Why ‘healthy’ is a stupid concept

The truth about what ‘healthy’ means

We are a society that thinks in polar opposites. Man or woman. Black or white. Good or bad. Maybe I am more this way than most. As the product of a fundamentalist upbringing, I was taught about good and evil, us and them, Heaven and Hell, God and the Devil, and everything seemed so simple. But now I’m officially grown up, at 50, I find it glaringly obvious that the world doesn’t consist of polar opposites. We aren’t either a man or a woman. We might be male or female, although that’s not the case for intersex folks, and many people with bits of chromosomes that muddle the issue, and as for gender – well that’s a whole confuddling mess of cultural norms which many just don’t get. Even happiness isn’t that clear cut. Why do we have to be either happy or unhappy. For me, I can be 80% happy most of the time but there’ll be a small element of irritation or worry about some aspect of my life and that doesn’t make me unhappy – just a bit of a mixture.

So why do people still insist on saying that they are ‘trying to be healthy’ or comment on others being ‘so unhealthy’? People aren’t either healthy or unhealthy. What is meant by the word ‘health’ anyway? It is NOT used by most people to signify an absence of sickness. We all get colds and coughs but can still be considered by those around us to be healthy. Some people have chronic illnesses like rheumatoid arthritis or even Stage 4 cancer but are deemed to be ‘healthy’ and people raise their eyebrows in confusion as to how they became so sick. ‘She/he was always so healthy’ and I find this quite pernicious as though the person somehow failed and nobody knows how. I was asked by a good friend if I would be really pissed off to get cancer. Well, the answer to that is definitely yes! But not for the reason that she asked. She was alluding to the fact that I’m a vegan runner and therefore shouldn’t expect to become seriously ill. But people do! I’d be pissed off because it’s a vile illness, not because I didn’t deserve it. Nobody deserves it.

So ‘healthy’ is not used in our society to signify an absence of illness. If this were the case, we would not discuss our plus-size friends and acquaintances in terms of them being so ‘unhealthy’. Are they sick? Probably not. So why are they ‘unhealthy’? Oh, the risk of heart disease? Well, in that case, we are using ‘unhealthy’ to allude to risk. But lots of risk is genetic. My Nan and my Dad had heart disease so therefore I am at risk. But nobody calls me unhealthy. A friend in Leicester had a double masectomy because women in her family were 90% likely to get a hereditary and aggressive form of the disease. Did this risk make us think of her as unhealthy? It did not. There is a massive risk of heart disease from being sedentary. But 39% of British adults are failing to meet the recommended quota of weekly exercise, but we don’t know who they all are and have no way of knowing who they are, and I’m pretty sure that if we see them eating a salad every day and they are thin, we’ll think of them as ‘healthy’.

If health isn’t used to signify the absence of illness, then, for the purpose of this blog post I will assume that it refers to a long, good quality of life. The chances of having such a blessing is determined by so many things that we couldn’t possibly know who was healthy or not without a PhD in long term health and its causes and many many case studies from different social groups and countries. For example, the biggest indicator of good quality of life in old age is socio-economic status. Yes, money. Why? I suppose having enough of it results in less stress and better quality fruit and vegetables, more information and opportunity regarding exercise and social opportunities as well as the gift of time – time that can be used in the pursuit of meaningful hobbies and interests. Another indicator of good quality of life in old age is social contact: laughter, friendship and the knowledge that there are people who have your back, always. People in happy loving marriages have better health outcomes. I can’t reference all this because it’s not an academic essay but it’s easy enough to fact check on google!

What are the indicators of poor health, early death etc? Being poor, being unloved, being part of a stigmatized group such as a gender minority. These are the things that make a difference and our focus should be on making a world of greater equality and acceptance. A world where a bearded person who wants to be called Annabelle is just fine. A world where a hairy person wearing a lace dress is just fine. Just another person in the street or, even better, the room. A world where people can be addressed using the pronouns that they choose, and where they can express their identity and be with the person they love, without fear of violence, ridicule or death. We are so far from this in the world as it is that it beggars belief. People are still being killed for being a minority and that’s not just in some far-flung, desert country that, deep down, we think of as barbaric and backwards. It’s here in the UK.

