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PSA: Being Healthy Isn’t A Contest, So Stop Trying To Win It

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be healthy — if it’s a word I qualify for, or a word I even aspire to. I think it’s a word that is generally more useful than things like “normal,” in the sense that it allows for varying definitions based on goals and needs, but it also feels like an increasingly-loaded word, full of judgment and constantly-moving goalposts. I know (vaguely) what it means for me to be healthy, in terms of both my mental and physical lives, but I also know that it’s not a constant state, or a mountain I will one day climb to the top of and sit upon for the rest of my life. My life, like anyone else’s, is made up of millions of little individual choices, some better and some worse for us, and the battles are won much more along the averages than they are on any individual choice. And yet, this sensible, how-am-I-doing-on-the-whole approach seems to have almost entirely disappeared from our culture, replaced by a violent pendulum swing that is always pushing us to indulgence, or to deprivation.

One need look no further than social media to see the degree to which our culture has divided into two equally-terrifying camps: the Health As Religion camp, and the Gluttonous Nihilism camp. Scroll through your Facebook feed or your Instagram explore feature, and you will see alternating autoplay videos of deep-fried Oreo pizzas (a real thing) and vegan fitness gurus who advocate eating 40 pieces of fruit a day to maintain a size-zero figure (also a real thing).

We see food blogs that advocate replacing every moderately-indulgent item on your plate with spiralized cucumbers, and food blogs engaged in a permanent arms race for who can create the most aggressively-repulsive french fry platter or ice cream sundae. And it feels naive to ignore the correlation between the two: the more sedentary our lifestyles, and the more emptily-caloric our diets, the more “health” is going to be positioned as this aspirational, perfection-obsessed light at the end of the tunnel. We are a very generally unhealthy culture, so in the absence of any kind of moderation, we turn health into a competition.

America has never been a moderate place to begin with, of course: we do everything bigger, faster, harder, and more grandly. Our culture has always ping-ponged between a stark Puritanism and a gold rush-level of gluttony, and has never really settled into the much-healthier “little bit of everything” the southern Europeans tend to do so well. We have an incredibly black-and-white view of how life is meant to be lived, and even the most self-aware of us can easily slip into the vaguely-Catholic spiral of “oh shit, I already messed up, might as well lean into it and mess up my entire week!” We view diets and exercise routines through a prism of absolute consistency, and tend to fetishize the more extreme a plan can be. We either put weight loss on a pedestal to the point that women’s magazines breathlessly share the pounds shed by a cancer patient, or insist that no level of obesity should be considered unhealthy, or broached by a doctor.

And in this chaos emerges a version of “health” that makes me so reluctant to identify with, or really even consider, the word. We have turned health into a luxury item, obsessive cycle classes and $12 green juices and Instagrams lightly edited to show the maximum amount of lines on one’s stomach. We lust over images of the acai bowl perched delicately on a tanned thigh gap, and admire the dedication of the bloggers and fitness professionals who never let a refined carbohydrate cross their lips. We do this because we know our culture is generally so unhealthy, and know that much of it is almost-inescapable (especially depending on our socioeconomic class), so health has to be a form of escapism, rather than something we inject with moderation and reason into our lives.

I fall victim to this mentality all the time: I’m getting about 15k steps a day this week, but I’ve done a few sessions at a tanning booth to help clear my skin (something I do every few years, when it’s been a rough winter), so they “cancel one another out” in my mind. I eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, but I also eat meat and kettle chips and love a good cocktail. Instead of looking at the averages of my life, and thinking of what I do in terms of how I feel and what I can accomplish, I think about where I am falling short — how I am not actually healthy, because I don’t meet an ever-expanding list of criteria. I stop thinking of my body and mind as a big, interlocking thing, and start visualizing a kind of score that goes up or down with every decision. And if I think through it, I can usually bring myself back down to reason on the issue, but it’s hard not to feel poisoned by our pervasive-and-unattainable definitions of “real” health.

