Another 5am post: Why I don’t like the term HAES anymore

Just posted a lengthy response to a post on HAES at Inner Thoughts, Inner Soul, but I thought I’d post a slightly edited version of it here, too. (Why the hell not?)


Rather than following a strict Health At Every Size philosophy, I now practise just listening to my body (or you could simply call it self-care or being kind to myself) which is what I believe was the core of the original HAES/intuitive eating concept.

In recent months, I have seen:

a) people in the medical community who supposedly support HAES assert what amounts to a moral obligation for fat people to practice HAES, and

b) people whose underlying medication conditions don’t allow them to be in perfect health, feel excluded or judged by the moral imperative they believe is inherant in the term Health at Every Size.

I’m sure neither of these things were the intention of the people who coined HAES, but somehow it has been co-opted or twisted into an alternative diet philosophy with side-serve of puritan morality.

There is no moral imperative for health, nor is there a moral imperative to eat a certain way or exercise at a certain level.

I am a firm believer that one’s body knows what works best for it, regardless of your base level of health. There is nothing you ‘should’ be doing, only what you could be doing if it fits with what your body and soul needs.

So, I listen to my body about what and when I eat, and how and when I exercise. And I also to factor in my emotional and mental well-being into those decisions.

The goal then becomes not perfect health (or perfect compliance, because some days your body and soul WILL tell you to lie on the couch and eat chocolates), but living in the here and now in the healthiest body FOR YOU, which means the best health you can have with your underlying conditions.

I hope this helps.

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24 Responses to “Another 5am post: Why I don’t like the term HAES anymore”


  1. 1 Twistie Saturday, 13 February 2010 at 4:56 am

    I think a lot of people forget that ‘health’ includes mental well-being, as well as trying to keep your body in the best shape you can, depending on its innate starting point. There are days when the only healthy thing to do is lie on the sofa eating chocolates all day before you blow a fuse and do something horrible to someone else’s physical well-being.

    And no, nobody is morally or legally obligated to attempt to be healthy. It’s an option, not an order.

    • 2 Miriam Heddy Saturday, 13 February 2010 at 8:31 am

      This!

      I think part of the problem is that, as Fatadelic notes, we’re working (at least in America, from whence lots of this B.S. comes) within a framework of Puritanism and that “Protestant work-ethic” with its “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” and refusal to engage in systemic analysis of anything, instead putting it all on the individual.

      But hey, I say we go with that and say that we should, by all rights, pursue individual mental health, and HAES is definitely inclusive of that. And the idea isn’t for us to achieve “health” but rather to do what we can to make our lives *better* (i.e., filled with more happiness and less pain).

      And we have to acknowledge that, in a fatphobic culture, our sense of what “health” means is so deeply corrupted that maybe HAES isn’t a useful acronym just because “health” is something we can’t detangle from fatphobia and ableism.

    • 3 Fatadelic Saturday, 13 February 2010 at 5:03 pm

      Exactly. It’s the ‘Four Pillars’ concept – 4 pillars supporting a platform, and each pillar represents one of: mental, physical, emotional, spiritual. If one pillar is shorter than the others, the platform on top (you) may plummet to the ground. You have to have balance.

    • 4 Anna Thursday, 11 March 2010 at 10:31 am

      There are days when the only healthy thing to do is lie on the sofa eating chocolates all day before you blow a fuse and do something horrible to someone else’s physical well-being.

      Oh My God, that is so good and so true. Sometimes I just need to be able to eat until I’m sick and then have a nap because otherwise I’ll snap.

  2. 5 Lisa Saturday, 13 February 2010 at 5:37 am

    What you are describing IS HAES. The concerns you noted – people who are trying to say that fat people MUST be healthy, etc – are, in fact, co-opting and twisting teh concept. For me, that doesn’t mean I reject the term HAES. It means I reject their attempts to distort it. I also reject attempts to warp or distort what feminism is, for example.

