Health is one of the primordial dimensions of human life. The absence or presence of disease significantly impacts an individual’s quality of life. In the twenty-first century, there are three dominant perspectives on sources of illness: medical, socio-ecological, and cultural. Medicalists argue that health is a result of genetics, lifestyle, and environmental exposure. Proponents of the socio-ecological approach concentrate on demographic risk factors. The cultural view asserts that culturally accepted notions of health determine lifestyle and, subsequently, the prevalence of diseases. Out of these three, the socio-ecological perspective is closest to my personal position on health.
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Firstly, the post-Instagram cult of clean eating and healthism strikes me as deeply problematic. People are lured in by marketing promises of glowing skin, a perfect body and faux-immortality if they eliminate the correct product. That product varies every week, whether it is gluten, refined sugar, fat, or dairy. The identification of these ingredients as “dirty pollutants” and vegan foods as “clean” leads to a moralistic idealization of food that borders on the religious (Pelters & Wijma, 2016). Health becomes “existentially meaningful and life-shaping” (Pelters & Wijma, 2016, p. 133). Your body is perceived as a hedonistic monster you must “overcome” and subjugate in the quest for health. Anybody who does not follow strict dietary and exercise regimens is guilt-tripped as immorally lacking in self-discipline (Crawford, 1980). It is not surprising that an increasing amount of adolescents are suffering from eating disorders, depression, and self-esteem issues.
In my opinion, this cult of healthism is an extremely dangerous marketing tactic based on a performance of control and moral superiority rather than any real concern for people’s health. It unfairly emphasizes the impact of individual choices, exactly like the reductionist medical view that prioritizes individual lifestyles and genetic predisposition. Unfortunately, while I realize its hollowness, I am still a victim of this societal conditioning. When hearing about other people’s illnesses, I immediately assume that either they or their parents did not take care of themselves enough. This attitude ignores the complex reality of health.
The assumption of individual blame is a discriminatory bias that ignores the political, social, and economic factors influencing health. Life expectancy varying in different countries by decades is a testament to the existence of health inequalities. Firstly, institutional and environmental constraints can be as simple as the fact that Canadians in rural areas do not have the same access to fruits and vegetables, to systematic medical disenfranchisement of Aboriginal people (Public Health Agency of Canada, 2018). Socioeconomically disadvantaged individuals and minority populations are socially excluded and have less access to the healthcare system (Public Health Agency of Canada, 2018). Food insecurity and problems with early childhood development lead to higher instances of infant mortality, arthritis, unintentional injury, suicide, and mental illness (Public Health Agency of Canada, 2018). Secondly, tobacco and food corporations exploit online algorithms to encourage unhealthy behavior for financial gain (Crawford, 1980). Instead of making the corporations accountable for the problems they cause, we blame individuals for succumbing to advertising meticulously engineered to elicit a certain reaction. Health-related decisions are not made in a vacuum but due to a complex interplay of different biopsychosocial elements.
In conclusion, the modern view propagated by the medical and holistic health industry unfairly assumes that individual choices are the solution to all health problems. The phenomenon of “healthism” leads to harmful obsession with food consumption and exercise. In reality, uncontrollable factors such as socioeconomic or immigration status can significantly contribute to disease and mortality rates. Instead of inducing feelings of guilt and embarrassment, we need to push for targeted public policy and corporate responsibility to improve public health.
Crawford, R. (1980). Healthism and the medicalization of everyday life. International journal of health services, 10(3), 365-388.
Pelters, B., & Wijma, B. (2016). Neither a sinner nor a saint: Health as a present-day religion in the age of healthism. Social Theory & Health, 14(1), 129-148.
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Public Health Agency of Canada. (2018). Key health inequalities in Canada: A national portrait. Web.