I learned a new word at the ASDAH Conference – new word for an old problem.

 Healthism is the idea that you need to have perfect health, and if you do, the feeling of superiority over those that don’t have it.  It is also where you blame a person for their ill health because of “bad” habits, lifestyle, etc.  It’s the idea that constant striving to be healthy is the duty of each person – if they want to be treated with respect and compassion, and have access to healthcare.

 This is part and parcel of the “poster child for fatties” syndrome – where you think you can only be a spokesperson for fat acceptance as long as your “numbers” are good. 

 Healthism is something we need to fight in society and in ourselves. 

 There is no such thing as being “perfectly” healthy.  For one thing, nobody can agree what perfect health is.  And while you may enjoy good health today, nobody knows what tomorrow will bring – we are all subject to our heredity, environment, and the aging process. 

 And whatever your personal choices are, you deserve good healthcare.

 I am one of those people who believe that healthcare is a right, not a privilege.  I understand that certain treatments may be limited resources, and choices may have to be made due to availability.  

 Our society creates many barriers to access of healthcare.  Some people simply can’t afford it.  But what about people who feel they aren’t deserving of healthcare because they take drugs, smoke or are fat?  It’s bad enough when a person doesn’t seek medical treatment because they personally feel they don’t deserve healthcare; but then the government, healthcare professionals, the media and society as a whole reinforces those feelings. 

 I think people sometimes indulge in healthism because it makes you feel like there is a reason for bad health, and if there’s a reason for bad health, then it can be avoided (and then you’ll live forever).  Well, sometimes there is a reason, and sometimes there isn’t (and anyway nobody is going to live forever).  But even when there is a reason, that doesn’t mean the bad health shouldn’t be treated.  Nobody “deserves” bad health.


14 thoughts on “HEALTH-ISM

  1. I completely agree with you on this. I don’t know of one single person who doesn’t have some kind of health or medical issue, even if something like bad eye sight, which when you think about it, sooo many people have. But ever single person I know has *something,* and those somethings accumulate as you age. Your health is your business only.

  2. One of the things I find very disturbing about healthism is how superstitious it is. This idea that the path to eternal youth and wellness can be found in good nutrition and exercise is being taken to cult-like levels, with people abandoning vaccines and proven cancer treatments in favour of embracing dietary restrictions.

    After I recovered from cancer, a well-meaning friend asked me if I’d now changed the behaviours that gave me cancer… and I said, “what, like exposure to fumigants and pesticides?” which is one of the main culprits for the sort of cancer I had.

    She didn’t believe me that cancer can be caused by genetics or environmental causes, rather than just ‘lifestyle choices’. But then, it’s much easier to berate people for not drinking enough carrot juice than it is to effect the kind of political change that will stop dangerous materials being pumped into the food chain or into the atmosphere.

    • Because if she accepted genetics and environment can cause cancer, rather than behavior, that means she could develop cancer. The lack of control is a scary thing; but it is reality.

  3. Abso-fracking-lutely!

    You know, my father and my mother-in-law both died of lung cancer. My father got it from the asbestos in the engine rooms of the ships he served on when he was in the navy in WWII and Korea. My mother-in-law got it smoking like a chimney for fifty years. According to healthism, my father ought to have been pitied and treated well and my mother-in-law should have been thrown to the wolves to fend for herself and die without access to health care or compassion.

    I’m pleased to say that both had access to – and received – excellent, compassionate care. They both needed it. They were both dying of a horrible disease that made two vital people waste away hideously and painfully by inches. Nobody deserves that. Nobody deliberately brings that on themselves. We were both more worried about making their final days as comfortable and easy as we possibly could, not finding or handing out blame.

    Ultimately, both could be labeled as having brought cancer on themselves, but you know what? There are people who smoke more than my mother-in-law who never develop cancer or any lung disease. There are people who served in those engine rooms alongside my father who are still alive and healthy, and ones who died decades before Dad did. There are people who never pick up a cigarette or come into contact with asbestos who still get lung cancer.

