You’ve probably witnessed it yourself. Across the country, millions of people are going out of their way to try and improve their health, despite insidious social pressure not to. Maybe you’re among them. You’ve grocery shopped, meal prepped, and packed lunches. You’ve put your foot down and decided that this is the turning point. Nothing can stand in your way.
But something keeps happening. In the copy room, Janet gets offended that you don’t want to try her homemade brownies. Your friends at work hassle you every day when you don’t join them for Sonic or Taco Bueno.
After work, your brother is annoyed that you won’t have pizza and a few beers while you watch Monday Night Football. You try to let him know that your cheat meal was Saturday night, but that only elicits more jeers. He gets even more upset when you want to leave at halftime to get some sleep, so you aren’t a zombie at your morning group training session.
After a few days of this, you can hardly take it anymore. You are exhausted and sore from your first tough physical work in years and sick of being made a pariah in the process. The food cravings are hard enough on their own, without all the pressure of social situations. It feels like everybody is staring at you while they eat all the things you’ve decided not to. Finally, you cave and crush a package of Chips Ahoy. Another victim of mass “fit-shaming.”
Set Up for Failure
Now, before you take to social media to blast me for my hypocrisy, I do not believe “fit-shaming” is an actual thing. This is purely a tongue-in-cheek attempt to draw attention to the difficulties people encounter when they attempt health change.
Honestly, I hesitate to even point out the pitfalls they encounter, for fear of scaring people away or giving them an easy out. But everything worth doing is hard. The best thing society could do is promote solutions to our problems, instead of creating additional barriers.
When I wrote about fat-shaming hurting public health, I got a predictable amount of pushback. Some people didn’t like my contention that the national obesity problem requires a public dialogue. I was told that I should mind my own business, and that any solutions are between a person and their doctor, and no one else.
These same people would have you believe that lifestyle change must be a torturous experience that no one should have to subject themselves to. After all, the bigger problem is a society that makes people feel bad for being overweight, right?
The truth, as usual, is found somewhere in the middle. Addressing poor health is a community issue. As the common example above illustrates, any individual effort made without a culture that supports it is far less likely to be successful. Cultural change requires a community dialogue to clarify values and outcomes we wish to see, followed by a community effort to produce this vision. A balance must be struck between a frank and open discussion of the issue, and not turning people away from the solutions.
It Takes a Village to Improve Health
Nourishing your body and living a healthy lifestyle is desirable, but our current climate makes it unlikely. It’s not just something a bunch of fitness freaks want to “shame” you into living. It isn’t just about aesthetics. As the Greek physician, Herophilus put it: “When health is absent, wisdom cannot reveal itself, art cannot manifest, strength cannot fight, wealth becomes useless, and intelligence cannot be applied.”
Millions of people want and need to make tremendous health and lifestyle changes so that they can live a life of more physical and mental vitality. Everyone wants to live longer, move better, avoid chronic pain, find joy in activity, and feel less tired, agitated, and cloudy. As a society, we support these goals right up to the point where they become inconvenient.
This is the problem. We cannot live our fullest lives without respecting the role of nutrition, movement, and health. Yet, these countercultural values are nearly impossible to commit to long-term, because of the environment we find ourselves in.
Chronic Obesity: An American Tale
Here’s what happens. Jenny and Johnny are raised in a culture that makes poor health likely. They think nothing of it as they eat Pop Tarts for breakfast, go out for fast food regularly, and snack on chips several times a day. When they do have meals at home, it’s some variation of fish sticks, chicken nuggets, mac and cheese, and tater tots.
As they grow older, they hear people talk about being healthy, but since most people behave just as they are, they are left to assume that healthy people are the weird outliers; Birkenstock-wearing hacky sackers who make homemade granola and sing kumbaya in the public square.
As Jenny and Johnny age, they feel sluggish and move way less. It hurts, after all. They follow the common cultural patterns, eating donuts and birthday cake on a regular basis at work. They enjoy the sodas offered in the staff fridge on a daily basis. They go out for fast food each day with their work colleagues. Then they come home feeling like crap, crash on the couch, and snack while they binge-watch whatever is popular on Netflix.
One day, they decide they hate how they feel and hate what they see in the mirror. They’re tired of having to conjure up some epic mental strength just to get up from the couch and take the garbage out. They aren’t happy with their health, and they want to make a change.
But they have no idea where to start. Lean Pockets? Everything looks like absolute torture, in comparison to the lifestyle they’ve always led. Moving like a human was made to move is painful, or just impossible. Eating differently seems a constant practice of self-denial. Some well-meaning friends on the internet offer advice, and they opt for a starvation diet that leaves them nutrient-deficient and wiped out. Family gatherings become an inquisition, as they have to explain their weird new habits. Their parents make them feel guilty for only having one plate of food. Eventually, having gotten next to nowhere, they give up. The whole idea of improving their health becomes etched in their mind as a terrible experience.
It all could have been so different, if the environment in which they were raised or lived was more conducive.
Our Resistance to Change
There is nothing inherently awful about eating foods that exist in nature, or moving consistently and with vigor. In fact, these are deeply enjoyable elements of life that promote mental, physical, and emotional thriving.
The problem is that most people have never been given a framework for how to live this way. When the average upbringing develops no physical literacy and no concept of how to eat and cook, not only are our habits working against us, but the social habits of the surrounding community are as well. We are social creatures, so even if we know that we should eat healthy, we typically do what those around us are doing.
Malcolm Gladwell frames this resistance to change using the principle of thresholds. Most people have a high threshold for change. You can show them all the evidence in the world, but they won’t be the first to change, or even the second because they value social acceptance over anything else.
Wilt Chamberlain’s famous 100-point game was aided by a whopping 28 points from free throws. Chamberlain had been a horrible free-throw shooter until exposed to the mechanically advantageous underhand, or “granny” free-throw. For a variety of reasons, it is far easier to consistently make shots with this technique, but it remains absolutely ignored by NBA players and coaches.
When legendary free throw shooter (and granny-throw advocate) Rick Barry talked to Shaq about using the “granny” shot to cure his horrendous free throw problems, Shaq said he’d rather never make one. Chamberlain himself switched back to an overhand free-throw shot, saying “I felt silly, like a sissy, shooting under-handed. I know I was wrong. I know some of the best foul shooters in history shot that way… I just couldn’t do it.”
This is human nature. We value social norms over self-interest almost every time. When the norm is fast food at lunch, we fall in line with what everyone else is doing. Until we make healthy habits a norm, most people will fall victim to their high thresholds for change.
Silence Solves Nothing
This is why we must seek community-wide change, and be free to discuss the negative effects of poor health habits. People want to fit in and be considered normal. When good health is countercultural, their goals are thrown in their face. Now they deal with social pressure, on top of battling food cravings and old habits.
My suggestion is not to eliminate ice cream parlors and judge everyone eating a hamburger. The argument is not aimed at any individual. It’s about the ability to speak on community issues, community values, and community solutions. It’s about allowing honest assessment of our society’s predominant patterns, so we can help change the environment to promote behaviors and outcomes that are healthy. It’s about being able to say publicly that health is a value; that entrenched poor health habits cause physical and emotional pain that being nice won’t solve.