Friday 10 September 2010

Maia's Hand Mirror Reflections: Healthy Living

I realised that I hadn't explained myself very well in my Body Shop thread. Or rather I'd paraphrased an argument without actually making that argument.
I hate The Body Shop, have a for very long time. I've never had a use for the dumb soaps and gels and whatever they make (although I did go through a stage when I was 14 of buying them as presents for friends, if I didn't know what else to get them). They're such a huge part of the idea that it's alternative and a moral good to be healthy, and what it means to be healthy is to fit a traditional idea of beautiful that I'd happily watch as every single one of their stores burnt to the ground.
I wanted to explore the link between health and beauty, and the idea that health is a moral good, a little bit more to explain.

The equation of 'beauty' and 'health' is really common and really insidious. The most obvious example is weight, and (despite rather a lot of evidence to the contrary) the conflation of thin and healthy. In circles (usually middle class and slightly politically aware circles) where it's not acceptable to talk about weight loss straight up, generally exactly the same conversations take place, but people are talking about 'health'. If someone is nervous of complimenting a woman for losing weight, they'll talk about 'healthy' she looks.

But it's much more common than that. Most of the examples are just laughable. Beauty sections in magazines are now called 'health' sections. Hair products claim they will promote 'healthy looking hair' (because ensuring that your dead-cells are healthy should be the priority of everyone). The state of your skin is seen as indicative of your overall health. Performing beauty routinues, like moisturising or body scrubbing, are portrayed as part of maintaining your health.

Some are more scary:
The American Cancer Society offers the "Look Good…Feel Better" program, "dedicated to teaching women cancer patients beauty techniques to help restore their appearance and self-image during cancer treatment."

Of course this is bullshit, you can't tell someone's health by looking at them, and a lot of so called health routinues won't increase your longevity, or your quality of life at all.

Now this is partly just a marketing technique, the more women challenge beauty standards, the more useful it is to have different justification for selling exactly the same products. But I think it's become a lot more significant than that, because health is portrayed as a moral good. This particular conflation is a very powerful one for fucking with people's minds, and very useful for ensuring certain sorts of behaviour (mostly buying stuff, but also not challenging the way our society is organised).

The first step to believing being 'healthy' is moral is to show that 'health' is something that is under your control. Now personally, I reject this idea as deeply offensive, as well as being wrong. Wile there are some things that you can do that will promote the length of your life, and increase the ways you can use your body, most of it is just luck. Either it's your genetics, or it's a result of environmental factors you can't control (like poverty, or being exposed to depleted uranium). It's very tempting to believe we can control our body, how long we live, how far it holds out, but most of us won't be able to.

To give a rather silly example of this I have had a number of people tell me about the quality of their teeth, how they don't have fillings, and they each give a different reason for this (they brush every day, or they eat a lot of cheese). Now it seems to me that it's far more likely that fluoridated water, and improvements in detal practice are the reason my generation's teeth are better than our parents.

That's why I think it's wrong, the reason I think it's offensive is it promotes an idea that everyone could get better if only they tried hard enough. It turns illness into a form of personal failing. Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a fantastic article about this in relation to the breast cancer industry (and yes unfortunately it is an industry):
My friend introduces me to a knot of other women in survivor gear, breast-cancer victims all, I learn, though of course I would not use the V-word here. "Does anyone else have trouble with the term 'survivor'?' I ask, and, surprisingly, two or three speak up. It could be "unlucky," one tells me; it "tempts fate," says another, shuddering slightly. After all, the cancer can recur at any time, either in the breast or in some more strategic site. No one brings up my own objection to the term, though: that the mindless triumphalism of "survivorhood" denigrates the dead and the dying. Did we who live "fight" harder than those who've died? Can we claim to be "braver," better, people than the dead? And why is there no room in this cult for some gracious acceptance of death, when the time comes, which it surely will, through cancer or some other misfortune?
The idea that 'health' is a result of our individual actions is now dangerously firmly placed. We can beat heart-attacks, breast-cancer, alzheimer's, arthritis, dementia and everything else if we try hard enough.

