? No fat or no carbs? Running or HIIT workouts? Prioritizing sleep with work schedules, romantic satisfaction and social endeavors or is it about growth and self improvement? Everyone has different advice, different beliefs, and ultimately different needs. Not to mention, everyone will tell you different things. The complexity of "health" culture is in and of itself too much to swallow because no one can or will ever be able to do all of it. And, no one should.
The human body is meant to eat and engage in movement, but that does not mean constantly moving and stimulating our brains, stressing every morsel of food consumption, attempting to "fit in" every last personal self care ritual all while maintaining a decent social life and trying to find a partner to do it with you. The reality is - you can not do all of these things, at least not at the same time. However, looking around, being an active member of society - you would rarely be supported in this belief. The guise of health and wellness would like you to believe that you NEED them, their pursuits, their mission statements to embody a concept we are all so desperate to control. So why? Why is our society and economy making so much off of our inability to accept individualistic needs?
"The Constitution of the World Health Organization, which came into force on April 7, 1948, defined health "as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being." ... The first is that health is the absence of any disease or impairment." - National Institute of Health
Once a term used to describe the absence of illness and state of wellbeing for the physical, internal, and external body, with its many purposes and abilities collided with business tactics and consumer trends to become a distorted vision of pure physical description. This new misperception swept the nation with diet protocols and supplements that were swallowed without question. A market flourished and "health" entered the economy as a perfect commodity.
Being "healthy" was not about how your body functioned, but about how it looked. Physical attributes and never ending "lifestyle changes" were the best way for companies to make money off insecurities that you can't ignore with a simple walk outdoors. Messaging, opinions, expectations - they are everywhere. "Health" crept into careers beyond medical professionals and with them new advice got handed out with loose guidelines and fear tactics. "Watch your weight!"
The description of health was not one in which people avoided sickness, but where they were willing to endure it if it meant a physical association that welcomed you into a new community. People who made food their life, who let go of life now in hopes to live the longest, and who sacrificed the very meaning of life - love, experiences, adventure - to obtain a fleeting acceptance from a world who could frankly care less. Getting there was the battle. Reaching the end was never a possibility.
The more saturated the market became, higher confusions surfaced, unsure of who to listen to or what to do, people took it too far. I mean, can you blame us? Our population formulated their concept of individual health based upon the people around them, social media influencers with little to no credibility, and advertisements convincing us that weight loss was of course the key to happiness. The real meaning was lost and "health" became currency for success, popularity, and acceptance.
For me, health can feel like a dirty word. As someone active in the eating disorder community I know that the nature of its meaning is triggering to most. We, who have spent a decent amount of time on earth pursuing the very idea of "health", start to feel as though the word has lost all meaning. What we used to think of as the definition became the very thing to make us sick and in "recovering" we found the things that truly made us healthy, or better yet, make us whole.
Upon admitting that, we went on our separate journeys to find new meaning, to understand that yes, maybe society does have it all wrong and that although it will be hard, we might have to spend the rest of our lives combatting the messages that so slyly pull us all back in. Throughout the last 21 years I have believed "health" to compose of completely different things than I know believe, focusing on different rituals and abiding by certain routines. I've had a complicated history with trying to embody its true meaning. I still do.
In severe restriction, I believed that food was the most important way to attain health. When I lost weight, I attained the number, my tiny body, and the never ending comments of "what great willpower you have" to be absolute success. I had done it, made sacrifices, achieved that ideal "health" that so many people, including me, fall prey to believing. The kind that was aesthetic and selfish, isolated and obsessive. Two years later I was told by seasoned doctors that I was "sorry, in no way healthy." I was sick. I entered treatment for Anorexia Nervosa less than three days later. Starting to find myself away from the number on the scale, my creativity flourished. I met this brain that I had starved and fell in love with the way it could write, the passion it had for people like me, and the type of love I now had the capacity to carry, the way I could feel and see things in a different way than most people did. I saw that my mentality had begged for attention to thrive, but acts of restriction kept a huge part of me locked away. This was where I realized that food was not the only thing that mattered, that solely focusing on food can take a turn for the worst, and my obsessions were certainly not making me "healthy."
