What Do You Think of When You See the Word “Healthy”?

6 Sep

Up close Star makeup mac, urban decay(Image by Courtney Rhodes used under CC 2.0 via)
In late 2013, journalist Katie Waldman examined the juicing trend, which was cropping up in the corners of Western society where there is a heavy focus on modern notions of “natural and organic” (think anywhere from Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg to Burlington, Vermont and Berkeley, California) as well as in those where people competitively strive to follow the latest fashions in health and beauty (think the high-earning sectors of London, Manhattan or Los Angeles). Lifestyle writers have declared two years later that juicing has staying power, despite Waldman’s disturbing findings. Along with little to no evidence that cleansing the body with juice can be physically beneficial, she revealed that the language of most detox diets echoes the language used by those struggling with disordered eating – i.e., the idea that most of what the masses eat is on par with poison and you’re a bad person if you don’t purge it. She writes:

After days of googling, I still have no idea WTF a toxin is… Cleansing acolytes use the word toxin loosely, as a metaphor for our lapsed lifestyles…. The problem with this way of thinking is that food and weight are not matters of morality. Thin is not “good,” carbs are not “bad,” and in a world of actual pressing political and social ills, your dinner plate should not be the ground zero of your ethical renewal.

I’m neither a supporter nor an opponent of juicing in particular. Anyone should drink whatever they want to drink. But Waldman made a fantastic point about the way the upper and middle classes in the West so often believe one’s health to be a sign of one’s morality.

This idea is hardly new. The eugenics craze of the 19th and 20th centuries—that culminated with the Nazis exterminating “degenerates”—involved Fitter Families contests held at county fairs wherein judges handed out trophies to those deemed to have the best heritage, skin color, and tooth measurements. Professor Alan Levinovitz argues in Religion Dispatches that these attitudes have survived on into the present, altered only ever so slightly: “The sad thing is, it’s really easy to judge people on the basis of what they look like. We have this problem with race. In the same way, it’s really easy to look at someone who’s obese and say, ‘Oh look at that person, they’re not living as good a life as I am. They’re not as good on the inside because I can tell their outside isn’t good either.’ ”

Do we as a culture believe that being “healthy” is about appearance? Dieting often dictates that it’s about behaviors measurable through appearance. Psychologists agree to the extent that their notions of “healthy” are about behavior, but they also frequently intersect with notions of being “good.” But is being “healthy” about being brave, honest, generous and humble? Physicians would generally argue it’s about staving off death. Right-to-die advocates would argue it’s about quality of life over longevity. Is being healthy a matter of what scientists decide? Ed Cara found earlier this year that weight loss does not lead to happiness. Is happiness a measure of being healthy? Or are you only healthy if you suffer for it? Concepts of “healthy” vary vastly from person to person, and across cultures. Is that healthy?

In The Princess Bride—probably the Internet’s second-most quoted source after Wikipedia—the hero cautions, “Life is pain. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

Yet the villain says, “Get some rest. If you haven’t got your health, you haven’t got anything.”

Whether you agree with any or none of the above, leave me your thoughts on the meaning of “healthy” either in the comments or via an e-mail to paintingonscars[at]gmail.com




11 Responses to “What Do You Think of When You See the Word “Healthy”?”

  1. notelooks September 6, 2015 at 3:08 pm #

    “what makes body functions better and better. “ That`s what I think.

  2. violetonlineisonline September 6, 2015 at 3:11 pm #

    guessing health is a bit of everything – looking good, feeling good, being emotionally strong, physically strong, capable, and able to fit into the size 4 dress…

  3. Luisa September 6, 2015 at 8:43 pm #

    My own associations —

    As someone who has dealt with depression for most of her adult life, I find the assumptions around the word “healthy” very difficult. Because “healthy” in the context of mental health (yup, there you have it) is always about the demarcation line between sane and insane, between being a Hard-working Young Professional versus That Hysterical Woman, or whichever trope applies to your life situation. And there are many. But such is not the reality of psychological disease. It is not health or sickness. I’m not currently in an episode, but no doctor would call me “healthy” — the disease is cyclical, and with my history, chances are it will manifest itself again. Although I am healing, I may never be healed (healthy). And I think this is the bottom line, really — the notion of healthy takes an ephemeral state and makes it into a moral attribute. It is something by nature unstable rendered concrete only in discourse. Personally, I am devoting a lot of time to healing and to being better so that I will be able to live with myself for a little longer than I previously thought I could. I have gained a lot of insight into my condition and into the factors that have maybe not caused but sustained it. I believe that my insight into myself and consequently also into the people around me is much greater than that of supposedly “healthy” people, not least because I am unhealthy. So there. You’d think that “healthy” would be something that can be measured scientifically (in the sense that either you do or do not have tuberculosis or ebola), but in the end, most of what pertains to that category is no more than yet another way to other others. Meh.

  4. stalkingsarah September 6, 2015 at 9:23 pm #

    Physically healthy for me means that my body is able to do the activities I want it to do on a regular basis, with room for some challenges without completely falling apart.

    Mentally healthy for me means able to handle the routine ups and downs of life without resorting to self-destructive activities.

    Healthy food means food that is good for your body and/or your soul.

  5. SHEKIA BUTLER September 8, 2015 at 4:47 am #

    The word mentally, I guess

  6. thepharmersjournal September 8, 2015 at 2:58 pm #

    Loved this post. As a pharmacist I measure health on people’s capabilities to live their lives with the least amount of medicinal effort… But as a twentysomething female I’m (somewhat embarrassed to admit to) wanting the ‘perfect’ Victoria’s Secret version of healthy – thigh-gap, clavicles etc. Not that I’m ever likely to achieve such an idea!


  7. Robyn September 9, 2015 at 8:25 am #

    Healthy… something I currently believe I am not. To be physically healthy – being able to carry out activities without feeling winded and wishing like I’d never started them. To feel energized and comfortable.
    Mentally healthy – to be at peace.

  8. saneleacquisto September 9, 2015 at 4:19 pm #

    love this post

  9. Ruby Ribbon Chick September 17, 2015 at 6:52 pm #

    excellent presentation of both sides. we can get so caught up promoting our cause, that we completely lose sensitivity for and even denigrate those with the opposing view. as a healthcare worker, “health” is the absence of disease. but me personally, being healthy is maintaining your physical and mental well-being in a manner that lets you enjoy your life— therefore, the definition is very subjective to each person.


  1. What Do You Think of When You See the Word “Healthy”? | kennethandrebrownsr - September 6, 2015

    […] Source: What Do You Think of When You See the Word “Healthy”? […]

  2. Recommended reading | Down the Road - September 12, 2015

    […] Emily Sullivan Sanford explores the notion of health, and the dysfunctional ways Westerners approach it: as a sign of one’s morality. Read What Do You Think Of When You See The Word “Healthy”? […]

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