What does it really mean to be “healthy”?
As a woman, a health coach, and a wellness editor, I ask myself this question a lot.
When I was a teen, I thought health was all about inputs and outputs that would eventually equal some kind of perfect formula: In goes some healthy food item, like spinach, out go a few calories in the form of a workout — then the cycle repeats.
I thought that if I got the balance just right, I’d achieve that elusive formula for perfect well-being.
Eventually, I realized that food and fitness barely scratch the surface of what constitutes true, whole-person health.
In some cases, I even started to understand my pursuit of health as a need to “fix” things about myself that I deemed undesirable.
This mentality is common and even preyed upon in the wellness world.
The refrain goes something like, “If I try just one more health trend, diet, or fitness craze, then I’ll be healed/whole/healthy/worthy.”
It’s taken many years, motherhood, and a lifelong search for what health really is for me to let go of the idea of some “perfect” equation that leads to superior, untouchable health.
Instead, I now see health as a celebration — of what I can do, feel, express, and enjoy. Ultimately, it’s a celebration of my aliveness from moment to moment.
Refreshing take, right?
I’ve always been a health-leaning type of person and, at some points in my life, a bona fide “health nut.”
During that phase, I was a little like the always bubbly and sometimes painfully optimistic fitness buff Chris Traeger from the show “Parks and Recreation.”
I was always in pursuit of the “healthiest” option for everything, from what kind of food I bought to choosing to take the stairs over an elevator. This attitude gave me a sense that I was doing it “right.”
Eventually, I realized that, like Chris Traeger, I might be striving to keep an optimistic attitude in order to avoid certain parts of myself that I didn’t see as healthy or “good.”
For instance, my childhood love of chicken nuggets that still persists to this day, or my overwhelming need to lay around and rewatch episodes of “The Crown” when I’m on my period.
Then there’s the deeper stuff.
Owing to the prevailing health narrative of the day that I largely gleaned from COSMOgirl, I was often very lean in my teen years. To me, lean was equal to healthy.
As a result of being very athletic and generally avoiding fat, I was borderline anemic even when I ate meat. I had a very light, irregular period that came every 3 or 4 months, but I saw that as a good thing — less hassle, right?
Then I had my son in my early twenties, and I finally learned the value and wisdom of my cravings.
While pregnant, I went from being vegan to eating steak and drinking over a gallon of whole cow’s milk a day. If I made myself a smoothie, I added tablespoons of coconut oil until it finally tasted “right.”
My body was busy making another human, and it wasn’t concerned in the slightest with eating “light.” On top of that, I was definitely not going to take any stairs if I could avoid it.
I had truly never felt healthier in my life. Plus, I no longer tested as anemic.
I learned firsthand that depriving my body of what it needs in the name of “health” is a form of self-harm. Somehow, I didn’t quite get this until I had another human growing inside of me to make the point.
Now I know that health involves so much more than “healthy” inputs and outputs. It involves self-care, loving relationships, and listening to my needs with an open mind and heart.
When health is a celebration, it’s not a remedial measure or a source of deprivation. It’s based in pleasure, joy, and self-acceptance.
For those of us who’ve been steeped in wellness culture for much of our lives, acceptance may sound like giving up.
If we simply accept ourselves as we are, how will we grow? How will we infuse our lives with purpose?
The reality is that acceptance has to happen before growth occurs. Resisting the reality of our situation is actually an impediment to growth because it’s a refusal to start where we are.
I like to imagine a flower sending its tiny buds through the soil to reach toward the sun. That flower isn’t berating itself for not being yellow enough, not being sweet-smelling enough, or not looking like the rose-next-door.
It’s simply unfolding, without shame or resistance.
Instead of resisting our perceived shortcomings and striving to fix them, we can simply learn to be with them.
From this space, any steps we take toward cultivating, restoring, or preserving our health can be done without the heavy baggage of the “I need to be fixed” mentality.
This is how self-care turns into self-love.
While there’s no sure-fire way to develop self-acceptance, there are a few essential components.
- cultivating self-awareness
- developing a strong sense of self
- ditching self-criticism and self-punishment
- letting it all go
Introspection is the process of reflecting on how you show up in the world, from what motivates you to act, what inspires you to open your heart, and how you cope with change.
Developing this kind of self-awareness can give you insight into how you operate, as well as give you an appreciation for the depth and complexity of your own experience.
A strong sense of self
Reflection like this can lead to a strong sense of self, which is essential for cultivating trust in your own decisions, needs, and desires.
Then when self-criticism comes up, as it likely will, you can remind yourself that it isn’t based in reality.
Even when it is, the criticism part is only constructive up to a point. You can learn from it, then move on.
Learning to let go
Finally, letting go frees you not only from the past but from stories about yourself that are holding you back from experiencing well-being in the now.
This might include stories about how you should be healthier, exercise more, or stop eating a particular food.
Instead, letting go of these stories allows you to approach your health from a baggage-free place of joy and celebration.
In the interest of sharing this take on health as celebration, Healthline has put together the Women’s Wellness Hub.
It’s a curated home for everything you need to find freedom in your health and wellness journey.
Whether it’s taking time for you, cultivating healthy relationship dynamics, or getting a breather from the hustle and bustle with a little dose of mindfulness, the Women’s Wellness Hub is your one-stop shop.
We recognize that whole-person health means taking care of your body, your heart, and your mind, and that starts with accepting yourself as you are.
It’s embracing health as the recognition that you’re already beautifully whole and making the choice to care for yourself and your body in honor and celebration of that wholeness.
Crystal Hoshaw is a mother, writer, and longtime yoga practitioner. She has taught in private studios, gyms, and in one-on-one settings in Los Angeles, Thailand, and the San Francisco Bay Area. She shares mindful strategies for self-care through online courses at Simple Wild Free. You can find her on Instagram.