The real reason for this rant is the way that people seeing me lately, perhaps after a long time, comment on my appearance and, in particular, my weight loss. I started losing weight last year and put it down to marathon training although I had trained before without getting quite so thin. Comments have ranged from how much better I look, to whether I’ve forgotten to eat, to how ‘healthy’ I am. I’m not healthy. I’ve lost weight because my thyroid went berserk and my body is flooded with thyroid hormones which, untreated, are literally toxic. My skin has broken out in spots, I am exhausted from the carbimazole and I still need a betablocker at bedtime to stop my heart from attempting to escape my body. But I look healthy, apparently. Which leads me to the conclusion that ‘healthy’ means ‘thin’.

To be thin, in this culture, signifies obedience. We were trained up, us 50 year olds, to look after our figures, to battle the bulge, to not pinch an inch. We had Slimfast and the cornflake diet, now 80/20 and intermittent fasting. We still have Slimming World and Weightwatchers, and a hundred ways of losing weight that just stubbornly clings to our thighs, tummies and ‘problem areas’. Our bodies are a battleground of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ and in order to be ‘good’ we must appear to be ‘healthy’. This means either losing weight, being thin or talking about losing weight. We must denigrate ourselves in order to fit into the ‘well-behaved’ group or women who, heaven forbid, must never eat cake with unrestrained pleasure or let their tummies flop out with happy abandon.

I’m tired of it. Now I’m on the right dose of medicine I am gaining weight again and hallelujah for that because it means health! Real health! I am a naturally curvy woman with thighs that touch and a rounded tummy, sturdy arms and quite a big bum. I want to be healthy again and that includes eating cake with friends, spending time with family, laughing, loving, moving with freedom and joy and trying to make the world a genuinely healthier place for every body of all colours, genders, sexuality, size, shape and socio-economic status.

On the wedding of an ex

The weirdness of a second marriage

I was four happy years into my second marriage when my first husband, to whom I was married for 21 years, got married again. I could get bogged down into a hundred and one reasons why this shouldn’t be an issue (I’m happy now, I left him, we were not close any more, our marriage was a disaster area) but it was an issue. I felt apprehensive as the day approached and it bugged me immensely that it was on my mind so much. I sent him a Whatsapp saying that I hoped he’d have an amazing day, and that I was excited for him, and that was true. But it was still an issue.

A happy day on my second wedding

I’ve had counselling to help me to work through my turbulent emotions, several times over, and I’ve got better at it, but it’s so hard sometimes to know quite what the emotion is. About his wedding, I felt uneasy. Troubled. When he first met his partner, a few years back, and it became very apparent that she was ‘the one’, I was angry to the point of fury that he had changed. Without going into boring, pointless details, I had wanted more from him for years and had tried a gazillion ways to make it happen, some of which were downright damaging for all concerned, but it didn’t happen.

And now he has changed. When I occasionally see him at the children’s birthdays and hear him talking about her, I can see it, hear it and feel it. This made me spitting, hopping mad. But the anger turned to sadness when, one day, I acknowledged to a wise woman that he hurt me very badly and I cried uncontrollably for hours. When I blinked away those tears of grief and loss I realised that I’m free of all that rage, now, and it was not anger that consumed me when he re-married. So what was it?

Here’s what it was. It was the irreparable, far-reaching rupture of the family. It was not about him and me; it was about a community of people that I am separated from. Our three children dressing up and going to a wedding where they would see their grandparents, their aunties and uncles, cousins and old friends. I knew, when we broke up, that this would hurt, and it does. His brother came over from Canada, the brother that lived with us for one summer when he worked for the post office in his twenties and we chatted, every day, in the kitchen, as I cooked for the kids and he helped with the washing up. We got to know each other well and since the split I have not seen him or his lovely family. He called once to say he wished he’d done more to support, when things were tough and we were living separately through the week. There was nothing he could have done. He was a great brother in law and I miss him.

I loved my ex’s parents, too. His mum has had a heart attack and I wished I could have seen her but distance has grown between us. I miss his sister. We were good friends. She is wonderful and her kids are adorable. I still think of them as my nieces. I never saw his other two siblings as often but always loved catching up with them and had such a laugh with his youngest sister.

