Sunday, March 19, 2006

Healthy Living

I realised that I hadn't explained myself very well in my Body Shop thread. Or rather I'd paraphrased an argument without actually making that argument.

I hate The Body Shop, have a for very long time. I've never had a use for the dumb soaps and gels and whatever they make (although I did go through a stage when I was 14 of buying them as presents for friends, if I didn't know what else to get them). They're such a huge part of the idea that it's alternative and a moral good to be healthy, and what it means to be healthy is to fit a traditional idea of beautiful that I'd happily watch as every single one of their stores burnt to the ground.
I wanted to explore the link between health and beauty, and the idea that health is a moral good, a little bit more to explain.

The equation of 'beauty' and 'health' is really common and really insidious. The most obvious example is weight, and (despite rather a lot of evidence to the contrary) the conflation of thin and healthy. In circles (usually middle class and slightly politically aware circles) where it's not acceptable to talk about weight loss straight up, generally exactly the same conversations take place, but people are talking about 'health'. If someone is nervous of complimenting a woman for losing weight, they'll talk about 'healthy' she looks.

But it's much more common than that. Most of the examples are just laughable. Beauty sections in magazines are now called 'health' sections. Hair products claim they will promote 'healthy looking hair' (because ensuring that your dead-cells are healthy should be the priority of everyone). The state of your skin is seen as indicative of your overall health. Performing beauty routinues, like moisturising or body scrubbing, are portrayed as part of maintaining your health.

Some are more scary:
The American Cancer Society offers the "Look Good…Feel Better" program, "dedicated to teaching women cancer patients beauty techniques to help restore their appearance and self-image during cancer treatment."

Of course this is bullshit, you can't tell someone's health by looking at them, and a lot of so called health routinues won't increase your longevity, or your quality of life at all.

Now this is partly just a marketing technique, the more women challenge beauty standards, the more useful it is to have different justification for selling exactly the same products. But I think it's become a lot more significant than that, because health is portrayed as a moral good. This particular conflation is a very powerful one for fucking with people's minds, and very useful for ensuring certain sorts of behaviour (mostly buying stuff, but also not challenging the way our society is organised).

The first step to believing being 'healthy' is moral is to show that 'health' is something that is under your control. Now personally, I reject this idea as deeply offensive, as well as being wrong. Wile there are some things that you can do that will promote the length of your life, and increase the ways you can use your body, most of it is just luck. Either it's your genetics, or it's a result of environmental factors you can't control (like poverty, or being exposed to depleted uranium). It's very tempting to believe we can control our body, how long we live, how far it holds out, but most of us won't be able to.

To give a rather silly example of this I have had a number of people tell me about the quality of their teeth, how they don't have fillings, and they each give a different reason for this (they brush every day, or they eat a lot of cheese). Now it seems to me that it's far more likely that fluoridated water, and improvements in detal practice are the reason my generation's teeth are better than our parents.

That's why I think it's wrong, the reason I think it's offensive is it promotes an idea that everyone could get better if only they tried hard enough. It turns illness into a form of personal failing. Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a fantastic article about this in relation to the breast cancer industry (and yes unfortunately it is an industry):
My friend introduces me to a knot of other women in survivor gear, breast-cancer victims all, I learn, though of course I would not use the V-word here. "Does anyone else have trouble with the term 'survivor'?' I ask, and, surprisingly, two or three speak up. It could be "unlucky," one tells me; it "tempts fate," says another, shuddering slightly. After all, the cancer can recur at any time, either in the breast or in some more strategic site. No one brings up my own objection to the term, though: that the mindless triumphalism of "survivorhood" denigrates the dead and the dying. Did we who live "fight" harder than those who've died? Can we claim to be "braver," better, people than the dead? And why is there no room in this cult for some gracious acceptance of death, when the time comes, which it surely will, through cancer or some other misfortune?
The idea that 'health' is a result of our individual actions is now dangerously firmly placed. We can beat heart-attacks, breast-cancer, alzheimer's, arthritis, dementia and everything else if we try hard enough.

As well as being awful in it's own right, this idea turns anything that is promoted as improving health as a moral good, even if it doesn't actually improve your longevity or use of your body.

This idea is so insidious that it has often been adopted by the left, where being 'healthy' can be portrayed as not just morally good, but alternative - or even radical. So we end up reinforcing our own version of the mainstream ideology. Constantly things that are supported for political reasons (say veganism) are promoted for their supposed health benefits, as if good politics and good health, automatically go together (I have a much, much, much longer rant about this particular topic, but it'll have to wait for another day).

I started writing this whole post because mythago asked me "why is buying soap kowtowing to patriarchal, capitalistic ideals about beauty?" I want to make it really clear that I don't think the solution to the problems that I raised is to stop eating in a particular way, or buying a particular product, or trying to live in a way that you find nourishes and sustains you.