As well as being awful in it's own right, this idea turns anything that is promoted as improving health as a moral good, even if it doesn't actually improve your longevity or use of your body.

This idea is so insidious that it has often been adopted by the left, where being 'healthy' can be portrayed as not just morally good, but alternative - or even radical. So we end up reinforcing our own version of the mainstream ideology. Constantly things that are supported for political reasons (say veganism) are promoted for their supposed health benefits, as if good politics and good health, automatically go together (I have a much, much, much longer rant about this particular topic, but it'll have to wait for another day).

I started writing this whole post because mythago asked me "why is buying soap kowtowing to patriarchal, capitalistic ideals about beauty?" I want to make it really clear that I don't think the solution to the problems that I raised is to stop eating in a particular way, or buying a particular product, or trying to live in a way that you find nourishes and sustains you.

What I do think is important is we challenge the ideology which equates beauty, health and morality, and promotes health as something we can control. We can stop praising people for being healthy, we can stop telling people they look healthy, we can stop assuming that just because we agree with something politically it'll be good for our bodies, and we can stop using moralistic language to describe food.

And that's why I hate the Body Shop.


captiver said...

I enjoyed your post. Similarly ageism. Look at the front page of either Stuff or NZ Herald on any day and a majority of the images will be of younger people...up to a maximum of middle age... all of whom tend to fit those certain parameters of "healthy" aka "beauty" that you talk about. (And tend to be white.) Thus, among those who don't fit the extremely narrow 'beauty' parameters, is everyone over a certain age. Equally insidious. While cosmetics companies argue they're making younger to middle aged people more 'healthy', they argue they can make older people younger. (Hmmm, presumably more 'healthy' too?) Why would we ever value any of these groups when we insist they (a) change and (b) remain invisible until they do? And changing your age is just as impossible as the other impossible changes you refer to.

Anonymous said...

Yeah doctors will tell you, if you stop smoking, keep fit and eat healthily you are likely to be healthier and live longer. So if you do want to increase your chances of being healthy it requires taking some personal responsibly. Are you saying we shouldn’t bother because it’s a con?

Tamara said...

Maia, I am finding this issue and the recent discussions about weight here and on other blogs really interesting and I am learning so much, especially about the moral imperative to "be healthy". Just a couple of observations: firstly, I have noticed my mum and other women of her generation are extremely concerned with skincare and health and I think it is a lot about trying to exert control over their bodies, lives and the passage of time. I understand why they feel this need but I do see a lot of industries exploiting it massively. Secondly, I know there are NZ organisation that practice the "look good, feel better" approach. I thought it was more about psychology, i.e. if you look well, it improves your mood and makes you feel more positive, which is good in itself and I understand has been shown to assist in recovery. Not necessarily as a direct cause of medical improvement. What do you think of this?

Mikaere Curtis said...

Of course this is bullshit, you can't tell someone's health by looking at them, and a lot of so called health routinues won't increase your longevity, or your quality of life at all.
Are you saying that feeling good about yourself has no impact on your immune system ? This seems at odds with some of the articles I have read over the years.

The first step to believing being 'healthy' is moral is to show that 'health' is something that is under your control
I agree, you can't totally control your health, but you can adjust some of the factors that promote good health.

Like exercise, eating a balanced diet, drinking plenty of water. Sure, not everyone has the time/money/skills/motivation to do this, but neither does it mean that health is unaffected by personal choices.

I agree that we have a major problem with how the MSM portray health and beauty as attainable to all (subject to purchasing the prescribed services or products) and youth-based (what a crock).

My inclination is that social networks will ameliorate this to some extent as ordinary people with ordinary bodies start inhabiting the space formerly reserved for models and celebrities.

Functionally, is viewing someone's photo album online any different from looking at pictures in a women's mag ? Hopefully, this will break the "skinny = normal = healthy" beauty myth.

Alison said...

@ anonymous 8.33am.

First, please follow the comment policy that asks you to use a psuedonym, initial or name so we don't have to refer to you by the time of your comment.

