okay, so the way i see it we’re indoctrinated to believe that health is a virtue, but what does that even really mean? and what does it mean for people with chronic illness or life-long disabilities?
why do we put any kind of moral value on one’s health? that’s what i disagree with. i don’t think that we can flat out state “health is a virtue” without looking at where that idea came from and how it effects people today. like—by saying health is a virtue are we saying that there’s something morally wrong with me because i have mental health problems (depression, anxiety)? or that my mom was morally wrong when she had a hip that hurt her all the time, and now that it’s made of metal and she’s “healthy” she’s somehow more virtuous? or that there’s something morally wrong with people who discover at 21 that they have a gluten allergy and that’s why they’ve felt ill for a year and a half? what about babies with congenital diseases? are they somehow less “virtuous” or good because of it? and doesn’t that seem a little ridiculous? and what’s “moral” about choosing to eat a carrot instead of an apple fritter? why should morality or virtue even enter into our conversation surrounding health in that way?
i think “virtue” is also an interesting thing to look at because historically it referenced women’s virginity, mainly. and it was something you either had or you’d lost. once it was gone, it was gone. all very patriarchal, ensuring you’d know who everyone’s father was so you could make sure they get the correct inheritance and are given just the right amount of respect in society. there are also some really absurd religious underpinnings of a lot of ideas of health as virtuous—even so much that for many centuries if you were ill the church thought that it was punishment from god, or that you had a touch of the devil in you, etc. etc. (this book is really interesting in terms of health and religion and the changes—or not—between the 1400s and the 1980s AIDS crisis.)
i have to admit, this was one aspect of fat positivity it was very difficult for me to wrap my mind around. i remember thinking, “well, but doesn’t everyone want to be healthy?” and the answer is no. no, not everyone wants to be healthy. and there are many people who do want to be healthy and their body just precludes them from ever having “health” as a real possibility. but some people do choose to not make health their highest priority. not everyone thinks that it’s worth it to not eat what they want just to increase the possibility that they’ll live for a really long time. some people want to enjoy life while they’re here, and not drag it out in an endless montage of bran eating and aerobics.
and others LOVE eating bran and doing aerobics! (or at least they love what it does for their body. i don’t think i know anyone who actually enjoys eating bran…except maybe my dad. he’s kind of a bran fanatic.)
you say you “respect everyone’s right to their lifestyle, healthy or unhealthy” and i really believe that you believe that, but this question kind of belies that respect. which is totally understandable! because we are taught endlessly to equate health with goodness. to think of health as a virtue. as something we should always be seeking. the truth is—we are all going to die. some slowly, some quickly, some in accidents, some from decade-long diseases, some supposedly because of “lifestyle choices” and some in ways that their lifestyle choices can’t even begin to explain (those rare people who discover they have late stage lung disease despite never having smoked a day in their life? are they instantly less virtuous?).
however it happens, we’re all going to die. many of us will develop some kind of illness or health issue before we die. in fact, i think it’s safe to say we all will. and i think the idea of health as a virtue is sold on immortality-lite. like—it may not be the fountain of youth, but if you eat this probiotic yogurt you’ll live longer! and if you exercise at least three days a week you’ll live longer! and most of us are afraid of death. so we see these things as good things. and then there are those of us who are trying (and possibly in therapy, ha!) to actively accept that we are all going to die, and along with that make decisions about how we live our lives while we’re here. and that may or may not include “making healthy choices.”
when i was going through my own process of understanding the relationship between health and goodness, i thought “okay, so not everyone wants to be or can be healthy. but doesn’t some transcendent idea of ‘health’ exist out there, and if people could somehow magically change their lives so that they could be healthy, wouldn’t they? because health is good?”
then i read some disability theory.
and really thought about that. and realized that not only was that question totally useless for being so hypothetical, but that it was a way to actively make people who aren’t “healthy” (so…all of us, sooner or later) feel really bad about that, feel like there’s something “wrong” with them and their bodies, feel like there’s some standard that they’re failing to live up to. and i don’t think that’s right or okay. i care more about the people living in various states of health or illness everyday than i do about whether or not health really equates to goodness.
plus—health is murky. “health” on one hand is something that needs the stamp of validation of medical professionals, of people working in a flawed field that’s always evolving but never fast enough. it’s a field that is SO SO SO SO SO rigidly set in sexist, cissexist, racist, classist, etc. ideologies that it’s really difficult to separate those out from good old fashioned “making people feel good and live as long as they’d like to.” then there’s health in terms of how good you feel, how attuned you are to your body. and who are we to say that it’s not healthy for me to have an apple fritter and a cup of chai on the train on the way to school every morning because that’s not healthy? it makes me feel good. it gives me enough energy to get through the first half of the day. it’s good for my soul to eat my apple fritter while i try to see the skyline from the train as it goes south and east and south. why isn’t that health?
if you’re really really interested in this i would suggest reading gendering disability. it made me think about so many things in a new and critical and more well-rounded way.
i’m not saying it’s not okay for individual people to highly value their own health and do things to actively maintain it as much as they can. i’m just saying that when we equate health to virtue or goodness we’re ignoring a lot of the complexities in people’s lives and also the structures that are underlying those ideas. having blanket-statement beliefs about health as a virtue actively contributes to the hurt in a lot of people’s lives.