    • 6 Fatadelic Saturday, 13 February 2010 at 3:29 pm

      Lisa, that is always how I interpreted HAES, but I have become aware that many people – both health professionals and ordinary people – process ‘Health At Every Size’ not as an encouraging and freeing concept, but as an imperative. So my objections are not so much the practice as the semantics.

  3. 7 silentbeep Saturday, 13 February 2010 at 6:10 am

    “So, I listen to my body about what and when I eat, and how and when I exercise. And I also to factor in my emotional and mental well-being into those decisions. ”

    this sounds like HAES so it seems to me, in terms of HAES: ur doin it right. ;)

    Seriously, though no one is under any obligation to do anything they don’t want to do. Sometimes, the healthiest thing to do for an invidual person, is stay home all day, read a book and bed and relax from stress, rather than run around at the gym (that is just one example of course, there are many others).

    • 8 Fatadelic Saturday, 13 February 2010 at 3:43 pm

      Again, what I don’t like is the idea of ‘health’ being a moral obligation. Too many times, people hear ‘Health At Every Size’ and decide that it’s something good fatties do to go to heaven. To continue with the religious analogy, that it’s another ‘brand’ of religion; catholic diets vs Protestant HAES.

    • 9 silentbeep Sunday, 14 February 2010 at 6:05 am

      About the “morality” thing. That religious analogy kind of escapes me, since I was born and raised Roman Catholic, and have very little personal exposure to Protestant religions in my life. And now I’m a practicing Buddhist that likes HAES so don’t know what to make of all that lol.

      That being said, I agree with what one of the commentors down below said: I think that people who are into HAES need to fight to keep the meaning clear. It doesn’t have to be a “moral” crusade. “morality” is not intrinsic to the HAES philosophy. However, just like any other benign concept, it can be twisted to serve other not so benign ends.

      I would hate to give up a perfectly good term and philosophy, over to people who are sadly, uninformed and use it in ways that were not intended. I do not want to cede this term over to people that want to use it as another guilt trip.

  4. 10 nutrprofe Saturday, 13 February 2010 at 6:40 am

    Health At Every Size is about options. It is about tools that are available to you or should be available to you to improve your health, no matter what size you are.
    In the current medical model of obesity, thin people have every option available to them from the tool kit of modern medicine. Fat people have one tool: losing weight. Losing weight is the only path to health if you weigh over a certain amount, and nothing else is of any consequence. This is the model we are seeking to overturn.

    • 11 Fatadelic Saturday, 13 February 2010 at 4:50 pm

      I agree that HAES is intended to give options, but I have come to believe that a significant portion of its intended audience don’t perceive it as something really different to a diet or ‘lifestyle change’ -to them it’s just a diet-with-another-name that you do without the goal of weightloss, but with the goal of being ‘good’.

      And, if that is the case, then either:
      1. HAES advocates have failed to communicate the message correctly, or
      2. The message is getting lost behind the use of the word ‘health’.

  5. 12 hsofia Saturday, 13 February 2010 at 9:17 am

    I think the reason this keeps coming up is because health care reform is a big issue right now, and all the media about obesity causing health problems and costing money. It reminds me of the furor about smoking ten years ago. I think most Americans would agree that there is no moral imperative to be healthy, but where they disagree is whether there is a moral imperative to take care of people who get sick because of their “lifestyle” or perceived behavior. This is the sticking point. At least as I see it.

  6. 13 Chris G Saturday, 13 February 2010 at 10:51 am

    The health thing is the problem, perhaps. You don’t have any obligation to treat your body as a sacred object. It’s not like a rented tuxedo; you don’t get your deposit back if it’s returned in pristine condition. It’s just there to get you places and let you do stuff.

    I’m more interested in food than in health. I picked up an old cookbook the other day, just because it was part of a series called ‘Cooking for Pleasure’. You couldn’t do that now. It’d have to be ‘guilty pleasure’ if pleasure was being mentioned at all. ‘Cooking for health’ doesn’t result in food that actually tastes good.

    And I think that, unless you have a particular illness, eat what you *like* to eat. I think you mostly like things because your body wants them, but your body isn’t the boss of you anyway. It might not be the best choice for your bodily health always, but it is definitely better for your mental health.

