Sometimes we have to cover the same old ground, to make sure we’re all on the same page, to cement our commitment to certain ideas, to remind ourselves to check our various privileges. And so I say to everyone:

Health is not a moral issue.

In the bygone years of history, people have at various times believed that afflictions of the body were the result of moral failings of the person. There’s even a fairy tale called The Willful Child, about a little girl who would not do what her mother said.

Eventually, God takes no pleasure in the girl (that’s the language of the story right there and EW) and allows her to sicken and die. Her arm thrusts up through the earth at the funeral until her mother beats the arm with a stick, at which point the arm is withdrawn and the child finds her rest.

Now, part of the message here seems to be that good health is a result of having the favor of God. Whether you believe in God or not, that seems fucked up to me. I mean, that implies that all you need to be healthy is religion and, well….

That’s how you end up with people who won’t take their sick children to the doctor. Never mind that, if one believes in a God, that God probably gave people the intelligence to become doctors and develop medication in the first place! (I make no statements about my own particular belief system here, by the way.)

So, if good health isn’t going to be guaranteed by good behavior and God’s love, can we really turn around and say that ill health (however that’s defined) is punishment for being bad?

Of course not. That’d be silly. And Medieval. And we’re past that sort of thing!

We live in 2009 and we recognize that, sometimes, shit just happens. We recognize that genetics and heredity can alert us to risk factors but we can’t ever make those risks disappear.

And, hopefully, we recognize that being fat doesn’t automatically mean being saddled with certain health conditions but that those health conditions might just show up anyway and it probably has nothing to do with our fat at all.

That’s not a moral situation. It’s a biological situation.

Chronic illness is not a punishment from an all-powerful god of some sort. Diabetes isn’t either. Being out of breath at the top of a flight of stairs is not a hex cast on you for being a bad person.

And, in reverse, having perfect blood pressure and ideal cholesterol is not a sign that you are a good person, superior in every way to those who struggle with the numbers.

To assume either position is ridiculous.

Having a chronic illness is having a chronic illness. Having perfect blood pressure is having perfect blood pressure. The two are just two realities (and they can coexist!) that are possible within a scope of endless realities.

Health is a slippery concept at the best of times anyway. I mean, you don’t keep a race horse in peak condition because it’s bad for the horse (as is the institution of horse racing, by and large). That seems to have escaped people, though, some of whom really do push the idea that we should all be striving to maintain an ideal that is pretty arbitrary anyway.

That’s actually what I love about HAES (Health At Every Size, sorry, don’t want the acronym to lose anyone!) – that the definition of health is entirely personal and about achieving your own concept of health. For some people, that might be making it through the day with energy left over to clear the table after dinner. For other people, that might be a marathon. And whatever you need to make it to that goal? Is cool by me and HAES. Well, I mean, destructive behaviors like meth habits might help you clear the table but they are doing more damage than…. You know what I mean.

The point is this: health isn’t a moral issue. Having a disability doesn’t make you a bad fatty or a bad representative of fat acceptance. Taking the stairs doesn’t make you a good fatty or a good respresentative of fat acceptance. And neither make you a good or a bad person.

Using “I’m concerned about your health” as an excuse to harrangue people about their weight is bullshit. If you’re concerned about my health, ask me how I’m doing. I don’t mind telling you. I’m treating my allergies and asthma successfully, thanks. I’m overextending myself, though, and it’s taking a huge toll on my mental health.

But if what you really mean is “I think your fat is killing you,” well, you’re wrong. We might have to agree to disagree – you can think it’s killing me while I sit here alive and well all you want. It’s not my fat that is making me fatigued; it’s five or fewer hours of nightmare-interrupted sleep everynight because I’m stressing out about a million things. It’s not my fat that is making me cough and wheeze; it’s my asthma that is triggered by cold air and the way it was recently in the 30s in FLORIDA, people – it was inhuman.

