Feb 10, 2014Vol. 44, Issue 3

'Health At Every Size' Approach Urges Self-Acceptance

Professor Calls for Truce in War on Obesity

Editor’s Note: Nutrition professor Michelle Morris is a registered dietician and director of the Dietetic Internship in the Department of Nutrition and Food Science. In 2010, she founded the Chico Health at Every Size (HAES) Think Tank, a campus-community support and advocacy group; she also teaches the new GE course Health At Every Size: A Non-Diet Approach to Wellness (NFSC 200) and advises the student organization Embodied: Living the Health at Every Size Way.

Have you ever been on a diet to lose weight? Did you gain it back (most do) and try another diet? Or know someone who’s been bullied because of their weight? Can you imagine never spending another dime or thought on the $60 billion weight loss industry?

The unfortunate evidence suggests that, in the long term, weight loss from traditional dieting is typically regained; that weight cycling negatively influences physical and psychological health; and that our cultural obsession with thinness contributes to weight stigma and discrimination in education, the workplace, and our health care systems.

Fed up with the stereotypes and the negative cycles, a growing number of CSU, Chico students, staff, and faculty have embraced an alternative lifestyle philosophy known as Health At Every Size (HAES®), a set of ideas that focus on intuitive eating and pleasurable physical activity rather than dieting and weight loss.

Grounded in a social justice framework, the HAES approach is increasingly embraced by health care workers, activists, and consumers who reject using size or body weight as a proxy for health and instead believe that the best way to improve health is to honor your body. Instead of prescribing regimented exercise plans and restrictive diets, Health At Every Size encourages a set of lifestyle philosophies:

  • accepting and respecting the natural diversity of body sizes and shapes;
  • supporting health policies that improve and equalize access to information and services that promote well-being;
  • acknowledging our biases and working to end weight stigma and discrimination;
  • eating in a flexible manner that values pleasure and honors internal cues of hunger, satiety, and appetite; and
  • finding the joy in moving one’s body and becoming more physically vital.

So much of the current discourse surrounding weight is based on prejudicial beliefs that heavier individuals are necessarily unhealthy, and that they alone have the power to change their weight. This “personal responsibility” approach negates the substantial role that genes, the built environment, and neurophysiology play in determining our weight, as well as the barriers to eating well that current food policy imposes, especially among low-income Americans. Given this, many Chico State students, staff, faculty, and community partners are calling for a truce in the “war on obesity” and are identifying as HAES allies.

The interdisciplinary student organization Embodied: Living the Health At Every Size Way

The interdisciplinary student organization Embodied: Living the Health At Every Size Way

A word of caution: Those who embrace the HAES perspective, which shifts the focus from weight management to health promotion for all, may experience discomfort as we examine our own weight biases and consider giving up old ways of thinking. Acknowledging that discomfort and its origin is a crucial step if we wish to challenge the status quo. Indeed, pharmaceutical companies and the diet, beauty, and growing surgical weight-loss industries all stand to benefit from the continued stigmatization of larger people and have much to lose if widespread body acceptance becomes the norm.

A new general education (GE) class, Health At Every Size: A Non-Diet Approach to Wellness (NFSC 200), offers students a chance to explore the HAES approach in depth. There are no prerequisites; the course is an approved writing intensive and U.S. diversity GE and is in the Health and Wellness pathway. Students can also join Embodied: Living the Health At Every Size Way, a new interdisciplinary student organization committed to promoting the HAES principles. The group meets next on Feb. 18; see its Facebook page.

To involve faculty, staff, and students, the Embodied club is planning a week of awareness events coinciding with the national Love Every Body Week (LEBW). Slated for April 7–11, CSU, Chico’s LEBW aims to increase awareness about disordered eating and the HAES principles through speakers, panel and film discussions, and other interactive events. More information on the week of free events and activities will be available soon.

In addition, Chico State students can meet with a student nutrition intern for free HAES-based counseling at the Wildcat Recreation Center or Student Health Center or, for a nominal fee, participate in the FitU program.

Club members solicited students to fill out a card completing the sentence, “I am….” with a self-affirming statement.

Club members solicited students to fill out a card completing the sentence, “I am….” with a self-affirming statement.

Staff and faculty are also invited to participate in quarterly Chico HAES Think Tank meetings. Founded in 2010, the think tank gathers people from across campus and the community to discuss issues surrounding body acceptance and eating disorders and brainstorm ways to incorporate HAES into the classroom, campus administration, and people’s everyday lives. A broad spectrum of campus is involved, including the WREC, Counseling and Wellness Center, Office of Diversity and Inclusion, Associated Students, and Enloe Medical Center, to name a few.

In the meantime, we can make small changes, such as being mindful of our office space and the classrooms where we gather to learn. Are they welcoming to people of all sizes? Chairs without arms are typically a good choice. We can also notice our thoughts about our own bodies. Are our judgments unduly harsh? Can we imagine appreciating our bodies for all that they are capable of right now? Shifting the cultural paradigm of what is healthy and beautiful is the first step toward empowering members of our campus community to achieve true wellness.

For more information on Health At Every Size, please visit the Association for Size Diversity and Health. For a student's perspective, see the most recent post on the Chico State blog by Embodied Club Vice President Crystal Vasquez.