    I have a bad back injury that has left me with very limited mobility. My doctor (who is fatter than me and has a similar injury, to put it in context) suggested that if I lost some weight it might help my recovery. I think that would literally be true, in my case. But it’s just not an option I am willing to even consider (I do everything else though, including the gym, physiotherapy and so on) because I identify with what I eat, probably to a greater extent than most people. So it would be like asking a writer with fading eyesight to stop reading. What would be the point? If you love it, you’re going to do it.

    Food should be more pleasurable than anything else, when you consider the amount of nerves involved and the frequency that we eat. Much more than sex. But the puritanical aspects of our culture drive people to think they’re being good by depriving themselves. Which is as fucked up as anything can be.

    Pardon me, I have some Norwegian salt cod to boil. I have a French pastry chef and his wife coming around for dinner, so we’re making a Carribbean-style cod stew for dinner, followed by a bread and butter pudding made from some leftover Xmas panettone for dessert. Yum!

    • 14 Jackie Sunday, 14 February 2010 at 2:46 am

      @Chris
      Can I come over for dinner??

  7. 15 the fat nutritionist Saturday, 13 February 2010 at 3:29 pm

    Yeah, I understand that people misuse HAES in this way all the time. I think of it as just another manifestation of how our culture has severely warped ALL of our ideas about what constitutes health and personal autonomy.

    For what it’s worth, I have made a concerted effort to NOT think of, or promote, HAES in this way. I think I wrote a post on it a while back, about the “obligation” FA people feel to either BE perfectly healthy (to, you know, “disprove” stereotypes that can actually be neither proven nor disproven because they don’t logically apply in the first place), or to practice HAES in some punitive, ableist fashion.

    Jon Robison, one of the HAES pioneers, proposed a different definition of “health” altogether, as “the ways in which we live well despite life’s inescapable pain and traumas” (paraphrase.) This, to me, is the core of HAES philosophy.

    I try not to be discouraged that people who are new to the idea continually misunderstand and continue applying what is actually a very radical paradigm shift with the same old healthist frames we’ve all been indoctrinated with.

    If we can fight to preserve the original philosophical roots of what HAES means, it will be a lot more effective than abandoning the term altogether to those who don’t really understand what it stands for.

  8. 16 Fatadelic Saturday, 13 February 2010 at 5:59 pm

    For what it’s worth, I have made a concerted effort to NOT think of, or promote, HAES in this way.

    I’ve noticed this. You aren’t one of the health professionals I referred to in my post.

    If we can fight to preserve the original philosophical roots of what HAES means, it will be a lot more effective than abandoning the term altogether to those who don’t really understand what it stands for.

    That’s a worthy goal. I’ve always liked what HAES originally stood for (a shift in paradigm), and I can certainly understand the need to have a ‘hook’ to hang the concept of a self-care paradigm from – but I’m the amount of misunderstanding from people who should know better as well as novices has muddied the waters. Has it gone too far to retrieve the term?

  9. 17 sleepydumpling Saturday, 13 February 2010 at 9:18 pm

    Fabulous post m’dear – you’ve hit the nail on the head with many of the worries I’ve had as well. Between those that twist it into meaning dieting, and those that add some kind of moralistic value to health, HAES is getting cloudy and diverted from it’s original concept. I’m glad there are those out there who do try to approach it without the moralism and altruistically, but I get nervous when I see those twisting it to their own aims.

    • 18 Fatadelic Tuesday, 16 February 2010 at 6:46 pm

      I get nervous when I see those twisting it to their own aims.

      Exactly my point. The distortion of the original HAES message then gets used as another means of flagellating fat people.

  10. 19 Deeleigh Sunday, 14 February 2010 at 4:23 am

    If people from the diet industry or medical professionals who don’t really get it are trying to co-opt “HAES,” then we should fight to keep its meaning clear.

    On the other hand, there are those who will always interpret a fat person eating vegetables or going to the gym as “trying to be good,” even if that’s not her motive.

