Who Looks Healthy

Picture thanks to reader Morgan!
Picture thanks to reader Morgan!

I saw a picture on Facebook comparing Marilyn Monroe to a very thin woman.  The picture was about their “beauty” but many people responded with some version of “Neither of them look healthy to me.”  I saw a piece about diversity in yoga criticized by people suggesting that we should be giving the participants attention because “doing yoga or not these people do not look healthy,” and I deleted a number of comments on a video of inspiration for fat people who want to participate in fitness that insisted that people like us shouldn’t be seen because we’re “obviously not healthy.”

There are a lot of ways that this is screwed up, let’s take them one by one:

First of all, judging how healthy people are based on their picture, or looking at them, is ridiculous.  Not only does this feed into various appearance based prejudices and stereotypes, but it also harms people who deal with invisible disabilities who have to put up with busybodies questioning them about any accommodation they might use.

The next issue is that even if we could judge people’s health by looking at them, it’s absolutely none of our business. Other people’s health is not for us to guess about, or judge, or comment on unless someone is inviting us to do so.

Finally, the suggestion that only people who are “healthy” (by whatever definition) deserve to participate in the hobbies of their choice, or to be seen in photographs, or be role models, or be in the public eye, is a blatantly disgusting display of healthism that is often used as another way to enforce oppression intersectionally, including sizeism, racism, ageism and ableism.

The truth about health is that it is complicated, multi-dimensional, not an obligation, not a barometer of worthiness, not entirely within our control, and not guaranteed under any circumstances.  But even more important, it is deeply personal. The push to have public health focus on making the individual’s health the public’s business, and the accompanying suggestion that people should have to “perform” health or “look healthy” to avoid social stigma, bullying and harassment etc. takes our attention away from things that we could be doing to support people’s choices for their bodies – including removing barriers to healthcare (many of them rooted in the same prejudice that this “who looks healthy” culture perpetuates,)  making sure that everyone has access to the food that they want to eat and that movement options are accessible and safe – not just physically safe, though that’s very important – but also psychologically safe. Until everyone can show up for the movement options they are interested in – whether that’s a local swimming pool or body of water, or the free weight area of the gym, or a pole dancing class or whatever – and know for absolute certain that they will not face bullying or harassment for how they look, then we aren’t providing safe options. Public health needs to be about making information and options available to the public, not making the individual’s health the public’s business.

There are things that we can do as individuals:

  • don’t use phrases like “she looks healthy” or “he doesn’t look healthy”
  • don’t use health status as a response to fat shaming – make it clear that fat people have the right to exist without bullying, stigmatizing, and oppression regardless of our size, or our health status
  • speak out when you see people engaging in this kind of discussion.  instead of countering “they obviously aren’t healthy” with “they look healthy to me! ” consider making it clear that the idea that we can know how healthy someone is from a picture, and that even if we could we should consider it our business, is absurd

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35 thoughts on “Who Looks Healthy

  1. Also, “look healthy” is basically bullshit. My mother had been overweight most of her life. At one point, she got leukemia, and when she took chemotherapy she lost about half her body weight. People everywhere were congratulating her on losing weight and getting healthy. yet she was dying!

  2. You absolutely cannot tell who is and isn’t healthy just by looking. And when it comes to yoga, swimming, lifting weights, etc., many people do these things as therapy to improve their health after illness or injury or to prevent further physical deterioration from a chronic condition. Isn’t that a healthy thing to do? Do the shamers really think it would be better for people who have had strokes or bad joint injuries or who have severe arthritis to lay in bed developing embolisms rather than do what they can to make themselves stronger? If they believe that exercise is part of making fat people thin, do they really prefer that we sit all day until we are thin? How do they think that’s going to work?

    These are the people who make my husband ashamed and unwilling to use mobility aids and who stopped him asking for a handicapped parking permit for four years after he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. They’re a big part of the reason he still tries to haul huge, heavy speakers and monitors by himself.

    Do they care that they are killing him?

  3. I wholeheartedly agree with all of this in theory, but sometimes I find it hard to find the best way to anticipate how to get this message out in practice.