Don’t believe that your fat makes you a less worthwhile human being. Don’t believe that having a disability or a chronic illness or whatever unspecified disease makes you a less worthwhile human being. It’s not a moral issue.


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9 Comments

  1. Posted January 26, 2009 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

    <3.

  2. Entangled
    Posted January 27, 2009 at 12:16 am | Permalink

    For me, this is so The Sum of Things. I feel like I am having trouble articulating how much I believe this without saying something potentiall offensive.

    Are there things that can do that can make you healthier / less healthy? Well, there’s things that can shift the odds in your favor. But 1) you can’t tell by looking at someone what their habits are, 2) a hell of a lot of our health is out of control, 3) it’s none of your business anyway, and 4) even if it was your business, it doesn’t make you a better or worse person. It just makes you someone who likes to smoke or likes to swim or likes broccoli. So WHAT?

    Sometimes I feel like people are so desperate to find something that makes them better than anyone else. Eating broccoli? Seriously, I might as well base my superiority on the fact that I pee a lot. I mean, it’s good for me, right?

    See what I mean about getting offensive. I swear, all ridiculous “health as important moral issue” always break down to waste products once I think about them too much.

  3. Posted January 27, 2009 at 2:48 am | Permalink

    Yes! Yes! Oh, my god! YES!

  4. Cat
    Posted January 27, 2009 at 5:29 am | Permalink

    Thank you so much for this. I have chronic depression, and it’s far too easy to beat myself up when I hit a particularly bad patch – it’s good to be able to remind myself that being ill does not make me useless or bad or what have you.

  5. Posted January 27, 2009 at 6:07 am | Permalink

    Also, along those lines, disability is not a metaphor for anything. Having to use a wheelchair to get through something like, oh, the Presidential inauguration ceremony, is not some justly deserved fate from on high. Random shit happens all the time and it’s still random when it happens to bad people.

  6. Posted January 27, 2009 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    This issue is one of my core issues, one of my most important beliefs. It is always good to reiterate it — that health has nothing to do with your worth as a human being, or your moral stature, or God’s favour — over and over, since we apparently don’t yet get this, as a culture.

    And this is why “concern for health” can be used a stick to beat fat people over the head with — because, on the surface, people think they are being objective and selfless, when the subtext of their “concern” is that they think you’re a bad person, and have somehow brought fatness and/or ill health on yourself. That’s why it’s so critical to me that we separate health from any sense of morality — cause then we can’t use it as a license for discrimination and hatred.

  7. Posted January 27, 2009 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    I recently realized that when you go down the natural medicine rabbit hole, the constant implication is that if you’re not consuming your gallon of fish oil every day, you’re completely miserable. And then, if you work to address absolutely every health issue you have (mental and all), people howl about overtreatment of nonproblems. Like you were saying about being out of breath at the top of a flight of stairs – it’s annoying, but whatever. My body is going to be annoying. I’ve never labored under the illusion that I had much control over what my body does, and that (plus being a very very slow runner) may be why I was never attracted to sports as a kid.

  8. Jackie
    Posted January 27, 2009 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    When I read about the arm sticking up out of the ground from The Willful Child, I thought “Oh, so that’s where they got the idea for that ending to Carrie!” lol

  9. scotlyn
    Posted February 8, 2009 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    Yes – excellent post – thanks! I have been pondering on this myself for awhile. As it happens, I am the first Irish acupuncturist that I know of to sign up to HAES as a fundamental value for my practice. I am very aware that the “natural medicine rabbit hole” Sara Anderson refers to, and in which I work, appears to be very strongly inclined towards blame-the-victim thinking in terms of health, although I am trying to challenge my colleagues on this whenever possible. With my fundamentalist background, on the other hand, it is not hard for me to identify the “you are ill because you have sinned” subtext that is strongly present in both the CAM approach to health, and increasingly, the medical approach to health. There is also the increasingly Puritanical tone to discussions of access to health insurance (for Americans) or to state medical services (in Ireland and the UK), which seeks to limit healthcare to the “deserving.” Beware.

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