“We choose to define ourselves” [ad line]
Healthism is a holistic ideology, which focuses on an individual’s responsibility for his/her health based on informed choice (MacDonald, 1998). Health promotion is deeply embedded in this ideology. Healthism is the culmination of individualistic and consumerist thought, making one’s own body as the sole focus of values and decisions. Health, as a narrowly defined medical standard, and beauty, as expressed in outward physical appearance, become the most important indicators of personal well-being. In combination with these individualistic thinking patterns, the physical environment is being seen as a constant threat to human health and well-being. Society and cultural expression become almost irrelevant in the context of health.
Healthism is an expression of extreme privilege. It makes us believe that we can be creators of our own fate and destiny. The market place supplies for those who can afford it beauty and health. On the foundation of the health belief model, it pretends that we can avoid and prevent disease and illness at will and with ease – predominantly with the illusion in mind that we could achieve physical and mental perfection and live forever: All we need is the scientific knowledge and the personal responsibility and discipline for taking appropriate action. It is a war on diversity and ageing – a quest for eternal youth and defiance of death.
All physiologic aspects of a human being get compartmentalized, reduced, and looked at individually. We are looking for direct cause and effect: I press the button, and the desired effect happens, predictably and instantly. That makes the selling of vitamins, micronutrients, gadgets, gym memberships, and wellness procedures so profitable.
People become so absorbed and obsessed with their individual health that it becomes difficult to maintain wholeness – and subsequently also holiness. Each week, another study is published that promotes yet a new discovery of how to live a longer and healthier life. This appears to be manipulation of desire – the management of behaviour that is made possible through a complex persuasion system that moulds the consumer’s mind to the needs of the market (Galbraith, 1998).
However, if we could follow all the published evidence so far, living a life would become impossible: It would not be practical to ingest all the suggested nutritional ingredients and observe all the healthy physical practices and at the same time avoid all the things that could be harmful for our bodies.
Martin Heidegger (1977) adds that human beings are transformed into raw materials to be mobilized in technical processes. He also mentioned that by seeing one’s being-in-the-world (“Dasein”) as the only reality one thereby forgets and loses connection with one’s Being – with one’s central purpose and meaning. Applied to healthism, the individual’s obsession with personal and commodified well-being precludes a meaningful and deeper interaction with the world around us, leaving out the capacity to act as a social being beyond consumption, creating the one-dimensional human being.
Healthism has a strong moralistic flavour. With this war on illness and disease it becomes easy to assign blame. It seems to be instantly recognizable who did the right things in life and who did not: A person that becomes ill or gains weight must have not followed best evidence-based practices. Therefore it must be their personal fault and shortcoming. Period. And we get close to a religious attitude of a punishing God and the discourses of sin and salvation.
Wholeness is never found in a shame-based culture. Wholeness is love and interconnectedness.
Ageing and death are integral aspects of life. So are illness and disease. Most pathogens are equally part of creation as we are as human beings. The question for me is how do we take care of creation as a whole and of our health in particular. Instead of fighting specific disease, would it not be the sensible way of being good stewards, accepting that most viral illnesses, for instance, are being cured by giving the body much needed rest. We are given an immune system that is designed to keep us healthy; however we have also created environmental conditions that strains the capacities of our immune systems: pollution, constant stressors and over stimulation to name a few.
As a member of the Religious Society of Friends, I am concerned about discerning God’s will and shape my life in the world based on those callings. I doubt that the faithful life is striving for perfection of physical appearance and disease-free life. Instead I am called to reflect on how my everyday actions are interconnected with the misery and disaster many other beings in this world are suffering from. I am called to simplicity; I get my vitamins from fresh fruit rather than manufactured concoctions. I believe this was God’s plan in the first place.
I refuse to promote the paradigm of healthism. Instead, I keep in mind a definition of health described from Cree experience: Health is a complex, dynamic process that has to do with social relations, land, and cultural identity, which are all linked to quality of life. That way, I contribute to wholeness and the well-being of all.
Please find the German version of this article here: Gesundsheitswahn – Ein Krieg gegen die Ganzheitlichkeit
This article will be published in Canadian Friend, 2014 #1.
Adelson, N. (2000). Being alive well: Health and politics of Cree well-being. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.
Galbraith, J.K. (1998). The affluent society: 40th anniversary edition, updated and with a new introduction by the author. New York, NY: Marriner Books.
Heidegger, M. (1977). The question concerning technology and other essays. Translated by William Lovitt. NewYork, NY: Harper & Row.
MacDonald, T. H. (1998). Rethinking health promotion: A global approach. New York, NY: Routledge.