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what is healthism (and how does it hurt us)?

You may not have heard the term, but you are already an expert in healthism. As invisible and pervasive as the air we breathe, healthism underlies and intersects with all other aspects of our culture. For many of us, some aspects of healthism will feel like absolute truths, while we may be unsure about others.

Healthism is a pervasive belief system that says health should be valued above all else, and that it is the sole responsibility of each individual to care for their health.

Healthism says, “Your health is in your hands!”

A core belief of healthism is that each of us is responsible for our own health, and that health is within our grasp if only we do the right things. It says that each of us simply needs to care for ourselves with the magic combination of foods, supplements, diet and exercise, and that if we are failing to be healthy, it is our fault. This type of thinking is prevalent in many fitness and health communities, and is (unsurprisingly) espoused by the purveyors of fitness and health products such as yoga studios, supplement manufacturers, and “detox” programs.

But is this really true? Can each of us actually manage our own health through behavioral changes? Let’s assume that it is possible to manage one’s health perfectly through diet and exercise alone (I don’t believe this, but for the sake of argument, we’ll move forward). Even in wealthy countries, many people do not have the means or access to “healthy” food, physical/mental health care, or gyms. Assuming they could overcome these barriers (“It’s easy to eat well on a budget!,” or “You can always work out at home!” the voices of healthism cry), there are often cultural, physical, educational or time constraints.

Healthism is the voice that says, “No excuses!” while ignoring the role of oppression, poverty, racism, sexism, trauma, violence, environmental factors, and naturally occurring disease or variations in the human genome.

Healthism also assumes that mental health is within our control, perhaps with the right combination of diet and exercise, or a daily pill to manage any troublesome symptoms. In this way, it reinforces stigma and silence around mental illness and prevents us from seeing it as a normal part of the human experience.

Healthism says, “Healthy people are the best people.”