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.
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.