Our Obsession with Wellness is Undermining Feminism (and costing us healthcare)

Wellness has become a key measure of personal success — just ask the Instagirls. We all know that the image of a successful woman isn’t complete without the obligatory performative displays of yoga in exotic locations, expensive organic lunches, or “fresh from the gym” selfies (in full makeup). These images are more than a plea for validation. Not only do they encapsulate a signaling of wealth (and arguably whiteness) that’s downright disturbing, but they continue to reinforce the notion that health is something we do, rather than something we may have limited control over.

The fact is, we’ve long equated the pursuit of health, particularly as it applies to weight, with morality. As a culture we judge individuals for how much time, energy and money that they devote to maintaining their personal health, often regardless of other factors that might affect an individual’s ability to self-care. This attitude is an extension of the myth of individualism that is inextricably woven into our capitalist culture.

Who here has never given a side-eye to an obese person on an airplane or someone lighting a cigarette on a sidewalk? It’s easy to be reductive when it comes to personal responsibility and health — especially when we’re looking at someone else. Making health into a virtue and disease into something that’s brought on by irresponsibility means that we don’t have to do anything about it as a society — least of all provide healthcare for our citizens.

The fact is that, as a culture, we’re addicted to perfectionism fueled by rugged individualism. We’re endlessly infatuated with the notion that everything in our lives, including our health, is a question of personal responsibility. Never mind that our air quality is still killing people and that our water has been poisoned by corporations and negligent government officials that are rarely held accountable. Likewise, the fact that 2.3 million Americans live in a food desert and over 7 million people are working at least two jobs to make ends meet. Health as morality thinking is uncomfortably ableist and health is largely an economic issue. The minor detail that the CDC reports that day-to-day health behaviors, such as diet and exercise, account for less than 25% of differences in health outcomes is not even a blip on our radar. The message is still: we just need to buck up and do more so we can bootstrap our way to better health.

This isn’t to say that pursuing personal health goals is necessarily a bad thing but chasing health at all costs (the way our culture programs us to do) is not without consequences. Not only does the pursuit of perfection through “health” lead to discrimination and leaving behind the most vulnerable in our society, there’s also a pronounced cost to those who have the resources and ability to chase the dream of perfect health as well.

Eating disorders like orthorexia are on the rise, especially among women. This is hardly a surprise in a culture that tells women that the way they look is the most important thing about them and then links that to an increasingly steep climb to consume only the purest of nutrition.

The multi-billion-dollar beauty and diet industry has spent decades trying to legitimize itself in the face of feminism. The easiest way to do this has been to conflate the concept of physical beauty with the idea of what constitutes health, until the two become so hopelessly entangled that we can’t tell the difference. The result is that we (sadly, including many members of the medical community) feel it’s a moral imperative to maintain the cultural beauty and weight standard.

The ways this benefits patriarchy and capitalism go far beyond the money we spend. After all, how better to get womxn, even many who identify as feminists, out of the way than to convince them to invest untold amounts of time and money into being half-starved and on a never-ending hamster wheel of pursuing the unachievable? It certainly doesn’t leave much left over for smashing the patriarchy so chalk one up for the existing power structure.

It’s not that we don’t see what’s happening. Ask any good feminist and she’ll explain to you how fatphobia is real and wrong. She might even point out the token fat celebrity or even a fat activist that she thinks is great. But try asking her (especially if she possesses a “culturally acceptable” body type) how she’d feel about gaining 20 lbs and she’ll likely start squirming and equivocating. Feminine conditioning is insidious. We may be able see the problem from an abstract lens and even discount or make fun of it, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not still internalizing those pictures of salad-eating ecstasy on some level.

Health is determined by a multitude of factors, some of which we may have some influence over, but many of which we don’t. The fact remains, you can’t tell how healthy a person is by looking at them. Having a health issue is not a moral failing because personal health is not a moral issue at all. It’s just another way to pit the people with the least power against one another in a capitalist patriarchy.

feminist life coach, shame resilience teacher, justice advocate, cocktail queen and cat lover. jenpavich.com

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