So we move on. I’ve met lots of other people through Tim and now have a whole other extended family, a lovely mum-in-law, brothers and their wives and partners and good friends. But these first people, my children’s grandparents, Aunties and Uncles – these still feel like family. I love them and miss them. When we break up with a person, we break up with all of the people who come with them, whether we intend to or not. Sides are taken, sympathies are shown. The break up sometimes feels like the amputation of a limb that, although I’ve learned to live without it, still aches at times.

When an ex re-marries, it might mean nothing and that’s fine, but if it hurts, for whatever the reason, I really think that’s normal. What’s the answer? I think it’s to acknowledge the pain, live with it a while, know that it will pass, keep in touch with the people who matter enough, and be kind to yourself.

Allotment Honeymoon

Crazy about a plot of land

‘We’re gona have a little house and a couple of acres an’ a cow and some pigs and live off the fatta the land’, says George to Lennie in the classic American tragedy ‘Of Mice and Men’, a novel that I taught for fifteen years and know pretty much off my heart, along with all the themes, motifs, figures of speech and structural features. Now I also know the dream of land and why it’s so important as I walk the mile to my new allotment, with my spade at my side and a snack and drink in my rucksack.

This morning I could have written a journal for my counselling course, done some housework, gone to the gym or tidied up a bit before my daughter and her boyfriend arrive for a visit. But the lure of the allotment won out and once again I wondered up to the grassy, brambly, overgrown rectangular plot, 8 X 10.5 metres, that I can now call mine. It’s actually the council’s, but never mind that. My mum had an allotment for twenty odd years and I remember thinking it so tedious when I went to see it. She gave the kids little sections to cultivate in whichever way they chose. Abi had a flower garden, Kirstin had vegetables, Billy had a mix, and they all had sunflowers. They all enjoyed it but I used to drop them off and collect them with complete bewilderment at what the fuss was about.

My morning companion

I’m not sure what’s changed but gardening has grown on me over the years. I like to be physical and strong and enjoy working hard, and renovating the Victorian house that we bought has reinforced the sense of satisfaction when a tough job is completed. Hiring a concrete breaker and removing most of a kitchen floor (my stepson did some, too) was an absolute joy. Making concrete crumble into piles of rubble that could be removed to reveal the original brick floor which was then transformed again into modern polished concrete for a modern family kitchen made me feel productive in an act of creative transformation. I also liked the aching shoulders and the happy tiredness because I knew that part of me was going into the house in the form of my labour and my energy.

I think the allotment taps into this same energetic drive as I’ve spent three sessions now digging over grass and pulling out huge weeds and stinging nettles. I’ve piled up wood, netting and beer bottles left by the last allotmenter and sat in between efforts with my water bottle, admiring the evidence of my efforts. This morning, I munched on some chocolate covered almonds and realised that I’d got stronger as I managed to dig for an hour and fifty minutes instead of getting exhausted after an hour. There’s now a wholesome looking strip of soft, brown, crumbly soil with none of the irritating builders’ rubble found in gardens. It’s inviting, healthy and full of enormous, helpful worms, along with an extremely friendly robin who has visited on each occasion hoping to grab one.

The other allotmenters are friendly so far. My mum recalls when she started and all the others were sexist old men who told her that the last woman ‘didn’t last long’ and ‘didn’t do much’. She went on to win the ‘best kept allotment’ award for two years running so screw them! There are lots of women at the Barnby Road allotments and it’s good to see that times have changed. I do not have my mum’s green fingers but I do understand now what she loved about her plot. It’s peaceful, in the way that there is literally no sound except the fork crunching into the soil, the wind howling through the trees, a loose bit of somebody’s fence tapping away in the distance and your own hard breathing as you work up a sweat that’s more productive than any weight lifting in the gym.

I hope to get the plot cleared myself. Alan with the rotivator could do it for me for a charge of £30 but I’ve got stuck in now and I’d like to put myself into the work as I put myself into the wallpaper stripping, floor digging and wall-painting in the house. I want that allotment to have my energy in the soil and the produce that we grow. I’ve learned about green manure, plastic sheeting and where to get seeds at a discount and I’m good to go. Tim will be the shed man and the designer of an aesthetically pleasing outcome and Mum will be the consulting expert.

Abi at her Grandma’s allotment

The Art of Failure

Making things better is the mission that drives me. In every aspect of life, I try to make things better for myself.

