the HAES files: does the Health At Every Size® approach mean I’m giving up?

by Health At Every Size® Blog

by Jeanette DePatie (The Fat Chick), MA, ACE

In my work with ASDAH as well as my work as a fitness instructor, I have introduced the HAES™ approach to life to many people.  And over the years, I’ve seen a pattern emerge.  I’ve seen it on email lists, I’ve heard it in the locker room and all around me.  When I start describing the benefits of the Health At Every Size® approach, people are initially excited.  The idea of freeing themselves from the bondage of ineffective diets and the pain of body hatred is very appealing.  But there comes a moment, somewhere down the line, where they quietly ask, “but doesn’t this mean I’m giving up?”

This is a critical moment, and I think it needs a carefully considered and gentle response.  And at the risk of sounding wishy-washy in this moment, I usually answer along the lines of, “yes and no.”

Yes you are giving up the frustration that comes from banging your head, repeatedly, against the same “weight-loss-wall” and feeling like a failure.  You are giving up the idea that your body should be conquered and controlled.  You are giving up the notion that all other health and life goals mean nothing if they are not accompanied by weight loss.  You are giving up the need to put your life on hold until you reach an arbitrary goal weight and fit into a certain pair of pants.  And that is good.  Most people like this.

But truly embracing the Health at Every Size approach tends to ultimately result in another kind of “giving up.”  You have to sacrifice your skinny fantasy.  This fantasy implies that when you reach your goal weight, or the “skinny jeans zip” (even if you have to lie on the bed to do it) other things in life will magically get better.  You’ll land that fantastic new job.  You’ll be the envy of everyone you know.  A fantastically attractive and wealthy person (who also happens to be your soul-mate) will swoop in and “take you away from all this”.  In our world, this fantasy is incredibly strong.  You have to give up the “highs” of the diet roller coaster as well as the “lows”.  Most people don’t like this too much.

But I think the area where people struggle the most is with their own idea that the Health At Every Size® approach means you are giving up your body altogether.  They often believe that it means A) not exercising (because without weight loss, why bother?) and B) eating whatever you want, whenever you want.

But the HAESSM approach does NOT mean giving up on your body.  It means honoring your body in a uniquely effective manner.  HAES does not mean giving up on exercise.  It means finding a kind of movement that you enjoy and feels good to your body.  It means recognizing the good feeling you get after moving your body and making opportunities to feel that way often.  And HAES does not mean just eating cookies three times a day. It means honoring your hunger and satiety signals.  It means caring for your body with a variety of nutritious foods.  It means learning which foods fuel you and make you feel well and which foods leave you feeling less well.  In short the HAES approach does not mean giving up on your body, but rather owning and inhabiting your body in a special way.  In a certain thoughtful and unregimented way, the HAES approach is a lot of work.  A lot of people find this idea very confusing.

And it’s no wonder.  In a world of “get everything you ever wanted by following my ten easy steps, five point plan or three rules” the Health At Every Size approach offers subtlety and complexity.  The HAES approach means that people have to honor their own bodies and seek to find their own rules.   And the markers for success aren’t as clear-cut.  There’s no “after” picture.  There’s no goal weight victory party.  And for a culture that is obsessed with winning at all costs, this is also a sacrifice.  For many people, the HAES model means giving up the external validation offered by doctors, friends, families and even total strangers that can come with weight loss.  It even means a sacrifice of the notion that health and mortality is under our control—as many of us secretly believe that if we lose weight and do everything “right” we’ll live forever.  Most people find this incredibly hard.

When you’ve lived the Health at Every Size approach for a number of years and experienced the joy and inner peace that comes with accepting and honoring your own body, it can be hard to understand why others don’t seem to “get it”.  You remember the pain of the diet roller coaster and constant self-hatred and don’t ever, ever want to go back there.  But as we help others along the way, it’s important to remember the things you gave up on the road to self-acceptance, and honor the grieving process that goes along with that.  And it’s important to help those new to the HAES way of living to understand that while the Health At Every Size approach means giving up certain things, it means the precise opposite of giving up on yourself.

15 Comments to “the HAES files: does the Health At Every Size® approach mean I’m giving up?”

  1. Excellent post! What more can I say?

  2. Thank you! Wonderful article. I can relate to the way ‘all or nothing’ thinking intrudes on my self acceptance–this idea that I’m either losing weight or giving up. And sort of like manic depressives who give up taking their meds because they miss the ‘highs’, it’s hard to give up the possibility of soaking up compliments as I shrink my body (yet again).

  3. Wow! Good, good stuff!

  4. I love this post! It is absolutely truth! Well done.

  5. There is peace, grace and liberation in living a life in alliance with Health At Every Size. At the same time, there is work to be done and I can think of no other collective that could benefit more. I have mourned and have experienced a sense of coming to terms with my body, but for me HAES is definitely not about giving up.

