Healthism, fitness, and the politics of respectability


This blog is about the fitness journey of two feminist philosophers as we approach fifty. We’re aiming to be the fittest we’ve ever been in our lives at the age of fifty. Along the way Tracy and I are critically engaging with issues about physical fitness as feminists and as philosophers.

Early on we distinguished between thinness and fitness and made it clear that our goals were about athletic, not aesthetic, achievement (see here) and about staying healthy, not about getting thin.

We recognize that not everybody shares our goals or sets their sights on achieving and maintaining physical fitness. But we hope enough of you are engaged with our goals and our project and want to follow us along and read about what we’re up to.

We’re about health and fitness, not about visible abs and hitting target weights on the scale. (Tracy has stepped off the scale in fact and you can read about that here.)

Health seems like a perfectly reasonable goal to have, to the extent that it’s in one’s control. We’re both leading happy, productive, active lives and want to stay healthy insofar as we can control that. However, recently I got in a discussion with a friend about the language of health and whether or not that language was coercive.

Philosophers’ ears perk up when we say something we think is uncontroversial and others say they disagree. We thought talk of health being a good thing was trivially true. What’s this? Disagreement? How interesting. Let’s have a closer look. That’s how philosophers roll.

Here’s an example of the controversy over health. Lots of fat activists lay claim to the language of ‘health’ and ‘healthy.’ Indeed I refer to my own health in this post here, though I’m also ambivalent about the label ‘fat’ and I have plans to get leaner, if I can.

We’re constantly trying to make the point that fat people can be healthy. I describe myself this way on the blog. I wrote: “I’m a bit of a healthy living rock star. Yes, I’m significantly overweight but I have excellent blood pressure and heart rate, excellent good-bad cholesterol ratios, and excellent blood sugar levels. I’m also an over-achiever in the bone density department but that’s from years of living large and lifting heavy weights.”

But here’s a worry. In claiming the language of health for larger women are we assuming that there are respectable healthy fatties and others who aren’t, drawing a line between the good girls and the bad girls, rescuing some, while throwing others to the anti-fat wolves as it were?

This is the worry raised in Virgie Tovar’s post Interrogating the language of health in the fat movement.

In short, Tovar is accusing the fat positive movement of ‘healthism.’ This is really interesting because I think that claiming health for fat people, claiming that fat people can be healthy in spite of our size, is one of the goals of the fat positive movement.

‘Healthism’ is sometimes used to refer to a government’s preoccupation with the behavior of its citizens (eating well, not smoking etc) and sometimes it’s used to refer to an individual’s preoccupation with these behaviors and outcomes. These two senses of ‘healthism’ are discussed here. At the heart of both senses is the idea of an ideology of health.

I first heard the term ‘healthism’ at the Canadian society for women in philosophy conference in Calgary last year. The conference theme was embodiment and there was one paper that criticized health as a value that’s forced upon women. The paper was by Talia Welsh (University of Tennessee at Chattanooga) and was called  “Violating the Good Health Imperative: The Ethics of Altering Bodies by Modifying Bad Health Habits.” You can read her paper “Healthism and the Bodies of Women: Pleasure and Discipline in the War against Obesity” available for download here. In that paper Welsh writes, “I posit that a feminist position on the war against obesity clearly argues against a focus on weight, but that the larger issue of behavior modification for health remains much more difficult to solve.”

On first hearing these ideas, I confess that I felt sort of perplexed. Of course, healthy is better than unhealthy, I naively thought. Given a choice, who wouldn’t opt for good health? That isn’t an ‘ism’ and it’s just rational, I thought.

But of course like many subjects that are the topics of papers at philosophy conference, things aren’t quite that simple. Health seems, at first glance, to be a primary or basic good, the sort of good that you want or need no matter what what you want or need. Indeed, at first blush it seems you need health to pursue all the other goods. And so an appeal to health ought to speak to all of us. It’s a good candidate for a liberal value, something the state can promote because we all care about it.

And yet…

Most of us routinely make trade offs between health and other goods. I’m not just thinking here of those of us who choose to smoke, drink, or do other forms of drugs.

Consider athletes who make trade offs between the pursuit of excellence in competition and their overall health and well being. It’s not just retired football and hockey players who are damaged.

But we don’t even need to go there. Think of musicians who suffer overuse injuries. It’s not healthy to do what they do either.

Among my academic friends and colleagues, there are many of us with worn eyes, strained tendons, voices suffering over use. And yet would we read and write less to save our bodies?

And then there are those of us who like risky sports.

Why privilege the health conscious?

In a country with publicly funded heath care there’s an economic argument of course, but we ought to admit it’s an economic argument. But don’t dress it up in the language of rational choice and caring about what’s good for persons. Persons want different things and weight concern for health differently.

I’m looking forward to reading the book pictured here. I bought it after the CSWIP conference last year. In the meantime, I’m still mulling over the importance of health.

Although Tracy and I might seem like health living cheerleaders, you are free not to care about your health and fitness. If you do, we hope you enjoy reading about our adventures and reading our reflections on fitness. But if you don’t care as much about health and fitness as we do that’s fine too.

17 thoughts on “Healthism, fitness, and the politics of respectability

  1. Another really interesting article 🙂 I really enjoy this blog! As for my thoughts on healthism – I think it’s also really important to point out that it’s not about whether you care about health or not – it’s about where the responsibility lies. When we talk about people being healthy or unhealthy, a ‘healthist’ discourse leads us to assume that responsibility lies with the individual. It is up to THEM to decide whether to be healthy or not – but of course, oftentimes, that is far from the truth.

    1. Natalia,
      The philosopher in me wants you to say more about that. Is it a social argument you’re making about the inequity of access to health and healthy lifestyles (not equally available to everyone)?

