I don't want to talk about it
Updated: Jul 31, 2020
I just keep wishing that I didn’t have to talk about health.
I wish I could just jump ahead to the particular ways that fatphobia intersects with Jewish life and practice. I want to write about fatness and musar, fatness and kashrut, fatness and fasting, fatness and mikvah. And I want to write about how the Torah loves fatness and that when it seems to denigrate fatness it is actually denigrating complacency. I want to write about how important people’s spiritual and religious needs really are whenever they are seeking help around issues with the body and with disordered eating. And I want to write about the fat rabbis of the Talmud and how I do (and don’t) relate to them as a fat rabbi today.
But in my experience, “health” concerns are like this thick substrate that lurks beneath any conversation about fat liberation. I’ve had people shower me with praises about how “beautiful” I am and how they love how I dance and sing and move through the world and how impressed they are with my “bravery” for loving my body, only to end the conversation with that same old mudpie to the face: “but what about your health.” And that is why we’ve spent these weeks and these posts looking at caring and un-caring and that is also why it’s time for us now to look at health itself: to dig into that mucky layer that lies ready to resist any attempt --no matter how gentle-- to push back against diet culture.
So let’s dig in. Because while it’s true that I don’t want to talk about “health,” it turns out that you don’t actually want to talk about health either. Just since the beginning of this writing project multiple friends and relatives (and also some Facebook “friends”) --all of whom have significant thin privilege relative to me-- have let me know that they think what I am doing here is great but they are still worried about weight gain, proud of weight loss, or concerned about how many calories they eat because of their “health.” Blood pressure? A1C? A worrying echocardiogram? Some other actual measure of an actual disease process? They seem quite shy about speaking of their actual health concerns, preferring to focus on their weight itself or their eating and exercising habits. I say this not to cast doubt on those concerns. It is genuinely scary to be sick or to have worrying test results. It is scary to be aging (as we all are from the moment we are born) with the knowledge that one’s parents were ill or even died from diseases that society tells you are preventable if you just work at it hard enough.
"But what about your health" claims that there is a bottom line, a thing called "health" that is more important than anything else, that transcends the actual measures of various parameters of health and illness, that deserves consideration above and beyond and prior to all other considerations. "But what about your health" says:
"Even if I agree with you that fat people should be treated with respect and have equal access to healthcare and education and employment and clothing that fits and not be made fun of in public and all the rest, I will still claim that being fat is bad, and we should all be constantly striving not to be fat or to stop being fat because fatness is bad for your health. And health matters more than all those other things combined.”
How exactly "health" matters more than equal access to healthcare is an interestingly twisty thing, but it actually speaks volumes about the problem with saying "but what about your health." It contributes to doctors essentially saying "but what about your health" when I have come to them for help with my health and they are telling me that they cannot treat my health because they are concerned for my health.
That’s not called health; it’s called healthism. Originally coined by economist Robert Crawford in his 1980 article “Healthism and the medicalization of everyday life” the term is defined as “the preoccupation with personal health as a primary --often the primary-- focus for the definition and achievement of well-being; a goal which is to be attained primarily through the modification of life styles, with or without therapeutic help.” Crawford’s concern is that healthism ignores social determinants of health and necessarily limits the pursuit of health to people with the class position to do so (“middle class” versus “working class” in Crawford's framing). We can also think about how racism, ableism, ageism and other oppressive structures intersect with healthism.
From a theological perspective, my main concern with healthism is that it is idolatry. When we hold something up that is amorphous and undefined but that we want to be "in good with” at all costs, when we say that it matters more than anything else, when we make unsubstantiated claims about people’s ability to attain, or acquire that thing, when we are worshipful toward it, sacrificing for it and believing that our sacrifices will save us? That is idolatry. Anytime the object of your worship is divisive, splitting people into haves and have nots and seeking primarily to help you be in the category of the haves and to escape from and stigmatize the category of the have nots? That's idolatry.
Healthism meets my teacher Art Green’s definition of idolatry: it mistakes the part for the whole, privileging the pursuit of personal physical health over all else. And it also meets this more classical test of idolatry: it elevates for worship that which is not God.
And do you know what else idolatry is? Understandable. Idolatry, as healthism and in all its other forms, is completely understandable. It literally happens to the best of us. We have a human tendency to be worshipful: to seek out that which is larger than ourselves, to give it power over our lives, to hope and pray that by following its ways we will be saved from suffering and from death.
Scroll through any social media feed in these frightening times of pandemic and you will see people clinging to idolatrous healthism in multiple forms: recommendations for which completely untested supplements or medications will help you prevent or survive COVID 19, beliefs about the individual responsibility to strengthen our immune systems, and of course, fatphobic memes galore from people’s fears about gaining weight while staying at home to blaming fat people if they happen to suffer from any particular illness.
I still don’t want to talk about health, but we are going to keep talking about it anyway, exploring topics like: Is being fat unhealthy? If so, what makes it unhealthy? Can fat people stop being fat? Is striving for health a moral obligation? Is failing to strive for health a moral failing? How and when does being fat come to be seen as a bad thing? How does weight stigma itself impact health? And might the moral superiority of “sticking to” a diet itself provide a placebo effect?
Meanwhile, with deep compassion for our very human tendency toward idolatry, let’s keep trying to “catch ourselves in the act” of healthism, re-widen our sense of what true well-being is and reconnect with the Source of Life.
If you are appreciating fat torah, and let me tell you, I could definitely use the appreciation after a “hold my nose and write” post like this one:
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