    Emerging work in the arena of endocrine disruptors (ED) is fraying the fabric of the energy balance equation and the notion weight management is basically a math issue. The mechanisms of ED have the potential to dismantle everything conventional medicine thinks it knows about energy balance, weight and metabolism. More critically, the more we learn about ED and persistent organic pollutants, the more we may be able to understand why our body may not reflect how well we take care of it.

    I celebrate HAES as a cornerstone of my practice. But that does not keep me from working to help my body metabolize energy as effectively as possible. Learning how ED contribute to a compromised energy metabolism and what we can do about it will benefit us all.

  6. Thanks so much for writing this! The HAES approach is so different from what we’ve been taught our whole lives, and it does seem to be easily misunderstood, as if giving up a diet mind means giving up doing anything “good” for yourself! In fact, once you realize that its about what’s *best* for your own particular unique body’s age, shape, body type, lifestyle, strengths, limitations, allergies, etc it is the opposite of giving up!
    however, it really is hard to let go of the skinny me/perfect world fantasy when that is what the culture at large reinforces in so many ways…

  7. I struggle with this. I don’t want to give up the skinny fantasy, though I see the value of the HAES approach.

    Think of it this way: Diets promise big results with little effort (even though they turn out to be quite hard). HAES promises no results with lots of effort. It’s a hard sell!

  8. I’ve often said the best part about beating your head against a wall is stopping. 🙂

    It’s hard to give up the skinny fantasy, though. It’s very seductive, and the message is reinforced everywhere.

  9. I am currently in a very “thin for health” environment and I have found it very difficult, even before finding out about HAES, to be ok with myself and doing the things that work for me with the energy and time I have available. With HAES, I find that at least I have something to discuss and hold onto, which has been a lifeline. I am not really following the principles as I would like, aside from recognizing that this program has beaten my body down and it is ok to rest and take care of myself. Graduation is in June and I am looking forward to being part of the regular world again. I’m hoping it will give me a chance to realize that I’m ok and I can just do what is healthy for me, as opposed to trying to live up to some crazy ideal. 🙂

  10. See, this part I don’t get. Both sides believe in eating healthy. Both sides believe in getting exercise. Some people will lose weight from doing this; others won’t and might even gain. But while you have some control over your habits, you have little control over how your body responds to them. Doesn’t it just make sense to concentrate on what you can control?
    On a personal level, the Fantasy of Being Thin means little to me. I haven’t dieted in decades, but recently, I did a little thought experiment – if I did diet, what would be my goal weight? And I couldn’t think of any weight I’d ever been at which I’d felt good and people in general were reasonably happy with me. I also cannot imagine having respect for anyone who would only like me when I’m in pain, which is what being much thinner would mean to me. The way people react when I lose noticeable weight just makes me more misanthropic.

  11. I just got the ‘don’t give up’ speech from my doctor yesterday, after having told her the list of lifestyle changes I’ve made. Because my blood sugar is high, but all other numbers are good, I’ve been ordered to ‘lose weight’ through diet and lifestyle changes. When I told her, again, about the lifestyle changes I’ve made, having no effect on weight, she said “it’s not just about weight, it’s about lifestyle changes’. My head must have spun around a few times and I finally left the office after forgetting to ask about how miraculous weight loss would help the symptoms I originally came in for, such as scattered thoughts, nervousness and heart palpitations. In her eyes, losing weight will ‘cure’ everything. But the exercise and mindful eating I’m already doing is, as usual, NOT GOOD ENOUGH, I must do more, or else I’m giving up on myself. When I told her doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results was the definition of insanity, she looked at me blankly and sang the ‘calories in-calories out’ song. Needless to say, she stopped being my doctor yesterday. Now I’m doctorless and still wondering why I can’t concentrate and I’m suffering panic attacks in the middle of the night. I suppose if I drop a few pounds all that anxiety will magically disappear.

  12. HAES is a radical concept in a world where we’re bombarded with all the negativity about being overweight but I can say from my own personal experience it is the best concept to have been thought of. From the age of 8yo I never knew what it was like to be skinny and since that age I have been made to feel worthless, a burden to society, ugly, etc. The following 34 years were spent on every single diet plan, pill, potion, etc to lose weight and “fit in”. Just this year I discovered the world of HAES and fat acceptance and something amazing has happened … for the first time I listen to my body and not everyone else. I have accepted that I will never fit the skinny mold and hey, that’s OK. I eat more healthy now than when I was on all those diet plans, my body wants to move now because of the good energy I’m putting into it. I feel I may have lost weight but I wouldn’t know because I don’t weigh myself anymore. All I know is I feel better now at 42 than at least the past 20 years and that’s because of HAES. It’s definitely not ‘giving up’.

  13. You’ve put it very well. When I was dieting, I believed that I was “taking care of myself,” but after a while I had to ask myself why that “taking care” made me feel so horrible mentally and physically. I went through the precise process you describe here (“Won’t I just be giving up and giving in?”) Yes and yes. And thank goodness for that! Because I gave up all the toxic stuff (self-hatred, self-terror, etc.) and gave in to truly taking care of my body by listening to it and providing for it accordingly.

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