I’ve been an athlete my entire life. I’ve played on varsity sports teams, in travel clubs, through individual programs, and even recreationally. Over half of my closet is dedicated to athleisure. Nonetheless, my athletic career (and my dedication to eating well and staying strong and fit) has always been questioned and overshadowed by my size. I am a size 18.
I’m constantly having to explain my body to people that can’t grasp anything outside of the thin-equals-healthy and fat-equals-unhealthy binary. One time, someone asked a group of people I was sitting with if they wanted to do a group SoulCycle outing. They totally skipped over me because I don’t look like your typical spin class rider (um, I basically live at SoulCycle).
And my experience isn’t mine alone. The average American woman is a size 16, according to the International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology and Education.
So, isn’t it about time we start giving all sizes a seat at the fitness conversation table?
To start with, let’s talk about the word “healthy.” Sure, it’s a word often associated with photos of acai bowls and green smoothies on Instagram, but it’s also a word that only seems to be attached to people of smaller frames. But healthy doesn’t always mean skinny.
In magazines, bodies like mine are consistently and stereotypically labeled “before” bodies, as if I magically house a skinny person underneath all of my fat. This furthers the myth that plus-size people have given up on their own health, are unmotivated to be healthier, or haven’t set a foot in a gym since it was required of us (ah, high school).
That couldn’t be further from the truth, though—lots of thin and plus-sized people alike worry about and want to care for their bodies in the same ways.
The only difference is that people are socialized to believe that being thin has more value; we’re taught to see bigger bodies as lazy or incapable of fitness or sport achievements.
The reality is that there isn’t always a correlation between body size and healthfulness. A 2016 study in the Journal of International Journal of Obesity showed that a person’s Body Mass Index (BMI) is not an accurate way to determine a person’s healthfulness. The study found that half of Americans considered overweight by their BMI are actually healthy, while 30 percent of Americans who happen to have an average BMI are actually unhealthy cardiometabolically (which means they have a risk of diabetes, heart disease, or stroke).
Despite this information, size 18 isn’t (at least not yet) considered a healthy size. But my size 18 body is the strongest and fittest it has ever been in my entire life. I can thank the fact that I run, do yoga, and lift weights several times per week for that.
At my smallest size, which was a size 10, I hit a low point. I wasn’t doing any of those things. I was crash dieting, shaming myself out of eating, doing elimination diets, and suffering from disordered eating (which, according to a study in the Archives of General Psychiatry, have very high mortality rates, proving thin doesn’t always equal healthy). At this point in my life, I was very depressed and very angry.
Sure, I would get compliment after compliment when I was thinner—which only exacerbated my disordered eating and bad habits (I just wanted to keep feeling valued by my peers), but it was truly an unhealthy way to live.
It’s taken years to undo those effects, but I’m finally at a place with my body where I feed it what it wants and needs with without compromising my sanity to do it. And I take care of it by making it strong. I’ve got to tell you—it’s so much better on this side.
I’m grateful for the many body-positive campaigns we’re seeing lately in the media. They’re expanding public understanding of how a bigger body can be a healthy, fit body. They’re showing that ‘healthy’ has no jean size associated with it.
It’s a step forward in the right direction, and hopefully, all people will eventually realize that size doesn’t determine worth.