Throughout 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