At the end of the day, though, health is not a competition. It’s not a performance, or a scoreboard, or a video game streak you get bonus points for if you go X many days without breaking. Health is being the generally-best version of ourselves we can be, accounting for the fact that sometimes, a glass of wine or a few hours in the sun or a greasy slice of pizza is the best thing for you at that moment. Health is not deluding yourself about how active you are or how nutritionally-balanced your diet actually is, but it’s also not deluding yourself about the reasons you are doing something: is it because it’s actually contributing to a fit and fulfilling lifestyle, or is it because it looks good in a photo? Are we pursuing health because we want to feel full of energy and positivity, or because we have coded every “healthy” choice as some kind of moral good that makes us feel superior?

I never want to be the woman who cannot just order some fries, or who beats herself up when she misses one day at the gym. But I also never want to be the woman who lives an almost-completely sedentary lifestyle, and is constantly “treating herself” to foods and activities that ultimately leave her feeling worse than she started. I don’t ever want to treat my body as something to be won or lost, or feel more concerned with the presentation of my lifestyle than the actual living of it. I don’t want to become Puritan about my health, but I also never want to be totally hedonistic, justifying any number of damaging behaviors with an empty rhetoric of “self-care.”

I can be happy somewhere in the middle, and can look to my future father-in-law for a good case study: a very healthy French doctor who gets a lot of activity, but also a lot of watching good TV on his laptop, who has the occasional cigar and the not-so-occasional glass of wine or whiskey, who eats plenty of vegetables but loves grilling up a great steak, who does things because they feel good and because they are good for him. I can look to him to live life well, and long, and full of both the happiness we want, and the energy that allows us to seek even more of it.

Image via Pexels

  • Laira

    How does a tanning booth help clear your skin? I’ve never heard of that. It sounds interesting.

    • GBee

      I find that my face clears up in the summer when I get a little bit of sun. I attributed it to the fact that it dries out my skin.

    • chelseafagan

      Sun works for a lot of people w skin issues! In my case it’s acne, it really helps and a lot of salons (including mine) have less-intense booths for people looking to help their skin, rather than tan.

      • Laira

        I knew the sun could help, but I didn’t realize artificial tanning could as well. I’ve been on a quest to rid myself of acne once and for all and it’s proving to be rather difficult. How I had perfect skin at 16 and major acne at 24, I’ll never understand.

    • Molly

      Speaking as someone with a skin condition (psoriasis) – it really helps my skin! When my condition gets to the point most topicals won’t work a low grade tanning bed is one of the only things that does!

  • Anon

    Ok, I get that we do have a seriously messed up culture around food in lots of ways but seriously: just quit instagram already. It’s obviously making you ragingly unhappy and it’s inflating problems completely unnecessarily. Do you really want to spend years of your life writing about how you hate trends and images that you know are staged?

    • chelseafagan

      I actually really enjoy social media for the most part, it’s just a good place to observe concentrated versions of general trends — I actually notice the dichotomy even more with those autoplay Facebook videos, in this particular instance.

      • Anon

        As a reader, I find that genuinely surprising because it feels like your longer pieces are almost universely about eviscerating social media trends. What is it that you like about it?

        Here’s why I object to calling on social media: it creates caricatures. The thing you’re talking about today is a real trend but it also isn’t as stark as you paint it. Mostly, the world consists of people like the dude down the hall at work who eats sandwiches on white bread for lunch and drives too much, not women with thigh gaps and acai bowls on one hand or people eating fried double-stuffed oreos. And when your piece is pitched against caricatures that everyone knows are staged, it just feels like manufactured outrage, not genuine social commentary that’s willing to take nuance into account.

        • chelseafagan

          The stats on Americans’ general health paints a much starker picture than I think you acknowledge here, and though I fully admit that living in NYC exposes me to a much greater degree of ‘health-as-luxury-item,’ in terms of what we are being *sold* as health by both brands and influencers in the media, including social media, I stand by my assessment. I can assure you that as a woman who has been raised, like most of us, on alternating images of unattainable bodies and ads for incredibly-unhealthy food, my frustration on this issue is not manufactured. (And I wouldn’t even characterize it as “outrage,” to be honest, this piece was more reflective than anything.)

  • GBee

    For me it comes down to finding a balance. I eat healthy/real food for every main meal but I don’t restrict myself from eating dessert or a prepackaged snack every once in a while. It’s not realistic for me to eat 100% healthy, but I will say after committing myself to cooking the majority of my meals, I find most junk food unappealing (pizza and ice cream still taste like heaven).