Second, healthier and longer than what? And why do I, or any other person, have to take responsibility for trying to achieve that? If I eat "healthily" (and that term is *far* more contestable than you seem to think) and keep fit (but fit for what?), I might potentially live longer than I would otherwise. But by years? months? weeks? days? How can we possibly know? If I develop cancer from an environmental or genetic cause, general good health might extend my life somewhat. On the other hand, if I've carefully controlled my weight through diet and exercise beforehand, I may die faster because my body has little energy stored for such a situation. We cannot fight death with nutritionism, and I don't believe I have a moral responsibility to act in ways that may be against my inclinations, in order to possibly extend my life (as long as I don't die by accident, murder, warfare, suicide, social or environmental or genetic cause) by some unknown period of time.

Please, critically assess the truisms you're perpetuating. They seem self-evident, but only because the claims are so unspecific as to be utterly unprovable.

@Maia - thanks, I'm really enjoying this series on food and health and bodies.

Rosie said...

Sorry Alison, I am anonymous 8.33am. I didn't read the instructions properly.
I think I try to discern between “health facts” which are just based on trying to make you feel bad so you will buy something and health advice which is genuinely attempting to help us improve our health.

At the end of the day it’s everyone’s personal choice how they live their life. (Though some people has less choices that others) There is an argument that the nanny state is trying to tell people how to eat and exercise but I don’t think there are any nefarious intentions there.

I watched a good programme on Maori TV a few nights ago about heart disease in Maori woman (which is apparently very high). The advice and message of the programme was very straight forward and none of the doctors that appeared on the programme seemed to have any vested interest in making Maori woman feel bad about themselves and it didn’t seem to have anything to do with “looking good”. It seemed they really just wanted people to be healthy and live longer.

The woman featured on the programme did have a genetic disposition to having a heart attack but being overweight and years of smoking are statistically proven to have been very likely to have contributed to her heart attack.
Her message to the viewers was lay off the butter and get some exercise or you are more likely to have a heart attack like her.
It all seemed to be based on some pretty hard science and seemed to be coming from a place that was all about caring for women not making them feel bad and making money out of them.

In summary I think it is possible to make a distinction between health advice based on science and health advice based on making money out of people. I am not saying that distinction is easy for everyone to make.

Alison said...

Rosie, as I'm currently taking papers in Maori health, sociology and women's health as part of my midwifery training, I would argue vociferously that Maori women are *not* more likely to suffer heart attacks simply due to individualised lifestyle choices like "too much butter". Our society has tended to embrace this discourse because it suits our value of individualism, but there is a wealth of evidence that our health and our health choices are heavily influenced by many converging social determinants of health. The Fat Nutritionist explains this in tongue-in-cheek but effective terms here;

I really encourage you to download the very recent second edition of the Maori Health Chart Book from the Ministry of Health if it's something that interests you. Certainly there is "hard science" that indicates links between certain behaviours and ill health, but there is at least as much science focussing on the ways in which our society a) limits our behaviours and b) limits access to determinants of health. Medicalised individualism is far from the whole and indisputable truth.

To an extent, all that is beside the point, because "health promotion" is completely relative. My genes, my socioeconomic and educational status, my access to health care, my social support all contribute to my health at least as much, but probably more than diet and exercise, yet somehow we always end up focussing on the only two of those which can be, in theory, personally controlled. That reflects our society's focus on individualism, not hard science, or any science at all. I loathe the rhetoric that suggests there's a moral imperative to look after our individual health status, while society generally sits back and ignores the many inequities in our society that come with a far greater health cost to individuals.

Rosie said...

Hi Alison, I think the point I was trying to make was that certain things like smoking and being overweight will contribute to ill health. I wanted to make that point because I felt that was not being acknowledged as fact.

I think your point is that this is a complex issue and blaming individuals for their personal choices is not productive and that people’s personal choices are reduced by their socio-economic status etc. I total agree.

I wasn’t beating up Maori woman for having poor health stats.
I can’t remember what the Maori TV programme was called but it explained some of why statistically Maori woman have more heart disease, spelled out what people could do to look after themselves and then directed them to specific Maori health service which can help them through a complex and confusing (for everyone) medical system to help them deal with their heart disease better. It was good helpful TV.

