Monthly Archives: February 2012

What is healthism? (part two)

Apple and stethoscopeIn part one of this post I explained the most common meaning of healthism (an excessive preoccupation with healthy lifestyles and feeling personally responsible for our health) and described an authoritarian sense of the term. Here I discuss healthism as an appeal to moral sentiments and as a source of anxiety. I also note an unusual definition of the term as the desire to be healthy, which leads me to end with a personal disclaimer.

Moral healthism

The directive to be personally responsible for our health – whether it comes from a government health policy, the medical profession, or an advertisement – is often fraught with unacknowledged moral overtones. People who practice healthy lifestyles (daily exercise, a Mediterranean diet) and dutifully follow prevention guidelines (annual cancer screenings, pharmaceuticals to maintain surrogate endpoints for risk reduction) are overtly or implicitly encouraged to feel morally superior to those who do not. This includes the right to feel superior to those who ‘choose’ to be unhealthy – after all, isn’t smoking a morally indefensible choice? The implication is that those who fail to take responsibility for their health are undeserving of our sympathy or assistance (especially financial).

This quality of healthism – like the anti-authority healthism discussed in part one – is possibly more common in the US than elsewhere. It’s unfortunate but true that in the US there’s a tendency to blame the poor and disadvantaged for not being able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. There is a decided unwillingness to acknowledge that differences in wealth and social class during childhood have lifelong effects on behavior and health. Read more


What is healthism? (part one)

Apple and stethoscopeThroughout history there’s been an understandable desire to find connections between our behavior and our health. Human beings have practiced health regimens involving diet, exercise and hygiene since antiquity. When medicine was based on the humoral theory of disease, for example, individuals were advised to purge the body in the spring and, in the summer, avoid foods or activities that caused heat. Bathing in ice water was recommended in the 19th century. Mark Twain quoted the advice: “the only way to keep your health is to eat what you don’t want, drink what you don’t like, and do what you’d druther not.”

In the second half of the 20th century many Americans adopted the idea that a ‘healthy lifestyle’ (diet, exercise, not smoking, etc.) was a good way to prevent disease and live longer. This particular attitude was a product of popular perceptions about health (a surge of interest in holistic/alternative practices, self-care movements such as Our Bodies, Ourselves) and prevailing social attitudes (such as desirable body images). Perhaps more so than in previous centuries, the growth of media consumption and the effectiveness of modern advertising allowed commercial interests (books, magazines, fitness merchandise, vitamins and supplements, weight loss pills, diet and energy foods, …) to exert considerable influence on health behavior.

Also at work was extensive media coverage of a presumed link between preventive lifestyles and risk factors for disease (conflicting opinions about salt and which type of fats to eat are good examples). Unlike the vague aphorisms of previous generations, this more modern source of health advice had the scientific backing of epidemiology, if not the proof that comes from randomly controlled trials.

One of the terms used to describe the enormous increase in health consciousness is ‘healthism.’ Judging from how I’ve seen the word used, it means different things in different contexts to different people. I’m going to describe a few of those meanings.

This post grew rather long, so I’ve divided it into two parts. In part one I discuss an anti-authority sense of healthism as well as healthism’s most common meaning: a sense of personal responsibility for health accompanied by an excessive preoccupation with fitness, appearance, and the fear of disease. Part two discusses the moralistic and anxiety-inducing qualities of the term, plus an odd use where healthism becomes another word for health itself. Read more


Guest post: Is the prevalence of depression related to the modern empowerment of the individual?

Alain-Ehrenberg_Das_erschoepfte_Selbst_Depression_in_der_GesellschaftPierre Fraser is an author, essayist, and (currently) a PhD candidate in sociology at Université Laval. Just as his most recent book (Tous Malades !: Quand l’obsession pour la santé nous rend fous) was being published, I met Pierre on Twitter, where we discovered our mutual interest in the subject of healthism. Pierre blogs at Pierre Fraser and tweets as @pierre_fraser.

This translation would have been impossible without the invaluable assistance of Jan Henderson (PhD in the history of science and medicine from Yale). Her work allowed me to revisit the original French text and enhance it, and in this sense, we followed the injunction of Karl Popper : the duty of clarity. I hope our collaboration will continue, because Jan and I are particularly concerned about the healthization of society, and we try to understand how health has become a social value. Feel free to send us your comments (Jan Henderson, Pierre Fraser).

Pierre Fraser, 2012

When a medical clinician examines a patient, she first determines the presenting symptoms, considers which bodily functions might account for those symptoms, arrives at a diagnosis, and provides the most appropriate treatment. But what if the presenting symptom is depression? As Alain Ehrenberg points out, “depression, like any mental illness, is not a disease that can be assigned to a part of the body.” [1] In fact, as Ehrenberg goes on to say: “when psychiatry can discover the cause of a mental illness, as happened with epilepsy, it is no longer a mental illness.” [2] Such has been the dilemma of the history of psychiatry. Read more