      1. Yes! As someone is interested in the health and wellness world, I nevertheless find it very frustrating when people are positioned as having to make a CHOICE about being healthy – eat this, exercise this way etc. “If you’re unhealthy, it’s YOUR FAULT for not adhering to the “correct” health practices.” This conversation completely ignores the structures and systems in place in our capitalist, marginalising culture which means that for many people, it’s not about choice at all! We have to think beyond “choosing” to be healthy – I agree with you that people are entitled to choose NOT to care or prioritise health – but we can’t forget about those who never had that choice to begin with!

  2. Excellent post. I too have been pondering the ‘health imperative’ and thinking back to that session in Calgary. My first reaction was skeptical but now I feel as if there is something coercive in the air about it (not necessarily here). I like your point about recognizing economic arguments for what they are. I made that argument in the session q and a and felt like it was a weak response at the time. Great philosophical topic.

    1. Just on this very topic, Anna Kirkland has a brilliant article “The Environmental Account of Obesity: A Case for Feminist Skepticism.” It raises a lot of doubts about the reasoning that attributes health to a lack of choice (because of structures, social factors, economic factors), etc. This is because it doesn’t cut both ways; when a thin (generally white) elite person is healthy, it is because they have managed to choose to become healthy, but when someone is unhealthy (and the people pointed to here tend to be fat, poor, and usually racialized) it is because of their environment. I can’t make all of Kirkland’s arguments here, but it is a similar “savior” logic that denies agency based on disapproval of people’s choices. Its a great article and I am still constantly grappling with it.

  3. And I don’t think there is anything coercive about cheerleading. We’re cheering on, I think, others like us, who’ve made a commitment to fitness. Don’t share that commitment? Fine. We might reach out to those who don’t share our commitment by making fitness look fun and attractive but you can do that, I think, without judging. (Kind of like Foot’s argument about the ‘club of the good.’ Look at us over here, having fun.) And we can’t coerce. The state can do that. Parents can do that (not necessarily with great long term success). But individuals can’t usually, within the limits of the law, coerce one another.

    What we do need to avoid is moralizing. Just like foods can’t be good or evil, we’re not morally better people for pursuing fitness.

    1. Hi Sam,
      I would say that the Lauren Berlant piece in “Against Health” is really damaging and careless. She continues to allign being fat with eating too much. The fact that she and her apologists haven’t done their research is really too bad. The LeBesco piece in there is fantastic. Discussions around health that I find useful can be found in “The Fat STudies Reader.” The perspective you and Tracy take here is similar to that of Ragen Chastain of dances with fat fame. she cares a lot about health for herself (as an athlete) but she is always careful to say that each of us is in charge of our own health and we can choose to value it the way that we want. Its a simplistic view of choice, but I think it is an important corrective in the face of the “good health imperative.”

      1. Thanks for this. What got me thinking were Alice’s comments on musicians who choose against health and aren’t criticized. Ditto people who use computers too much and sit at desks for too long. Lots of ways we can choose to damage our health but some people get moral criticism and others don’t.

  4. Fantastic post, Sam. I’ve been thinking about some of these things for some time now. I’ve considered what exactly would be the optimal manner of eating for health and fitness (for someone like me, and given my exercise regime), regardless of its availability, sustainability, and what the meals would taste like. Such thoughts have made me consider whether to some degree it’s better to be less than optimally healthy so you can be happier. For me then, the very concept of “moderation” starts to become very murky. On one level at least, moderation seems to be about trade-offs. Most important is accepting and relishing such trade-offs for the sake of happiness, since if you can’t be happy about the trade-offs you’ve lost the meaning of why the trade-offs are made, i.e. for happiness. So – to what extent are any of us truly on a path to being as fit as we can be by 50? Or even as fit as we’ve ever been by 50? Are we doing it to promote greater happiness? Are we doing it to better the quality of our lives – whatever that means exactly? I know why I started to exercise – for medical reasons, specifically, to avoid some rather nasty health consequences of not so doing. But now that I am much more healthy and admittedly have a bit of an exercise addiction – let’s just say my thoughts on the entire subject are expanding -and I know I don’t have the answers to everything I’m now thinking about. So for me, the simple question: “Why exercise?” has suddenly become complicated, which is very strange. This is at least some of what I think you’re saying, Sam.
    Lastly, I want to thank you and Tracy for this blog, as it has opened my eyes to alot of topics I’m not certain I’d have even considered without your blog. If you two ever decide to write a book on these things, I’ll buy it.

  5. I haven’t read Against Health but will as soon as it arrives in from the library. Jonathan Metzl is kind of a genius in my book.

  6. This is a great post and one I needed to read, as it helps me clarify exactly what it is about so-called “smugnoms” – as in, people who act as though their dietary habits make them morally superior to everyone who doesn’t share them – that I find so problematic. The idea of “health as a moral imperative” is a perfect way to put it. It not only puts the responsibility for good health on the individual’s shoulders, but it also assumes that everyone should want to invest their time in the pursuit of perfect health and that anyone who does not is somehow morally flawed. (I suppose an argument could be made that the ultimate moral pursuit should be the perpetuation of life but I feel like that’s really reductive and simplistic.)

    Plus, it’s just victim-blame-y, like if you develop cancer or diabetes or hypertension, it’s your own damn fault for not working out an hour a day and eating nothing but organic kale. Yes, there are choices you can make that can increase or decrease your likelihood of developing health problems, but those things are not failsafe measures and sometimes things happen despite our best efforts. The attitude that you can prevent health problems through individual choices adds a layer of shame to the conversations around disease that doesn’t need to be there.

    Anyway, thanks for the post and all of the suggested reading material, both here and in the comments. Looking forward to delving into this further.

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