Strictly speaking, people are not healthy or unhealthy, their behaviors are. Culturally, when we say someone’s healthy, we typically mean that most of their regularly, publicly practiced behaviors are healthy. They exercise regularly. They eat nutritious foods. They are health-conscious.
When someone regularly, publicly practices healthy behaviors, they have a great deal of privilege. They have access to nutritious foods and the resources to obtain those healthy foods. They are educated in how to prepare those foods. They have access to spaces where physical activity is encouraged. They are safe and welcomed in those spaces. They have enough leisure time to pursue physical activity and enough resources (I.e., money) to engage in the physical activity of their choosing. They also have a level of mental health that allows them to make clear and compassionate decisions about self-care. They have a certain level of physical and mental abilities that allow them to choose their nutrition and their movement. They likely have a support system encouraging them to make the choices they do. So, let’s be clear that “being healthy” is first and foremost about privilege.
Fatphobia also complicates the question of who gets called “healthy”. A fat person can earnestly engage in all of the healthy behaviors mentioned above and still not be called or considered healthy. A thin person may (or may not) make a public demonstration of these behaviors but in private, consume large quantities of alcohol, smoke a pack of cigarettes, engage in risky sexual activities every day, etc…— and still, because of the size of their body, be considered and called “healthy.” A fat person is assumed to engage in unhealthy behaviors. A thin person is assumed to engage in healthy behaviors. If you’ve lived more than a few minutes on this planet and have a variety of both fat and thin people in your life, you will know just from your own observation and experience that these assumptions are often incorrect. In other words, some of the fat people you know regularly engage in healthy behaviors and some of the thin people you know regularly engage in unhealthy behaviors.
As we know all too well, someone can seem to be “healthy” and drop dead or decide to end their own life or be diagnosed with an aggressive, terminal illness unexpectedly. This fact means that despite the outward appearance of apparent health, something very unhealthy had been happening inside that person’s body or mind, and usually for some time.
When a doctor tells you that you are healthy, they mean they’ve looked you over physically, maybe looked at some bloodwork, spoken to you about your habits and have decided that in general, in THAT moment, you are a person at less risk of immediately developing an illness or dropping dead. And many doctors are as racist, ableist, fatphobic, sexist, transphobic, and homophobic as anyone else living in this culture, so all of that clouds their vision and the ability to objectively judge people’s health. Doctors are human and like all humans, they see everything (including our bodies) through a specific, personal, biased lens.
This is all to say that “being healthy” is complex, personal, specific to the individual, and NEVER simply something we can SEE with our faulty eyes. Considering the privilege involved in “being healthy,” being healthy should also not be a prerequisite to being considered valuable or worthy of love, respect, or dignity. Relentlessly chasing “health” is for the privileged and can easily become obsessive and disordered (I.e., UNhealthy). If we have the privilege to make healthy choices and engage in healthy behaviors, it’s still no one else’s business if we do or do not. “Being healthy” has become one more way that we create hierarchy in our white supremacist patriarchy; just one more way we separate the humans who matter from the humans who don’t. In this way, we have weaponized the very notion of “health.” It’s worth noticing and questioning how we are using this weapon against others and how we are using it against ourselves.
JodiAnn Stevenson lives in the U.S., in the Northwest Corner of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, on The Big Lake. Her writing has appeared in numerous venues since 1996. She is the author of three published chapbooks of poetry: The Procedure (March Street Press, 2006); Houses Don’t Float (Habernicht Press, 2010); and Diving Headlong Into A Cliff of Our Own Delusion (Saucebox, 2011). Her mixed-genre work Marina Abramovic Is My Mother is available in the form of a short-run podcast. She has also produced eight chapbooks of poetry for The Broken Nose Collective which she co-founded in 2013. JodiAnn was founder and co-managing editor of the feminist micro-press, Binge Press and its sister journal, 27 rue de fleures, from 2004 until 2017.
A (more or less) complete list of publications and appearances: