Illustration by Ella Byworth

Picture of Health: why do women have such a complicated relationship with health?

Posted by for Wellbeing

How do we define what ‘healthy’ means in 2021? That’s what we’ll be exploring in A Picture of Health, a series diving into the attitudes, beliefs, joys and struggles surrounding movement, eating and wellbeing. 

Being ‘healthy’ has always been something to strive for. But 2020 saw everyday ‘good health’ suddenly increase in societal value. We had to navigate a global pandemic that emphasised the importance of protecting and improving our personal health while raising big questions about the role that individuals and the state play in keeping us ‘healthy’. 

Attitudes towards fatness, race and age suddenly needed to be addressed, while taking into account postcode lotteries, the class divide, and arguments about personal freedom. By the spring of last year, looking after our health became a moral obligation – a service to our nation and the world.  

It would be remiss to say that this obsession only began with Boris Johnson’s announcement about lockdown in March 2020, though. These issues were all bubbling under the surface – the pandemic just brought them to boiling point.

It’s no wonder, says Lucy Mountain, a personal trainer who uses her social media platforms to call out the bullshit in the health and fitness world. We millennials have faced years of mixed messaging around our health and that, Mountain argues, was always destined to result in mass-scale confusion over what it means to be healthy. 

“As a young woman in the 90s and early 00s, I spent my formative years around a lot of body shaming conversations,” she says. “It’s a time when you want to be accepted and a lot of that comes down to how attractive you feel, but all of the fears I had were validated by the media that sold us heroin chic and used the circle of shame – drawing red rings around women’s supposed flaws.” 

Lucy Mountain sat on a chair in a studio in black activewear
The way we define health has changed from 90s heroin chic to today's complex conversations, says Lucy Mountain

During that era, health was less about habits than it was about looks. Arguably, that fixation hasn’t disappeared, argues Mountain. “My entry point to exercise was so negative and entirely about aesthetics – it came after a boy pointed out my cellulite at a party,” she explains. “I still think it’s possible to fall down that same rabbit hole on social media, following people for their bodies and healthy lifestyles.” 

With the advent of social media, her interest in transforming her body only developed further. “I began to associate being healthy with being small,” Mountain says. Because that was what Instagram did during its early years – pedalled the same body ideals, only with an extra dose of morality. Proof is in the ‘clean eating’ trend, where we were told that true health came from avoiding foods that were perfectly fine for most of us. While the message may have been about ‘health’, the outcome was very much about a certain type of slim woman selling an aspirational body goal. 

In the fitness world, influencers may have been saying ‘strong not skinny’ but their content very explicitly focused on their lean physiques rather than holistic strength. There was no real conversation about mental health, physical illness or what health looks like on a wide range of people. 

As Instagram has grown, so has the backlash to the strict lifestyles promoted in its beginnings. But it’s still left many people trapped in fear over food and exercise. So here we are, in a place where our health status – what we eat, how we move, the wellness practices we follow – is entirely key to who we are as people. The choices we make about our health and our bodies are now part of our identity, whether it’s being an intermittent faster, a CrossFitter, a yogi – or making the decision to avoid these lifestyles altogether. 

While none of these identities are inherently bad, the constant fixation on perfecting our health might be. Women are particularly prone to feeling negative about their health status, even if they are clinically ‘healthy’: in a 2019 study of over 2,700 people, researchers asked participants to report on any health conditions, physical activity levels and diet. Despite the male participants reporting having more cases of hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol and tobacco use, women report lower confidence in their health status. “Gender has been shown to influence self-efficacy, particularly for physical activity,” concluded the study’s head researcher Dr Richa Sood. 

In fact, the problem might be the diversification of health ‘news’ that has made conversations around health, frankly, an overwhelming mess. How can we be both vegan and high-protein eaters, hench weightlifters and agile marathon runners, mental health advocates yet never suffer the reality of depression? Top it all off with the fake news around coronavirus, and it feels kind of dire.   

For Mountain, there’s another way to look at it: “I now use social media to find incredible women who talk about their bodies in different ways to the one homogenous version of health I used to believe in,” she says. “How I see it is that with so many different messages about health being articulated, it proves that there are so many different ways to define health. In that sense, everyone can pick their own path.”

What does ‘healthy’ really mean?

This is what we’ll be exploring this week in Picture of Health: a series of features looking at what it really means to be healthy in 2021. From the financial cost of healthy living to why a stereotypically ‘healthy’ diet doesn’t work for everyone, we’ll be deep-diving into questions such as: is there a one size fits all? And can ‘true health’ ever really exist? 

For Mountain, the question shouldn’t be: “Is living the perfect healthy life possible?” but rather: “Is it necessary?”. “We should never discredit the fact that there are foods that are more or less nutritious and that movement is good, but the language is so binary,” she says. “Health has to be about more than our bodies – it has to encompass our mental health and our social wellbeing – otherwise, it’s not fit for purpose.

“It’s important to take a step back and think: in my pursuit of health, what is the end goal? If we’re taking arbitrary figures – about what we’ve eaten, how much we’ve moved or what our weight is – as signs of optimal health, what does that mean for the rest of our lives?”

In our series, we’ll hear from pioneering voices in the health and fitness world who have real answers to popular claims about diet, exercise and disease, how health is represented throughout media as well as women’s first-hand experiences about how they engage with the industry. We promise it’s going to be about so much more than green juice and burpees. 

In Stylist’s new digital series Picture of Health, we investigate what health looks like for women today – from redefining mental health and fitness, to examining issues around race and disability inclusivity. For investigations, first-person essays and features check back here daily.

Images: Ella Byworth, Lucy Mountain

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Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).