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 sayÃ¢â‚¬Â¦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 careÃ¢â‚¬â€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 killÃ¢â‚¬Â¦”
“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 dyingÃ¢â‚¬Â¦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.”