I can’t say that it had any solutions for poverty it was only a TV show…… :)

I would say that social inequalities contribute to people making unhealthy individual choices as well as taking away some choice.

I almost feel as if you are saying, “it doesn’t matter if I quit smoking and lose weight because I am poor and have bad genes and that will count for more”. I just don’t think that is true.
PS. Maori TV has some really good stuff. I thought the Matariki Child Abuse Special was really well made.

Alison said...

Rosie, I know you're not beating up on Maori women - that's why I suggested the health chart book, as it sounds like it might be interesting to you.

I'm also not saying that there are no health benefits to be gained from exercise, giving up smoking etc - in fact, I'm an avid exerciser myself. My point is simply that there's no moral imperative for me to do that. I enjoy it, it makes me feel good, I recognise immediate effects on my attention span, mood and energy levels. I don't do it because I might live longer - I can't measure that, and exercise doesn't make me immune to death.

I feel very strongly that by insisting that exercise, "healthy" eating and living are morally superior, we actually create a barrier to people doing these things. I have heard too many women internalise the morality message to the point where they are crippled by it, unable to look after themselves in the ways that feel right and authentic for them because those ways aren't good enough, or they believe they don't "deserve" to get well. What I object to is the idea that all of us *should* prioritise exercise and diet over everything else that might be going on in our lives.

Johnston said...

"I think your point is that this is a complex issue and blaming individuals for their personal choices is not productive and that people’s personal choices are reduced by their socio-economic status etc. I total agree."

That doesn't wash sorry.Regardless of ones economic status that doesn't excuse or license poor choices that others have to rescue you from via the tax paid health system.

You have every right to treat your body as you choose...but no right to escape the consequences for doing so by expecting others to help you as of right.

Don't like aggressive advertising?...ignore it.

Rosie said...

Unfortunately there is a difference between what people should do and what they do do.
It’s the difference between what generally happens “statistically” and those individuals who decide to do what is best even though it may not always be easy.
I usually find no matter how disgusted I am with what people do they do what they want anyway.
If this wasn’t the case my boyfriend would have learned to hang up the tea towel by now.

Mikaere Curtis said...


You have every right to make money as you choose...but no right to escape the consequences for doing so by expecting others to bear the external costs as of right.

Like aggressive advertising? prepared to pay for the consequences rather than externalise onto your customers and society.


There is no way junk food dealers would aggressively advertise their crap if they had to pay for the harm they cause. The rise in obesity in our society (and related disorders, like Type II diabetes), can be closely correlated to the increase in junk food advertising (and outlets) since circa 1980.

notafeminist said...

Johnston, that is one of the most offensive, obnoxious, arrogant and blindly privileged things I've heard in a long time.

Some people, being surrounded by aggressive and similarly obnoxious advertising, can't ignore it. Some people get told their entire freaking lives they are too fat, and spend their entire lives trying to get thin whilst their friends eat whatever they want and smoke and drink and do all those Naughty No-Nos that the privileged and self-righteous want us to to feel bad about indulging in.

Also, I was once very overweight and succumbed to social pressure and now I'm very thin, and I'm offended by how much people ignore the journey. It is *much* harder for me to stay thin than a lot of my friends. Why it is my responsibility to work harder than anyone else to please the Healthy And Thin Brigade? If I eat exactly the same food and do exactly the same exercise as a particular friend of mine, I'll be horridly overweight and she'll still be considered nearly underweight. Thus, morality and food/size/health is nonsense.

These thoughts are jumbled, but what I'm trying to say is that you can't put an arbitrary 'you have to be *this* healthy/thin to be considered a non-problem to society' category of health on people. You can't blame people who are larger for being large, and you certainly can't tell by looking at them whether they are a burden on the tax payer.

That would just be obnoxious, ignorant reasoning.

Maia said...

Thanks for all your comments everyone. I'll just respond to a few of the ideas, but I'm glad a good discussion is developing.

Tamara - I think the issue of 'look good, feel better' - or the psychological effects of how you look are really interesting. Almost certainly they do have some effect for most people, because the mind is a powerful thing, and appearance is given so much power in our society. But they also really strongly promote the individualised idea that what you do effects the disease. I suspect this is why they're able to be run, and they get a level of funding (through sponsorship), which far out strips the funding of more useful programmes.

