Are you feeling the influence of healthism?

A friend recently started a new diet. I forget specific details, but recall a familiar format. Avoid certain (demonised) foods. Increase consumption of favoured (propriety) foods. When we spoke they had been on the diet a little over a week, kick-started by a month-long ‘challenge.’ The kind favoured by many in marketing: if you’re not completely satisfied after a month get your money back. My friend became more animated as they spoke about their new dietary regime. They had much more energy, felt more alert, had increased concentration, slept better, lost weight, their skin was more radiant, and so the list continued. It was clear that the marketer’s money was safe.

However, it is physiologically impossible for such numerous and significant changes to be caused by a new diet in such short time. I certainly believe they felt all these changes and they had no reason to lie to me. In other words, I’m sure they did feel better. I’m not sure it was because of physiological adaptions brought about by their diet, at least not entirely anyway. Why did they feel so great then? As a sociologist of physical activity and health, unsurprisingly, I see social and cultural factors explaining, in part, my friend’s drastic improvement in wellbeing. More specifically: healthism.

Healthism is a view of health that stresses personal responsibility. As Robert Crawford explains, healthism is a ‘preoccupation with personal health as a primary – often the primary – focus for the definition and achievement of wellbeing.’ When we view health as primarily the responsibility of individuals, we view being healthy as a choice. Said differently, when we view health as an outcome of behaviour, poor health is seen as individual failing. The healthy are praised. The ill are blamed. This has been especially difficult for those with diseases including terminal cancer. Healthism also distracts from health inequalities by averting attention away from the fact that factors with the biggest health impact are often beyond individual control.

As such, much of my friend’s new lease on life is not the result of physiological changes in their body, but exhibiting praiseworthy behaviour. They felt so much better, in part, because what they were doing was socially laudable. In other words, changes in exercise and diet in pursuit of health is partly motivated by the potential social rewards of achieving the ‘exercise-body beautiful complex.’ A process of shaming, which has been described as the master emotion of advertising, takes place where people with certain body shapes are blamed for a lack of self-control. My friend, then, was temporarily at least, in control and on the way to a more socially desirable body. The increased sense of personal efficacy boosted self-confidence and self-esteem, which made them feel great. They felt change because they deserved to.

Where does this leave us then? First, we need to remember purchasing of fashionable foods at trendy health food stores (or doing in vogue exercise regimes: how do you know someone does CrossFit? They’ll tell you) is not a health necessity but an act of conspicuous consumption. Similarly, sharing images of our food and recipes with on-trend ingredients, and letting everyone know just how good we feel on our new diet or doing exercise, on social media is not a neutral reporting of our wellbeing, but virtue signalling.

We need not feel guilty if we miss an exercise session, do not ride our bike to work that day, or over indulge in certain foods. Equally, we should not make others feel guilty directly, or inadvertently, through our virtue signalling. As we start to move self-care beyond responsibility, we can then look to where the real improvements in health and wellbeing can be made: structural change. That, however, is a much bigger task. Nonetheless, dismantling the dominance of healthism is a good start.

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Kass Gibson

Kass has taught in schools, colleges, and universities in New Zealand, Japan, Canada, and the United Kingdom. At the University of St Mark and St John he teaches research methods, social theory, and pedagogy on Physical Education, Sports Science, Coaching, and Public Health degree programmes.

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