Fat and healthy

The Fat Nutritionist: On Loving My Job and My Body

Friday, August 28, 2009 7:11 AM
By Newsweek

By Michelle Allison

Let’s start with this: I identify as fat because, well, I’m fat, and also because I don’t think being fat is necessarily a bad thing─it’s just a thing.

But calling myself a nutritionist feels like a fantastic act of audacity. I’m still technically a student, though I’ve completed the work core to my nutrition degree and am now taking a psychology minor.

I initially got interested in nutrition by going on a diet to lose weight when I was 21. I did it to feel better about myself, because I hated my body, hated being fat. What I told everyone, naturally, was that I was losing weight for the good of my health.

Except I didn’t get healthy. I was constantly injured from overexercising, and I came down with a virus that developed into really nasty pneumonia that I couldn’t seem to shake.

What kept me on the diet was the intoxicating sense that, for the first time in my life, I was following the rules. I was doing it right. I was compliant. I was a model eater and exerciser. My habits were above reproach.

In the end, I lost 30 pounds and gained a bunch of disorder behaviors. And I hated my body more intensely than before.

I knew that wasn’t how it was supposed to work─you were supposed to lose weight and feel great about yourself and be healthy.

But when I asked all of my dieting friends, no one could give me an answer. We were all so focused on eating the right number of calories and getting the right amount of exercise that no one had managed to figure this part out yet─how to actually be healthy? How to stop hating yourself?

Around this time, I stumbled onto fat acceptance and Health at Every Size.

In a nutshell, fat acceptance is the idea that human bodies naturally come in a range shapes and sizes, and that being fat is not necessarily pathological. It recognizes that there is a strong prejudice in our culture against fat people, resulting in yet another form of appearance-based discrimination─which is morally wrong, and requires a political response.

Health at Every Size is complementary to fat acceptance─it’s the belief that people can do positive things for their health (like eat well and exercise) in a positive, compassionate, nonpunishing way, without pursuing weight loss, and that even fat people can be healthy by all other objective measures. It’s the belief that self-acceptance, whatever your size, is good for you─especially when combined with other health-promoting behaviors.

After discovering these things, I decided to make nutrition my profession, and no one has ever questioned my credibility or competence based on my body size.

Even when I worked in one of the more traditional areas of nutrition practice, diabetes, my superiors never seemed bothered by my weight. I was hired even after competing against thin applicants, after all. And I believe my presence in the diabetes clinic as a nice-looking, intelligent fat lady, often with doughnut in hand, was perhaps comforting to patients, and deeply subversive to the notion of “nutrition equals weight control.”

I think people assume nutritionists all eat “perfectly.” Well, I don’t, and I don’t know any dietitians, even thin ones, who do. I’ve been lucky to work with dietitians who have all loved food and would never turn down a homemade brownie.

As for myself, I’m genuinely positive about food and my body. I’m no longer at war with either one.

When I stopped dieting, it was extremely difficult to relearn “normal” eating. I read a lot of books and struggled on my own for five years. In the end, it was a dietitian who practiced Health at Every Size who taught me how. I learned to eat lovely, nourishing food without worry and stress, and my weight finally settled into a stable, happy place.

Four years after being her client, I’m still doing well, and I want to help other people the way she helped me, now that I have the education and experience to do so.

I’ve done some hard thinking about what it means to be healthy. First, I learned to separate a person’s state of health from their value as a human being. Second, I stopped seeing healthiness as an end in itself, or as a reward for good behavior.

Instead, I now define health as a combination of the cards you’ve been dealt, and the way you choose to play them. Even if you’re dealt a s–tty hand that can’t be changed, you can still play your cards well enough to enjoy a meaningful life.

Acceptance─that is, learning to accept the things you cannot change─is key to health. This philosophy is embodied by the Serenity Prayer, by Jean-Paul Sartre’s concepts of facticity and transcendence, by mindfulness theories, and, lastly, by fat acceptance and Health at Every Size.

Allison blogs at The Fat Nutritionist.

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