I think it is safe to say that my most popular posts since I began writing were the series I put together about what health stigma and healthy privilege are–and how seriously they affect us. I still stand by the ideas I shared in that series. Recently, as I have talked to clients, and I have participated in conversations online, I have realized that there is an issue that is directly linked to healthy privilege and health stigma that I didn’t explicitly address in my earlier posts. And it is this:
Let me be clear about this. I certainly believe that we have the ability to make healthy choices. We can strive for good food, rest, and movement. We can choose relationships that support us instead of relationships that tear us down. We can seek appropriate physical and mental health care to be sure that we stay as healthy as possible. We can make healthy choices. But those healthy choices do not guarantee our health.
We live in a culture that is very focused on individual control. We want to believe that good choices lead to good outcomes. And that means that if you struggle with health challenges–emotional or physical–you must not have made good health choices. Right?
This unspoken idea that good health is a reward for healthy choices is one of the pillars that supports the ongoing stigma of health challenges. The belief that good health is the result of good choices is a reason that so many people feel blamed or shamed for the illnesses they live through.
The truth is, that no one is guaranteed good health. Athletes in peak condition die of undetected heart conditions. People who have eaten perfectly their whole lives get cancer. People with great mental attitudes struggle with depression or anxiety. People with strong work ethics get multiple sclerosis or rheumatoid arthritis. Making healthy choices certainly improves our odds of experiencing health in life. But we don’t get a guarantee.
We would like a guarantee. We want to feel that good is rewarded. We want to believe that our choices ultimately control our experiences. But we live in a world where our genes, our environment, and sometimes, just our spin of the luck wheel determine our experience. And I think that our society sometimes takes that wish for a guarantee and uses it to shame and blame people who are facing health challenges. Because if other people can make healthy choices and still face illness, then we might be at risk for illness too. Because we want to deny the fact that sometimes good health is good luck.
Since this lightbulb went on, I have seen this attitude in so many places. And I think that we need to call it out. Health is a goal. It is a gift. But health is not a virtue.
Let’s have that conversation.
Oh–and just to have some outside perspective, check out this long list of “Virtues of Moral Personhood (note that health isn’t on there anywhere):”