When I was a kid, I occasionally “faked” being sick to stay home. Not often, but I missed my first week of middle school because of it, all the while feeling the burden of guilt about not actually being ill.
The truth was more complex: I was unwell, just not in the way I was pretending. My anxiety was deep-rooted and debilitating.
I’ve been considered “unhealthy” by some standard, in some capacity, for most of my life. I’m neurodivergent and struggle with an eating disorder. It took me a while to identify as disabled, but I now accept mental illness as a disability I face every day. While I value health behaviors (nutrition, movement, socialization, etc.) and aspire to them, I often fall short.
Now more than ever, I feel challenged to assert my fundamental worth despite these so-called failings — despite living in a world that insists health is a moral obligation, rather than something nuanced, multifaceted and difficult to define.
For me, living through a global health crisis has put this calling into sharp focus. The pandemic has been difficult on the mental and physical well-being of everyone, to varying degrees, regardless of politics or personal values. I am no exception. Our collective situation has forced me to ask difficult questions of myself and of the world.
Namely, what does health actually entail, and who gets to decide what it is? And what about mental health — how do we strike a balance between the physical and the psychological? What about people who can’t, for whatever reason, attain our culture’s idea of what it means to be healthy? Aren’t they still worthy of unconditional respect? Aren’t I?
The first week of November, Big Bird (from “Sesame Street”) announced on Twitter that he had received the COVID vaccine. I didn’t think too much about this, because, well, he is a giant fictional Muppet. But my attention was drawn when I came across an Instagram post by lifestyle guru, author and anti-vaccine advocate Dave Asprey, who altered Big Bird’s tweet to say the following:
“I intermittent fasted today and decided to stop eating fast food. I am already feeling happier, and it will give my body an extra protective boost that keeps me and others healthy.”
On the surface, the altered tweet is, to me, just a cringe-y, funny-in-a-bad-way meme, but the idea behind Asprey’s post is a little more troubling: It reveals a belief (from someone with over half a million followers) that one simply doesn’t need to get vaccinated if one makes good food choices.
I think this says a lot about the crossroads we’re at as a society when it comes to individual and community health.
“I know that my health cannot be absolutely controlled by diet, by exercise, by vitamins, or by putting my bare feet on fresh earth, but other people do fervently believe these things, and, especially now, these ideas have ramifications that impact my life and the lives of my loved ones.”
In case it needs to be said, there is no evidence that proves the long-term health benefits of intermittent fasting, against COVID-19 or any other illness. It can be helpful for weight loss in the short term, but like most other diets, there is little research demonstrating that people keep the weight off in the months and years to follow.
And in terms of the “junk” food argument, while nutritious eating is a health behavior to be encouraged, dietitians have been clear that labeling food as “good” and “bad” does real damage, particularly to those with a history of disordered eating (like myself).
On top of that, food choices just aren’t that simple, no matter how much we want them to be. For example, communities facing food apartheid really don’t need pressure from wealthy white people to cut out the foods that have been made most accessible and affordable by late-stage capitalism.
This health-is-wealth-gone-wild philosophy seems to me to have become common rhetoric in many Instagram wellness spaces, especially in the past couple of years. There’s this idea that if you’re physically healthy, the virus is unlikely to affect you or your loved ones. If you eat well, exercise, and take vitamins, you’ve got nothing to worry about, right?
There are myriad problems with this outlook. First, COVID impacts Black, Indigenous and other people of color more than white people, so these issues are inextricably bound to systemic racism.
Additionally, disabled, chronically ill, and/or immunocompromised people deserve to live and thrive just as much as anyone else, and to think otherwise falls into eugenics territory. Finally, the virus has absolutely killed and altered the lives of plenty of previously healthy people.
As journalist and conspiracy theory expert Mike Rothschild recently explained on the “Maintenance Phase” podcast, when these “wellness” followers converge with the anti-vaccine movement; their positions typically stem from a distrust of authority: of the media, of the government, of “Big Pharma” and of doctors.
Most of these institutions have earned our skepticism on one level or another, particularly if we are marginalized. People of color, as well as fat, disabled and trans people, face medical bias that is not only frustrating but sometimes deadly. Asking questions isn’t inherently harmful (in fact, it can be vital).
But if these questions have dangerous implications, we can’t overlook that. Also, the wellness industry is a multi-billion-dollar industry that profits off us hating our bodies, especially larger bodies, so it’s not exactly exempt from criticism.
As a disabled person, it’s frightening to see any movement encompass health in such a myopic and exclusionary way. I know that my health cannot be absolutely controlled by diet, by exercise, by vitamins, or by putting my bare feet on fresh earth, but other people do fervently believe these things, and, especially now, these ideas have ramifications that impact my life and the lives of my loved ones.
Don’t get me wrong: Health behaviors are important, but they are to be encouraged and supported, not to be used as shame tactics, not to exclude a significant portion of the population. But that is often how they work, and I see the consequences of these rigid notions of health all around me.
One major way this manifests is in our cultural obsession with weight loss. As someone who has tried most of the diets out there since age 10, it pains me to see fierce, intelligent people fretting over pandemic weight gain and turning to highly restrictive diets.
This is not a judgment of anyone’s personal choices. The pursuit of weight loss is an individual decision, and not necessarily a “bad” one. But when we tie weight loss to health and health to morality, it’s very easy for us to start a war with ourselves, and this, in my experience, takes a huge toll on one’s health.
“Housing, racism and access to nutritious food and clean water are just some of the factors that need to be addressed any time we talk about community and individual health.”
Despite what we’ve been taught, weight loss is not inherently healthy, and body size on its own is not a helpful way to gauge someone’s overall health. Weight cycling and weight bias are more likely to lead to poor outcomes than existing in a fat body.
I think we’d be better served to find the ways in which our society is unwell and the way this affects how we view ourselves.
When I was at the peak of my mental health crisis in 2010, one of the main things lacking in my life was community. Not having a solid support network made everything worse. We often overlook these social determinants of health to focus on someone’s personal choices, as if wellness is that simple when it clearly isn’t. Housing, racism and access to nutritious food and clean water are just some of the factors that need to be addressed any time we talk about community and individual health.
I’ve learned that the healthiest version of me is someone who allows myself grace, who advocates for myself, who demands people treat me with respect regardless of how I look and feel, regardless of where I’m at on my wellness journey.
The healthiest version of me acknowledges that bodies come with risks and that some have more risks than others, but we all deserve compassion. The healthiest version of me recognizes that so many of society’s greatest contributors — artists, scientists, activists — have been and would be considered unhealthy in some form, so health by that standard is not a terribly effective indicator of success and worth.
Health and goodness are complex. When we compound the two, we oversimplify both. This is something we’re struggling with these days — the idea of what is good, what is healthy, and what will bring us collective peace and freedom.
It’s scary to accept that things are more complicated than the binaries we’ve grown accustomed to, like the false dichotomy between healthy and unhealthy. But we must embrace this complexity if we are going to root out societal sickness.
I see health as vitality, as abundance, as joy — and at times, I get there. But I also leave room for the times when I am feeling mentally and physically unwell, when I’m lacking, when I’m sad.
I leave room for these aspects as distinct, important parts of myself that don’t make me any less valuable as a human being. I leave room for the times when I’m not pursuing health behaviors, because I’m alive in a difficult time, and sometimes surviving is all I can do.
I am still deserving of respect during these times. And so are you.