    I think I first came to the conclusion that you can’t tell someone is healthy based on his/her weight about ten years ago, when I saw a speaker who was bulimic talk about how she was motivated to continue her bulimic activities when people constantly complimented her weight loss (and of course, mentioned how healthy she was). I also recalled a time where a woman went to a family reunion and was constantly complimented on her weight loss by family and then said, “It’s because I’m so stressed out!!” I often share these anecdotes with people, but is this an effective way to get the message across? It’s taken me a long time to get over the kneejerk reaction to “use health status as a response to fat shaming.” But this almost seems like the same method using health status as a response to “thin-complimenting” so I question the effectiveness.

    I think of some of the trolly responses to some of these things, and the reason that I’ve often had a kneejerk reaction of mentioning health status to fat shaming (“but she runs! But she eats vegetables!”) is because people better understand concepts and ideas when they have some sort of narrative in front of them, and people don’t “get it” when they are just told, “Fat people have the right to exist regardless of what you think.” Yes, they SHOULD get it, but this is where examples are helpful to understand the concept–especially something that goes against the grain of what we are told every day. And when I see arguments of “You can’t tell if this person is healthy by their size/looking at them and it’s not your business anyways,” then the argument would be “Well, this person is MAKING it my business by posting this online/working out in public.” Don’t get me wrong, these are obviously dumb arguments, but I’m still baffled as to the best response to them. I’m stretching my brain here to remember what I learned about logic.. I suppose this argument would be considered “valid” but “unsound.” (http://www.iep.utm.edu/val-snd/) Like the example of toasters made of gold in that link!

    TL;DR version, is there a way to employ narratives to help people understand exactly HOW weight is unrelated to health, while also getting across the point that “it’s none of your business anyways”? I guess ultimately, even *I* took years to truly understand the concept, so.. it’s a little unrealistic to think there’s some snappy way to get the point across easily… but wouldn’t it be nice if there was? 😀

    1. Two words: Jim Fixx

      He’s the runner who dropped dead of a heart attack while jogging. Remember him? He looked healthy just before he dropped dead.

            1. I didn’t realize that Jim Fixx was only 52 when he died. This Fatty McFatterson has already passed that milestone, and so have many other healthy fatties I know. We should have all perished from Deaathfat a long time ago, right?

    2. Step 1. “Their health is none of your business.
      Step 2. If they respond that “…this person is MAKING it [their] business…” Try something like: “Doing something in public (or posting online) does not mean they are inviting you to speculate on their health.”

      The fear of judgment and being out of place does actively prevent people from going to gyms and participating in sports and other activities. Considering that exercise can significantly improve your health (with caveats about the appropriate level and type of exercise not being universal or even possible for some), it is particularly perverse that people judge others, who are exercising, as unhealthy based on their appearance.

      1. Good post! Great insight too!

        I used to go out walking in the afternoons- after work. Boy, the nastiness I encountered almost made me stay home. Here I am, exercising and folks are calling me names (“piggy”, “fatty”, “fetch my harpoon”, “pleast don’t eat me!”, etc). WTF?

        Then I got mad. Figured the worst thing I could do to them was to keep walking every day. So I did. Wasn’t gonna let a$$wipes ruin my life.

  4. Unfortunately, most people respond to their feelings before they respond to logic. I know I do. I do try to think after I react, though.

    When I was younger, I was dumbstruck to find a thin, healthy-looking woman had lost part of her lungs to TB. That was when I realized you can’t tell by looking.

    I’m not even sure how many people who have those experiences make the connection, since society is constantly pushing the message. Hell, it’s possible some people would prefer fat people were ill if it would just make us thin.

    Bullying seems to be part of our society. If it isn’t weight, it’s something else, whether it is changeable or not.

    I post articles examining prejudice, misogyny, fat-shaming and other stuff on my facebook page. The folks that already agree with me read and like them. The folks that don’t, well, I see quicky memes that involve little thought on their facebook pages.

    I admit, I don’t engage. Maybe I should. I guess I feel that if they don’t want to think, nothing I say will change that.

    1. “Hell, it’s possible some people would prefer fat people were ill if it would just make us thin.”

      I’ve seen this in action: whatever makes you thin.

      1. My sister had gastric bypass surgery about 10 years ago. Since then, she has suffered a perforated ulcer, a hernia from the initial surgery, and requires iron infusions on a regular basis, along with the requisite tons of supplements. But she’s a lot thinner, therefore healthy.

