what is healthism (and how does it hurt us)?

You may not have heard the term, but you are already an expert in healthism. As invisible and pervasive as the air we breathe, healthism underlies and intersects with all other aspects of our culture. For many of us, some aspects of healthism will feel like absolute truths, while we may be unsure about others.

Healthism is a pervasive belief system that says health should be valued above all else, and that it is the sole responsibility of each individual to care for their health.

Healthism says, “Your health is in your hands!”

A core belief of healthism is that each of us is responsible for our own health, and that health is within our grasp if only we do the right things. It says that each of us simply needs to care for ourselves with the magic combination of foods, supplements, diet and exercise, and that if we are failing to be healthy, it is our fault. This type of thinking is prevalent in many fitness and health communities, and is (unsurprisingly) espoused by the purveyors of fitness and health products such as yoga studios, supplement manufacturers, and “detox” programs.

But is this really true? Can each of us actually manage our own health through behavioral changes? Let’s assume that it is possible to manage one’s health perfectly through diet and exercise alone (I don’t believe this, but for the sake of argument, we’ll move forward). Even in wealthy countries, many people do not have the means or access to “healthy” food, physical/mental health care, or gyms. Assuming they could overcome these barriers (“It’s easy to eat well on a budget!,” or “You can always work out at home!” the voices of healthism cry), there are often cultural, physical, educational or time constraints.

Healthism is the voice that says, “No excuses!” while ignoring the role of oppression, poverty, racism, sexism, trauma, violence, environmental factors, and naturally occurring disease or variations in the human genome. 

Healthism also assumes that mental health is within our control, perhaps with the right combination of diet and exercise, or a daily pill to manage any troublesome symptoms. In this way, it reinforces stigma and silence around mental illness and prevents us from seeing it as a normal part of the human experience.

Healthism says, “Healthy people are the best people.”

Because it places such a high value on health, healthism says that healthy individuals are morally superior to unhealthy individuals. After all, they’re the ones who have managed to take their health into their own hands, showing us all that it’s possible! This is what we’re all striving for, right?

This is the principle that allows insurance companies to deny coverage for pre-existing conditions. It says they are not healthy enough to deserve healthcare. 

This is why we consider thin, “fit,” able-bodied people to be the “norm,” and others to be deviations. A quick look across the tabloids or a flip through social media will tell you which bodies are most valued in our culture. Celebrities are shamed for “letting themselves go.” People using mobility aids are missing or invisible. It’s no coincidence that the featured bodies are the ones that hold privilege.

Because if you recall, in reality, health is not something that everyone has equal access to. This means that privilege determines who is healthy, and who is considered morally superior. Those with financial privilege, educational privilege, white privilege, thin privilege, cisgender privilege, able-bodied privilege are at the top of the pyramid. 

When we buy into healthism, we reinforce the structures of racism, ableism, sexism, and white supremacy (among others).

“Healthism shows up when we joke about getting diabetes from a single dessert, or refer to a rich meal as a “heart attack on a plate”—implying that those health conditions are caused by failures of a perceived personal responsibility to be healthy, not by structural forces that disproportionately harm the health of people living on the down side of power. Healthism shows up when we suggest that trans people should be more worried about the side effects of long-term hormone therapy than their own lived experience of their gender.” -Aubrey Gordon, @yrfatfriend

How does healthism show up in your life?

Healthism makes us feel guilty when we are sick, as though we’ve done something wrong. 

Healthism is at play when we hear things like, “Covid-19 is only dangerous for the elderly or people with underlying conditions.” Healthism has created the implicit understanding that their lives are less worthy because they are not healthy (and therefore inferior). 

Healthism says, “I don’t want my hard-earned money to pay for someone else’s health-care,” or, “Why should I pay for people who don’t take care of themselves?” 

Healthism doesn’t take into consideration the amount of work that each of us may have to do. It positions self-care as mandatory and shames us for not “finding the time.” 

Healthism judges others, saying “She just hasn’t been taking care of herself.” 

Healthism ignores those that are missing from our wellness spaces (brown bodies, black bodies, disabled bodies, fat bodies, trans bodies). Rather than asking why these spaces are so white, it says, “Yoga is for everyone!” and, “If everyone would meditate daily, they’d be healthier.” 

Healthism assumes that the fat person at the gym is there to lose weight.

Healthism shames us when we are tired, under-resourced, or unmotivated to exercise.

Healthism is selling you:

  • Products to control your weight
  • Products to manage your time 
  • The idea that you would be better if only you could control your health.

Most of us have been so indoctrinated in the church of healthism that we may not even recognize it. Do you believe that health is the most important thing? Do you believe that each of us has to take responsibility for our own health, and that some of us deserve better care? What would it be like to imagine a different type of of community wellness?

3 thoughts on “what is healthism (and how does it hurt us)?

  1. I am just now finding time to read this important article. It leaves much to think about. I worked in the healthcare system a long time and the later part in the universities/colleges training students. I saw changes that were good and changes that were harmful. I really had to be honest with myself reading this because I do believe in the body’s innate ability to heal itself, but, with time, patience common sense and help. I have folks close to me who assume I am anti-medication, anti-surgery, anti-vaccine, but, I am not. However, I realized some of what I did say, or write, came across strongly that if we eat a healthy and clean diet, exercise, breathe, and more we will heal ourselves, I had to really sit with myself and think about the wrong messages I was sending and I have stopped doing that. At least I hope I have and that my messages are clearer. Thank you for this, Laura.

    1. I can relate to this very much Jann– this makes me think that there are parts of “healthism” that aren’t inherently wrong, but are harmful when treated as “the only way” or “right for everyone.” I also know that you are one of the most thoughtful and conscious people I know! I am constantly readjusting and expanding my thinking too and I always appreciate your insights and reflections.

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