    For example, I love the way I feel when I’m fit, and I enjoy dancing. When I do dancey fitness things, I feel happy and joyful. However, I also do things that I don’t particularly enjoy – like pilates and physical therapy exercises – because I appreciate that they make my body more functional, so that I’m better able to dance and do other things I want to.

    “Trying to be good” has no meaning in this context as far as I’m concerned, but I’ve been accused of it by people online, just based on the fact that I try to stay active and have sometimes described my diet as healthy (My definition: I eat a lot of home cooked, vegetable rich food – but I wouldn’t say no to beer and nachos). People who know me IRL realize that I’m knee-jerk rebellious. I’ve actually had to push my way past that in order to do what feels best to me.

    And, although I wouldn’t describe myself as one at the moment, fat people can be health nuts too. We come out of the same puritanical society as everyone else. Is that so awful?

    • 20 Fatadelic Tuesday, 16 February 2010 at 6:58 pm

      Deeleigh, to clarify, I think it is possible for fat people to eat ‘well’ and be active without trying to be a Holier Than Thou Good Fatty (and I’ve argued that in the past when the whole good/bad fatty brouhaha has exploded on a periodic basis).

      We come out of the same puritanical society as everyone else. Is that so awful?

      I guess part of what I am objecting to is exactly that: the puritanical interpretation some people can’t seem to help but put on the HAES concept, the Calvanistic spin that if it’s too easy, you are being slothful and the harder it is, the more virtuous you are.

  11. 21 Deeleigh Sunday, 14 February 2010 at 4:29 am

    Sure, HAES can look like a weight loss attempt without any expectation of weight loss. It can also look like eating whatever you want and not doing any official exercise. It looks different, depending on who’s practicing it and what feels best to them. There’s no obligation to practice it, and there’s no such thing as a perfect way to do so. It’s not about rules or perfection. It’s about listening to our body and treating yourself with compassion.

  12. 22 kallista Monday, 15 February 2010 at 2:53 pm

    I like what you are saying here, Fatadelic. I feel people assume that if you exercise & eat really well & are still fat, well that’s acceptable, but you should really try all the same – as if your obliged to be as socially acceptable as possible. Nobody really gets onto thin people if they are caught out eating junk food or are flabby, at least not most medical professionals/fitness experts, yet fat people are expected to do all they can to improve their situation. While I do like the principles of HAES, I think it’s more important that people be treated well & fairly no matter what their size, & no matter why they are that size. I also think the health care costs argument is so bunk, because nobody is paying more for health care because of other people’s weight, I don’t even know where they come up with this stuff.
    So I think HAES is great in and of itself, especially if you are recovering from an eating disorder, but I don’t think it should be used so much as a standard. It’s nobodys business if you choose a healthy lifestyle or not, really, & physical health is relative in relation to mental health. For the best example I can think of, look at schizophrenics. Most of their meds make them gain a whole lot of weight, & almost all of them smoke. Both the meds & the smoking (no ones quite sure why with the smoking) seem to keep the delusions at bay – which is really healthy for them, makes them functional. That’s an extreme example, but that’s why I use it – health is relative.

    • 23 Fatadelic Tuesday, 16 February 2010 at 7:05 pm

      So I think HAES is great in and of itself, especially if you are recovering from an eating disorder, but I don’t think it should be used so much as a standard.

      Well said. HAES – or being kind to yourself, or whatever term we use – is just something you could choose to do if it works for you. If it becomes something you should or must do, then it is no longer the paradigm-breaking concept it once was and becomes just a Claytons diet (i.e. “the diet you have when you aren’t on a diet”)

  13. 24 Fatadelic Tuesday, 16 February 2010 at 6:41 pm

    Silentbeep,

    The religious thing was more that I was trying to get across that it’s two brands (if you will) similar things. Perhaps the religious analogy was poorly thought out. Try Coke vs Pepsi, if you prefer. Both are colas – there’s not that much difference, and customers tend to buy one rather than the other because of brand loyalty, rather than any real difference.


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