    None of us are getting out of here alive. None of us has any idea how long we have or what is most likely to be our end. The most we can do is slightly massage the potential outcomes by eating balanced meals, exercising, and avoiding too many excesses… and that’s only likely to swing the possibilities a little bit. If your family history includes a lot of people who live short lives and die of a certain cause, well, them’s the breaks. If you family has a long history of living as long as Methuselah while partying hard, them’s also the breaks. Them’s just happier breaks.

    But we’re all human. We all deserve to be treated with care, compassion, and dignity. We all need healthcare at some point in our lives. It’s better for society as a whole, both in terms of public health and societal stability as well as individual health, if we all have access to that healthcare, no matter what our financial situation or the source of our health issues.

  4. I cringe a little every time I hear someone say of a cancer victim “But he/she always eats so healthy and exercises!” or something like that.

    It’s not a new concept. It’s just the idea that death and disease and all bad things can be warded off, not with spells or blessings anymore, but with vegetables and jogging. It’s just a new form of superstition, of being convinced that certain behaviors can help you control the world around you when really, things happen outside your realm of control.

  5. Great post & it echoes so completely my beliefs. Nobody lives forever & no one knows why some die young & others, often with ‘bad’ habits, live to be very old. I am pretty lucky in the genetic lottery, having, on my mother’s side, a lot of long-lived relatives, but who knows? I don’t. Yes, the belief in healthism is a superstition, almost like not stepping on a crack; if I just do this, this, this, nothing bad can happen. Yeah…it can. I can & it does…to everyone…in some way, eventually. We need to own our bodies, live life as fully as we can, try to appreciate every moment, & do what WE want to do, because this is NOT a dress rehearsal.

  6. *applause*

    I like to think that healthism is the nonreligious person’s version of faith healing, and as someone who used to be part of a sect of Christianity in which faith healing was a Very Big Important Thing, I feel comfortable saying this. It’s very similar in that all one has to do to avoid illnesses from cancer to the common cold is follow the right formula, and the only difference between healthism and faith healing is the formula followed–to me, “say this specific prayer and rub this oil that has been blessed by a televangelist thousands of miles away while holding this scrap of cloth blessed by a different televangelist” sounds the same as “do this specific exercise, eat these foods and avoid those”, the only difference being that faith healing is treated like nonsense, while healthist prescriptions for avoiding sickness are treated as truth. The irony is the fact that, of course, the same people who treat faith healing as nonsense are the same ones who subscribe to the idea that all one needs to do is eat the “right” things and exercise the “right” way to avoid illness.

    This is part of why I twitch when I hear the phrase “lifestyle diseases”. Life is a lifestyle disease, and as others have said, one person can do all the right things per the ever-changing definition of rightness, and end up sick or dead anyway, while another person can do all the “wrong” things and live for a good, long time.

    I’m sorry for getting ranty in your comment box.

  7. At first I thought it was a little cheesy to put that in until I thought about how true it was and just how much people liked to attribute every single illness and injury to something that a person was doing, or not doing.

    I’m with a lot of people who say that healthism is a lot like other superstitions. I like to think of it as faith-healing for the set of people who think that they’re “above” things like religion, which sometimes makes me laugh.

    • What’s so annoying and problematic about it is the grain of truth – there really are things that are bad for your health, that if you do them put you squarely at risk of problems later. But somehow commonsense public health advice has turned into a belief that everything that happens to your body is your own fault.

      I think it’s an outgrowth of the extreme free market approach to economics of the past few years, combined with the growth of the New Age movement, where the individual is supposed to be responsible for everything. You’re poor? You’re not trying hard enough!

  8. Fantastic Post! When I find myself indulging in healthism, or cringing when someone else is… I am usually feeling defensive. It’s those little kernels of the past buried deep down. Terri, thanks for the great post!

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