Months later I had changed. I was eating more than I ever had and doing things I thought I'd never do again. I took a break from the gym, not by choice, and watched my body heal with a lot of ups and downs. I gained weight because I needed to - at the time that was "healthy." Yes, gaining weight was healthy. My eating disorder hated every pound and every bite, but anyone else would tell you - "she needed it, she needed to heal." As I nurtured my weak body, my social life grew. I felt needed and made connections that I was incapable of when my central life was body obsessed. People around me said slowly, that they saw me coming back. In hindsight, this time period was one of the healthiest I've ever had and it wasn't because of exercise or food. But I knew it wasn't over.
I remained controlled by food. Portion size, ingredients, and quality were the new scale. My tendencies were not lost, but recarniating into something else. I saw that social and mental health were vital to my life, but after treatment I was not ready to leave the mechanisms that made me feel safe. I was passionate about playing the game differently than the women around me, but "healthy" was still about the food, it was still running my life, and I still believed that I needed to abide by certain "rules". Why? I'd say a lot of reasons.
To fit in, to appear strong to the people around me, to prove to myself that I could, to find control in an uncontrollable world, to join in on what our society thought was acceptable, to distract myself when things got hard, to succeed in something if I failed at another. Anything sound familiar? Societal norms are deeply ingrained and no matter how your belief system changes, it's hard to change yourself.
Overtime I saw how my disordered relationship with food was a constant inhibition to reaching any other life goals. Being hungry made me stuck. I could not be the student, friend, daughter, writer, employee, or inspiration that I desired if food was always the priority. I knew I had to let go of its overarching presence, the one that told me I would be weak without it. The one that told me I would be leaving the concept of "health" if I dared change my ways. By now I could see that my version of "health" for food was compromising my "health" holistically. Sure, it wasn't as bad as before, I was eating!! But, I was controlled by the type of food, where it was grown, how it was made, fat and calories and cooking. Because of it I became more withdrawn (social), more anxious (mental), more distracted (intellectual), more fatigued (physical) - you get the point. I wanted to be in unison, but with food as the key indicator, it wasn't going to happen. Letting go of that, just a little, could create space for the rest of my life to grow.
Simply put, my true, gut instinct, vulnerable definition of "health" is not how I live, yet. Mental, emotional, physical, social, intellectual and intimate. I still have a lot to work on in order to embody the approach of "health" that I idealize. One that is not just about quantity of food and workout plans, but also on the quality of sleep and variety of meals, time with friends who support me, a focus on academics and career, energy for my creative side - cooking, writing, and reading. Nourishment for a life I am proud to live instead of one I am forcing to abide by.
Let me break down some primary concepts of HOLISTIC HEALTH. (not the one that the instagram mom preaches about when she sips celery juice and makes her breakfast bowl of 15 calories.) Mental health may comprise of self talk, depression, mood, excitement, interest, or anxiety levels. Emotional could include approach to life, coping mechanisms, ability to handle disappointment and recover from failure, and ability to deal with difficult situations and/or conflict. Physical includes activity level (too much or too little), food consumed, and point of view on the food consumed (ie. relationship with food.) Social includes time spent with loved ones and friends, participating at school or work, trying new things, instilling self confidence, and saying yes. Intimacy touched on romantic relationships and interest in dating, being vulnerable, sharing a life, and recognizing that no, you do not have to do everything on your own. I also like to include intellectual health. What stimulates your brain? What do you love to learn about or do?
Finding fulfillment in these areas crowds out the obsessions with food and exercise. You have more to live for, to care about, to believe in. Every component to wellbeing plays a key part to a holistic life, but overconsumption of one, starves the others.
I believe, now, that a truly healthy person has several approaches to "health";
One, finds their own balance within each area.
Two, understands that there is a natural ebb and flow for certain focus points, that some days will heavily concentrate on different aspects and that that's OKAY.
Three, does not try to instill their lifestyle on anyone else unless asked. They can share it if they wish, but should not use any shameful language or instill concepts as a "must do" to "attain health."
Four, accepts change of plans and does not utilize harmful self talk when certain goals are not met or approached for a variety of reasons such as - being sick, engaging in social events, prioritizing sleep/self care when drained, helping others in need, or simply saying no.
Five, believes that state of mind is just as important as anything else. Words we use and think have a massive impact on mental health and should therefore be addressed just as much as any physical health efforts.
Six, believes in being well rounded and limiting all or nothing behavior in EVERY part of life. Balance is key. Letting go of perfectionism is a must.
And now, I challenge you. I challenge you to reconsider your idea of "health." To include more in your routines outside of meals and movement. What else makes you a better version of yourself? What makes you "whole?"