        Okay, player. Whatever makes you thin, indeed.

    1. I actually experienced this about a month ago. I volunteer at our food bank, handing out hampers, not at the main depot. A woman came in and wanted to know about getting one (she had received some in previous years). She was celiac and the previous ones she had to give away because the pasta and bread she couldn’t eat.

      The other person I was with commented on her dress after she left, and said that she didn’t look poor. I was kinda gobsmacked.

      1. There is this weird belief that if you become poor, you suddenly lose all your nice stuff. I’ve heard people complain that ‘poor people spend all their money on tvs’ or whatever, completely ignoring the fact that said poor people may have been doing okay before illness or job loss, or that somebody may have given them a nice thing.

        I haven’t worked full-time in almost two years, but nobody took away my electronics. Which is good, since they are fully paid for.

        1. Have you run into the attitude yet that when we become poor we must sell all of our nice stuff, including both the stuff that makes poverty a bit more bearable and the stuff that helps us look employable and get to work on time?

          1. Not yet. I’m certainly not giving up my computer or internet because it makes going back to school and eventually job hunting again so much easier. Sure, there are computers at school, but only until 3 pm (I have no idea why) and yes I can use computers at the public library to job hunt, but only for an hour a day. Yes other people manage, but I see what a damn struggle it is for them and I don’t want to make things harder on myself.

            1. Not to mention that 97.3% of all jobs require you to apply online now. If you only have access to a computer an hour a day, that really limits your ability to search for a job.

              1. I never understood that. I attended a networking meeting last month (it turned out to be worse than useless though) but everyone in the class and the presenter preferred face-to-face meetings, such as when handing in a job application. Online it’s a free-for-all, who knows who’s going to win, but it’s certainly not going to be you!

          2. I have. The society dames here think you should sell it all to make some extra cash. I even heard that McD’s was telling employees on their job help site, to sell their Xmas gifts to keep from going too poor.

            I have not many pants, and only a couple very nice shirts, that I wear to my interviews. I find most of my clothes on clearance, and 1 shirt I bought was at Winner’s for $5.

  5. The whole “Looks Healthy” thing is total BS. I’ve been extremely pale and also fat my whole life. When I was in junior high and high school and I’d get sick I’d get these really “rosy cheeks” (usually because I was running a fever) and when I was really sick I’d lose a few pounds as well. So when I was sickest I’d always get comments about how “great” and how “healthy” I looked. Nothing says “get well soon” like “Wow, you look so healthy and you’re losing weight too! Whatever you’re doing keep it up!”. Yeah, like a high fever and days of vomiting and not being able to hold anything down is something people should be encouraged to “keep up”.

    The sad thing is when I was healthiest (feeling great, strong, active, and all around healthy) I was also the palest and fatest and that made many people think I was unhealthy.

    So yeah, I learned early on that you can’t judge how healthy a person is by looking at them.

    1. I am sort of the opposite with skin tones. I normally have a red face, and turn pasty grey when I’m sick.

  6. The “looks healthy” thing drives me nuts because I have an invisible illness.

    Which is – wait for this – invisible. You cannot (usually) tell that I have it. (Sometimes an attack is visible, sometimes not – most of the time, I look just fine.)

    It has nothing whatsoever to do with my weight. Most of the things people think I should do to lose weight either are not physically possible because of the pain of the illness, or would aggravate the actual condition. The markers people *assume* are unhealthy because of weight happen to be fine for me (mostly for reasons of heredity… Oh, yeah, the illness is hereditary, too… but, you know – invisible.)

    No one looking at me can possibly have a clue.

  7. It’s the fucked up beauty standard, which prices features like big eyes and prominent cheekbones – normally a sign of hunger or illness. And this beauty standard gets mixed up with ‘looking healthy’ too.

    I was complimented on my looks three days after birthing my baby, i.e. three days of hardly any sleep after a major physical strain and very little to eat.
    Well, sunken cheeks and big eyes with dark rings around… Just naturally glamourous, isn’t it?

  8. My thin, pretty coworker, who was complimented for her good health, had one of the worst cases of endometriosis her surgical team had ever seen. You just never know.

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