Making things better is the mission that drives me.  In every aspect of life, I try to make things better for myself.  Relationships, nutrition, work life, home environment, fitness and strength, education and understanding of the world.  It’s not just myself that I try to better: other people and animals are a part of my mission.  In my teaching career, I have strived to provide children with a better understanding of literature and the worlds within the texts that we read.  As a mum, I worked relentlessly to give my children a better childhood than mine, and better opportunities as they grew up.  As a friend and acquaintance, I try to support others to achieve better states of mind and happier lives.   As a vegan, I want to improve animal rights and the environment.   

Alongside these worthy thoughts and dreams, I have become aware of a subtext, born directly from my inner ‘truth’ that I must always get better.  I regularly find myself pestered by thoughts and ruminations about all the times in my life that I have got things wrong, and I haven’t known how to handle the sense of failure.   The list is long and goes back to incidents at school where I made up stories for attention.  ‘My cat has had kittens’, I told the class one afternoon, in circle time.  When a friend turned up at the house, with her mum, to buy one, the truth was revealed.  I’d made it up because I wanted the class to look at me with the ‘oohs’ and ‘aaaahs’ that other children received, with their exciting lives.  I can still feel the shame of that doorstep conversation, with my mortified mum denying the existence of any kittens, and my friend’s accusatory voice.  ‘But Ruth told the whole class!’ she persisted, disappointed and shocked. 

I don’t intend to write a list of my failures here.  The kitten story is difficult enough to confess, even now, although it happened when I was five.  There are many more.  I’ve been bitchy, two-faced, untruthful, cruel, weak and immature.  I have a failed marriage, which still bothers me.  He wasn’t the only one who messed up.  I did, too.  Many, many times.  It’s true that we were never compatible, and something was always off from the get-go, but there were times that I behaved badly and it’s difficult to live with that.

Why is it so difficult to know that I haven’t always been ‘good’?  I guess in my case there is a lot of conditioning behind that.  A Christian girl should be (insert a list of self-sacrificing bullshit).  Raised in a small sect of conservative Christianity, wearing a headscarf in church and being taught that men are leaders and women should submit to their leadership, I knew that I wasn’t supposed to feel, or express, anything challenging.  Taught that self-denial is a virtue, I learned to keep my true self hidden, and I simply behaved ‘well’ and mimicked the words and actions of others, to ensure my own acceptance and safety.  It has always felt like a terrible thing to say, ‘I failed’.  Getting things wrong is not acceptable.  I have tied myself in knots, time after time, trying to convince myself that what I did was understandable, and what I said was actually alright.  Given the circumstances, I couldn’t have done different etc etc.  ‘I failed’ has never been a phrase that I could live with.  It has seemed like a pointing finger – pointing to damnation and self-loathing.  In trying to forgive and accept myself, I have exhausted my frazzled mind attempting to justify and explain away my mistakes and wrongdoings.  When asking myself, ‘Am I a good person?’, I find that the failures make the answer a firm ‘no’.

Until this morning.  As I bumbled about, getting my breakfast and cogitating on the previous few days, analysing everything and anything as usual, something changed in my thinking.  I considered a recent failure, and instead of trying to justify it to myself, I said aloud, ‘I failed’.  The world did not change.  I said it again, with a growing smile: ‘I failed’.  It was strangely freeing and acceptable as I found myself accepting that failure is human.  We can be glorious and we can be diabolical.  I have been glorious and I have been diabolical.  We all fail.  Instead of justifying and explaining, I accepted, this morning, that I sometimes fail, and that’s not great but neither is it a disaster.  It is a fact.  If I wish to forgive myself, I must first acknowledge that I was wrong.  It wasn’t OK.  It was crap.  But that doesn’t make me any worse than the next person.  I’m no better and I’m no worse.  The average person gets many things wrong.  Even the most saintly type has a bad day.  So today I see my failures.  They make me human.  ‘I failed’.  And what?  It would be impossible to stop trying to get things right, to take the better path and to be the kindest version of myself possible every day.  But when I fail, I fail – and from now on, those are the times that I will put my arms around my fragile, failing self and remind myself that forgiveness and compassion are the most important qualities of human kindness, even and especially when it comes to ourselves.

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