Why HAES Doesn’t Work for Me

Before I begin, a note, as I suspect this piece is going to be controversial: This post is about my personal relationship to the Health at Every Size (HAES) philosophy, in which I delve into some of the issues I have with it. It is not an attack on HAES as a whole or those who find it valuable for themselves; in fact, I find a number of redeeming qualities in the HAES model, and while I think it has room for improvement, I by no means think it should be discarded. If HAES works for you, that is fantastic! And my unease with it by no means negates or erases your positive experiences, nor do my difficulties mean that I think you are doing something wrong. This is not about opposition, but about a deeper investigation of a complex issue.

The Health at Every Size movement endorsed by many members of the fat acceptance community states, simply, that the focus for personal health should be on eating intuitively and mindfully, engaging in joyful movement, and accepting yourself. Rather than attempting to lose weight or compel your body to do something it doesn’t want to do, the goal is to live happily and freely in your body, finding comfort and self-worth in who you are, rather than in constantly feeling like you need to turn into someone else.

For many people, HAES is hugely freeing. In a society that tells people (especially women) to loathe their bodies if they don’t fall within a very narrow standard, a movement that confronts this attitude and encourages people to do what feels right and healthy for them is huge and very radical. The idea of eating what you want, when you want it, and breaking out of destructive and harmful eating patterns is also very radical, as is the concept of exercising for fun, rather than with weight loss goals in mind.

However, I have some reservations about HAES and the way it’s sometimes communicated and talked about, particularly in regards to my own relationship with my body, which is often adversarial. Put simply, the stress on ‘health’ leads to a great deal of internal conflict for me.

On the one hand, I believe that health is a human right and all people deserve an opportunity to be healthy and to live in a way that they find personally healthful and rewarding. All people deserve access to fresh food and other dietary needs, and all people deserve the right to be able to exercise in comfort and in the way they want. No one should ever be judged for the type of exercise she does or where she does it; a fat women should be able to join a gym or a yoga class or any other exercise environment without being treated rudely, and without being pressured to pursue weight loss. We need to live in a world that is supportive of health as a basic human right.

But we also need to live in a world where health is not viewed as an obligation, and here is where I begin to be troubled by HAES. While HAES does not push health as an obligation, it is sometimes implied, and this seems to set up a ‘good fatty, bad fatty’ dichotomy, in which those who pursue health are doing fatness ‘right’ and those who do not are doing something wrong. While, of course, many proponents of HAES don’t believe in such a dichotomy and in fact actively fight against it, some aspects of the movement do tend to trend this way, and perceptions of the movement can create negative feelings about it.

While HAES recognises that breaking old habits can be extremely difficult—fighting self-destructive eating patterns in particular can be a huge challenge—it doesn’t always recognise that for some people, ‘health’ is a larger issue. For those of us with complex health problems, the reminder that we should be ‘healthy’ serves as another reminder of our role as social outsiders, because we are people who are not healthy, and will never be healthy, no matter how hard we try. We may not be able to eat intuitively, for a variety of reasons, and we may have difficulty exercising, but we still have value as human beings, and that must be part of a comprehensive fat acceptance movement—but where do we fit in within the HAES framework? How can we be accounted for in a radical social movement that at its roots still stresses ‘health’ and certain assumptions about health and bodies?

For those lying at the intersection of fatness and disability, HAES can sometimes be empowering. It can be the tool used to fight back against medical meddling, to develop more autonomy and freedom, to feel more comfortable in a body that does not always behave as desired. But for some of us, our relationship with the movement is more complex, because unintentionally or not, it reminds us of the social expectation that we be healthy and that we perform to certain standards: we must be healthy happy fatties, and we cannot diverge from this mission, or we will be letting the side down.

There is nothing wrong with being fat and unhealthy, whatever the reasons for your ill health, because you do not have an obligation to be healthy. Nor do you have an obligation to provide your good fatty credentials, your excellent cholesterol and fitness assessments and other evidence of being perfectly healthy but also fat. There is something wrong with not being able to access the level of health you want, and while I think this is what HAES is trying to push at, the movement doesn’t always quite get there. These subtleties and complexities require navigating careful ground, and I think many of those within the movement are working on that very ground, but sometimes, I need to take a step back from HAES, because sometimes, it reminds me yet again of the ways I don’t fit in.