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Does the Health At Every Size® approach mean I’m giving up?

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.

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