Whose Health Is It Anyway?

Lynne Murray says:

Pattie Thomas, Ph.D., author of the wonderful Taking Up Space, offers some very illuminating insights (and thought-provoking links) in her blog fattiepattie on how healthism and our fervent desire to be in control of the uncontrollable can turn into attacks on groups perceived as “unhealthy.”

When I think about health, I have to think of my grandmother, Verneille, on my father’s side. She was by all accounts a health nut, a devout follower of vitamin guru Adele Davis. She gave me a copy of Ms. Davis’s Let’s Cook It Right, and for years that was the only cookbook I owned. For an Adelle Davis/Angela Davis identity mix-up story on my blog in the April 2005 archive under radical cookbooks (look well down the page).

Because of my grandmother’s influence I remember going to vitamin stores back in the early 1960s. Health food stores back then looked like seedy pharmacies–striving vainly to seem medically legitimate. The vitamins themselves lurked near the counter and there were a few revolving racks of paperback books like Psycho-Cybernetics and pamphlets whose covers showed grinning elderly men in bathing trunks, striking muscle building poses, and even more unnervingly books that contained, shall we say…unforgettable illustrations. What kind of illustrations, you ask? Well, let’s just say that while I believe humans should eat sufficient fiber, I do not want to have to look at color photographs of comparative results.

My grandmother didn’t live a particularly long life by today’s standards (she died in 1975 at 73). Her health food fads were different than today’s. She and her husband retired to run a small hog farm in Illinois, and they did sample their own wares. But she was a seeker, fearlessly exploring options out on the fringe of what was then acceptable.

Was she a “healthist”? Probably not. Although she was always trying to maximize her own health, she never poked her nose into other people’s lives–aside from pressing Adelle Davis books on them.

Until I looked it up, I did not realize that “healthism” was a term invented in the ’80s.

“It is one thing to have as our goal the right of every person, regardless of size, to have access to the resources to become more physically fit. It is quite another to base the acquisition of our civil rights, individually or as a community, on being or becoming “fit”. To do this would be healthist. Elly Janesdaughter, who coined the term, defines “healthism” as setting an arbitrary standard for determining whether a person is healthy and persecuting anyone who does not conform to this definition.”

Wow, I had no idea that was the history of the term. (There are some amazing resources on the Largesse page, including the Fat Liberation archives from the 1970s through 1990s.) But I have to temper my “wow!” with a sigh that we are still fighting the same battles so many years later.

Then my search took me to the British Medical Journal, where I found the word “eugenics” used with “healthism” — “Prenatal genetic selection has become an important branch of health care—the term eugenics is eschewed because of Hitler. However, it is quite likely that such squeamishness will soon be a thing of the past.”

Okay, I’m beyond “Wow,” and “Sigh” and into “Yikes!” territory here.

Finally I found a wonderful 2001 posting of a Peter Marsh lecture: In Praise of Bad Habits, wherein he suggests that healthism is a religion by which the educated and affluent attempt to “save” the poor and working classes from themselves (he also has a few words to say about state-imposed health goals past and present). The lecture concludes with a lovely story from Desmond Morris about his 99-year-old mother:

“It was a meal to make a food faddist swoon away in horror. My mother was piling her plate high with a greasy, fatty, fry-up of a mixed grill and tucking in with gusto. When I say ‘with gusto’, I mean she was eating with the urgent pleasure of a predator at a kill…”

“Watching her in action and trying my best to match her appetite, I glibly remarked that if she kept ignoring the words of wisdom of the health gurus and diet experts, she would die young. This may sound like a cruel thing for a son to have said to his mother, but the fact that she was in her 99th year at the time of the meal in question, helps to put my remark into perspective.”

After some eloquent attacks on the pontificators and what he terms the ‘diet fascists’, and after calling attention to Man’s omnivorous nature, Desmond returns to the story of his mother:

“When my mother was dying…I asked her if there was anything she wanted, ‘A gin and tonic’ she whispered. I had to feed it to her through a straw. ‘If you’ve got to go, you might as well go with a swing’ she said. And where food and drink is concerned, you might as well stay with a swing.”

<br /> health<br /> <a href="http://technorati.com/tag/healthism" rel="tag nofollow" class="broken_link">healthism</a><br /> <a href="http://technorati.com/tag/unhealthy" rel="tag nofollow" class="broken_link">unhealthy</a><br /> <a href="http://technorati.com/tag/health+foods" rel="tag nofollow" class="broken_link">health foods</a><br /> eugenics<br /> British Medical Journal<br /> Pattie Thomas<br /> Desmond Morris<br /> <a href="http://technorati.com/tag/diet" rel="tag nofollow" class="broken_link">diet</a><br /> fat<br /> <a href="http://technorati.com/tag/Body+Image" rel="tag nofollow" class="broken_link">Body Image</a><br /> Peter Marsh<br /> Lynne Murray<br /> <a href="http://technorati.com/tag/Body+Impolitic" rel="tag nofollow" class="broken_link">Body Impolitic</a><br />

8 thoughts on “Whose Health Is It Anyway?

  1. What delightful stories. Love the gin one. We try to live scrupulously right and safely, polite to a fault and lose our living in the process. If we try to be healthy but don’t enjoy it, well, hedonist I am, I feel that misses not a boat but a whole fleet.

  2. Lynne,

    Your story about your grandmother reminded me of Jenny, my older daughter’s grandmother. She was also a health food person in the 50’s and 60’s and a passionate believer in Adele Davis.

    She was a remarkable brave women who literally walked out of Russia in her twenties on her way to America.

    She was politically very left, a communist until the Khrushchev revelations. Her health food universe was filled with political radicals, yoga and passionate conversations.

    She lived to be quite old and attended college in her 80’s.

  3. I think you can easily get used to your new healthy foods and learn to like them. Once you are happy eating your new superfoods you won’t even want the old junk.

  4. There is a perfect example of healthism in action right there. There is NO real scientific evidence that there are any “good” foods or “bad” foods or that eating in a particular way guarantees either better health or longer life. People with all kinds of lifestyles & eating habits die at all ages & life is for LIVING, not for anxiously fearing death. I come from a long line of people who ate food like Desmond Morris’s mother, loved salt pork, lots of beef, rich desserts, whole (& sometimes unpasteurized milk), & I exercise a lot more than any relative I know of; most of these people have been fat by today’s standards, though the thin ones ate the same, & most lived well into their 80’s, 90’s, & a couple well beyond that.

    Healthism assumes that how one lives in one’s body is anyone else’s business &/or that one has all the “right” answers to life. That simply isn’t true. We own our bodies & how we live in them in no one’s business but our own. And, yes, the lady who wrote the paper on “healthism” to which Lynn refers is a good friend of mine.

  5. I have been reading the comments to the above alas posting, too, & it is amazing how the belief that burgers are “really bad” food cuts across differences in politics, gender, sexuality, & body size. Most people in this country have been well & truly brainwashed to believe that it is “bad” to eat certain foods. So understanding that all foods are okay, your food is not going to hurt you, & that it is perfectly okay to eat what you like, owning your own body & your right to make your own choices, does indeed make you a rebel in today’s insane “someone else has to tell us how to breathe” world. And just so there is no misunderstanding about where I stand, I happen to love burgers; however, I actually eat fast food of any kind probably a dozen or less times in the course of a year, & incidentally, a friend who researchers these kinds of things told me that no more than 2% of Americans eat fast food more than twice a week, despite all the hoopla about our “terrible & unhealthy” eating habits.

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