    • Hailey

      I’m in the same boat. Like Chelsea said, there’s nothing wrong with a little moderation.

      I’ve actually done really well with a general “if I want to eat something unhealthy, I have to make it from scratch” rule. It’s not perfect by any means (people get busy, and LOL at this rule if you have children or multiple jobs, etc.), but it helps me find a little balance. And a great plus is that most junk food is WAAAY cheaper if you make it yourself.

      • Oooh, that’s a good rule! I love that! Thanks for the idea. 🙂

      • GBee

        I really like that idea!

  • Sara

    I am a huge TFD fan, and usually read 3-4 articles a day. However, I must say that I’ve been frustrated with the amount of “That thing you do? It’s not special.” articles. Chelsea, some of the articles you write that go against typical internet culture (your discussion about toddler-esque self care has changed how I think of self care) are my favorites on TFD. But there are some articles, and I think this one falls into this category, that come off as “I find X thing annoying and here’s why.” I’ve come to expect a little more substance when I click on a TFD article.

    • Christian Gonzales

      I would agree with you on this. Often times I’ll come across an article (like this), where I catch myself thinking….what does this have to do with my finances? Feels like less of a modern lady co-op for better money management and tips, and more into the “you’re not special” articles, as well as “I bought XYZ and this is a whole article of me justifying it”.

      • chelseafagan

        Not everything on TFD is about finances, and not everything is gonna be for everyone — we try to categorize things as coherently as possible to help people find the content they like, though!

        • Sara

          I get that! I was more trying to communicate that I when I read these articles I’m never quite sure what the point of them was. I’m not sure what category articles like this would fall into. Of course I can skip articles I don’t like, I was trying to give constructive criticism because I read TFD a lot and noticed it was a trend.

          • chelseafagan

            I understand, and always appreciate constructive criticism — a lot of people like more reflective, essay-like posts that aren’t necessarily one hard “opinion” or another, so we try to include a good amount of those as well.

          • Renee VOshanassy

            For what its worth, I think that these reflective type pieces are entirely appropriate for someone who’s in an editorial role, as a leader who wants to shape the community that she’s created. Also, health is increasingly commodified and as such we should be thinking about how the economy is shaping our behaviour around consumption of various “health” products and behaviours. Health is increasingly becoming something that is for the privileged and we owe it to ourselves, and others, to question how it is constructed so that it doesn’t continue to be something that is for the privileged.

          • SN

            I think this is a good summary of what this piece attempted to be, but in context of all the other pieces on here that are so pointedly critical, this one fell flat.

    • SN

      I agree with this a lot. I know not every TFD piece is about finance, and I thoroughly don’t want it to be because I love a lot of the opinion pieces, but these posts are starting to feel more and more personally directed (is sub-blogging a word?) – like someone must have made a disparaging comment about having the occasional cigarette, so bam, here we are.

      • Christine

        This! These articles increasingly leave me with an icky feeling. They just seem so preachy. I also agree re: the below that maybe less social media usage is the answer.

        • Mj D’Arco

          along the same line, these types of artciles feel like chelsea’s i fail at doing something, or here is something i don’t like, so let me complaint about it on my blog.(but really it’s not her blog but a business she shares with other people).

    • Sara

      Hey, I just want to encourage everyone to be kind to Chelsea. Some comments are getting a little pointed and it wasn’t my intention to encourage that. 🙁

  • Jack

    Just going to point out that as a daily reader and frequent commenter, I enjoy all different types of articles appearing on TFD. I like that finance is the main focus, but it’s nice to read different content from time to time as well.
    I don’t always agree with Chelsea but I still read everything, as well as the comments. No one is going to agree with everyone on everything, and I think it’s nice when the comments can become a culture of discussion and not just people getting mad because they disagree.

  • Lexie

    I agree with the sentiment that many of Chelsea’s articles are short think pieces on what she finds annoying and much less about finances, the business of the site, etc. I have said it before — I generally enjoy the content of the articles, but the tone is from this place of frustration and rarely from joy, inspiration, etc. A balance would be great!