What I do think is important is we challenge the ideology which equates beauty, health and morality, and promotes health as something we can control. We can stop praising people for being healthy, we can stop telling people they look healthy, we can stop assuming that just because we agree with something politically it'll be good for our bodies, and we can stop using moralistic language to describe food.

And that's why I hate the Body Shop.

Also posted on Alas


  1. I agree with you about not blaming people. That's was what I was saying at the end of my post, I don't think the solution is to say 'everyone must stop caring about these things now.' But to challenge the ideology.

    I still think it's concerning that there's a program which includes giving away free beauty products to women with cancer and that it's called 'look good...feel better'. Even if it's just meeting the demand (and I think it probably goes further and promotes ideas as well), to me it shows how intertwined the ideas of health and beauty are.

  2. I think if you replace the word "healthy" with "fertile" you'll understand what's really going on here. The whole point is to give off the appearance of fecund womanhood whether we're fertile or not!

    Since babyboomer females have hit menopause, there has been a desperate mad, EXPENSIVE dash to maintain the illusion of nubility so as not to lose out on the temporary access to privilege that male attention provides.

    Sad, really! As a post-boomer greedily eyeing all the new procedures and techniques that will keep me "f*ckable" long past my breeding years, I feel the anxiety. It really is ALL about our looks, after all. GAH.

  3. I hate beauty magazines and worse yet that we as humans look to them for guidance, but from an evolutionary point of view beauty does indeed eeriest to tell health.
    1) prettier people tend to be a little healthier - sometimes sicknesses show up in your looks and also if you have allot of time to care for your looks it implies you are, probably, not struggling against sickness. This is all less true now but still a little true.
    2) Prettier people have been ranked more highly for a long time. They thus tend to be richer slightly smarter, and so forth.
    3) They tend to live slightly happier lives due to the reactions people have to them on the street etc. An ugly woman (or man) walks up a street and people look away - they don’t hate her they just don’t like looking in that direction. But that doesn’t help her feelings.
    A pretty woman walks and everyone looks at her. if she doesn’t want that one day she can just cover up... if she wants a free drink or whatever she can probably get it because people will pay to be able to look at her... power...Beauty is a fairly arbitrary ordering system (i.e. why do we, here I refer to society not me and you, like blond hair? or super slim women?) But society does order people in that way because it screams out for a way to bring order to the world and thus make life a "competition" where guys or girls will compete and some can win and some can loose. Even if a few choose to loose on purpose thousands wil play the game and will after playing it expect the others to show some sort of respect for the winners.

    It is the same sort of force that drives capitalism I guess.

  4. Anonymous12:26 pm

    > It is the same sort of force that drives
    > capitalism I guess.


    capitalism = competition

    Oh my god this Darwin talked about how evolution = competition.

    Wow that means capitalism = evolution. And evolution is like, you know, science. And science = truth.

    So capitalism = truth

    Don't I feel secure now supporting a system of economic exploitation. Cos it's natural and the way_things_are! Hell YES!!!!!!!!

    *sigh* How about you just stop and think genius. Competition belongs in a chess game, or a round of golf (if that's what floats your boat), it's not natural to the way we organise ourselves socially and economically. I would argue it's an aberration, supported by the ruling elites and it's collaborators...

    - John Anderson

  5. I don't think something characteristic of most human societies qualifies as an "aberration". A system that wasn't one of economic exploitation would be the aberration - that doesn't stop people working towards building one, but facing up to what a radical change it would be might be a good starting point.

  6. Anonymous10:21 am

    you can't tell someone's health by looking at them

    Depends where you look. I like to think I can tell someone's health (in the holistic sense of the word) by talk with them face to face. The people who occupy space in my head tagged 'beautiful' are by and large the ones who are vibrant, outgoing, and meet my eyes with their own sparkly gaze when we talk.

    I think the beauty myth is about trying to capture this sense of 'sparkly gaze' by selling the idea that you can somehow apply it with product. For me, attraction always begins with conversation. Sure, there's a pure biological response to 'hotness' but I'm not actually attracted, in the broader sense of the word, to 'hot people,' unless they're also 'beautiful', in the holistic sense of the word 'beautiful' I described above.

    PS, I consider myself a 'male feminist'. Be interested in hearing your words on that. I'd love to be able to go along to a feminist group and discuss some of these ideas with real live people but all the ones I've spoken to won't let me come because I'm a boy.

  7. Anonymous10:23 am

    The people who occupy space in my head tagged 'beautiful' are by and large the ones who are vibrant, outgoing, and meet my eyes with their own sparkly gaze when we talk.

    ... and unhealthy people tend to be less likely to do this. That's how they link, I think..

  8. Anonymous,

    BTW I didnt say capitalism = truth where did you get that idea? capitalism is just one way of doing things, but if you going to fight it you might as well understand what it is you are fighting otherwise you will certainly loose.
    Most likely you will propose an alternative that is impossible (which is a fast track to loosing of course)


  9. It is good to be healthy
    , I am glad you pointed that out.

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