Miakere - I'm not saying that feeling good about yourself doesn't effect your immune system. I would say that beauty/health rountinues actually aren't about making people feel good about themselves. They can have a lot of anxiety around them. I would also say that feeling good about yourself is much more a function of how society treats you, than it is of anything you do (and also luck of hte brain chemistry). I would look at that evidence and argue for structural change rather than emphasising individuals.

I'm also not happy with people tut-tuting about the obesity epidemic on my posts. If you want to do that, you should make the argument, rather than just act in passing as if everyone agrees with you that fat is super scary.

Johnston - yes that's exactly the sort of individualised blame that I'm arguing against. How about hte social determinents of health for starters.

Rosie: Reading your post I feel a little bit like a bowl of petunias (oh no not again). I don't accept as fact that being overweight will contribute to ill health (try here for a start if you're unsure why). I also don't want to continue this discussion on this post. Because at this stage I'm bored of it. Go over to my post "This is what progress looks like" if you feel an urgent need to argue about fat and health.

But I will respond to your larger point though.

Why do you focus your discussion on Maori women's ill-health on things Maori women do? Poverty and racism take their toll on people's bodies.

I think public discourse and public resources should focus on the structural/social determinates of health, rather than on policing individuals.

Some public health advice is accurate as far as it goes (smoking is destructive) some is less accurate (OMG OBESITY PANIC). My point is not about it's accuracy, but about it's emphasis. Most of what determines our physical wellbeing and longevity is not under our control. It's genetics, environment and just plain luck. But the popular discourse on is based on the idea that if we can all had an idea lifestyle we could live forever. This conceals the reality that ill health is far more structural.

Alison - thanks heaps - I've really enjoyed your contributions to this thread.

Anonymous said...

Reading your post, I am reminded of how 'healthy eating' is also used as a yardstick for being a good parent.

If you feed your young children all organic, hand made, freshly prepared food then you are a Good Parent. Those who dare take shortcuts obviously don't care about their child's health and we are actively told that if we want to give our children the best start in life/make them smarter/grow those brain connections then we simply must feed them the right things.

Never mind that most of the 'good' food is expensive, sometimes hard to source and requires time not all parents have the luxury of spending on food alone.

M said...

Sorry, I thought I had entered a handle but something went wrong.

FF said...

Of course appearance is a reflection of health!
That's how we all got to be here today.

If our ancestors had not at least projected some healthy vibes to attract a mate, none of us would be here today.

That is when health really mattered, it was a matter of life and death, for 99.9999% of our history. Survival was the only thing that mattered.

That's how evolution OUGHT not to be that way but it IS that way.

No amount of whiny marxist self-entitlement is going to change that.
Pointless trying to re engineer our hard-wiring which has taken millions of years to evolve.

notafeminist said...

Ding ding ding! Evolution says we have to hate on fatties!

Except that, as has been debunked ten thousand times in this very thread, one can be extremely healthy looking (whatever-the-f that means) and be in reality a lot less 'healthy' (whatever that means) than a fat person. What are these mysterious parameters for health? If it's so obvious that you expect a one-hundred word comment to be able to shut up an entire debate, why does the debate even exist?

Regardless, we are not hard-wired to think that fat people are lazy and thin people are the mecca of well-being. I somehow think that maybe you're a little more impressionable than perhaps you think you are...

McFlock said...

Methinks FF has never seen a Rubens, or indeed a bronze age fertility / earthmother figure.

ISTR reading somewhere that fat gys in the late 19thC were considered handsome because it demonstrated that they could afford to overeat. That was before the concept of the sports car, of course.

Anonymous said...

And let's not even go near the fact that, in terms of the prehistoric evolutionary period people seem to mean when they spout evopsych "Just So" stories, being able to store energy as fat was an evolutionary advantage. So if it's all about "we find X pretty because it means our genetic line is more likely to continue" then "logically" fatness should be seen as attractive in society.

Of course, "evolution" doesn't actually work in the way people want to pretend when they're trying to justify Western, 20th-century norms, but hey.