I saw a picture on Facebook comparing Marilyn Monroe to a very thin woman. The picture was about their “beauty” but many people responded with some version of “Neither of them look healthy to me.” I saw a piece about diversity in yoga criticized by people suggesting that we should be giving the participants attention because “doing yoga or not these people do not look healthy,” and I deleted a number of comments on a video of inspiration for fat people who want to participate in fitness that insisted that people like us shouldn’t be seen because we’re “obviously not healthy.”
There are a lot of ways that this is screwed up, let’s take them one by one:
First of all, judging how healthy people are based on their picture, or looking at them, is ridiculous. Not only does this feed into various appearance based prejudices and stereotypes, but it also harms people who deal with invisible disabilities who have to put up with busybodies questioning them about any accommodation they might use.
The next issue is that even if we could judge people’s health by looking at them, it’s absolutely none of our business. Other people’s health is not for us to guess about, or judge, or comment on unless someone is inviting us to do so.
Finally, the suggestion that only people who are “healthy” (by whatever definition) deserve to participate in the hobbies of their choice, or to be seen in photographs, or be role models, or be in the public eye, is a blatantly disgusting display of healthism that is often used as another way to enforce oppression intersectionally, including sizeism, racism, ageism and ableism.
The truth about health is that it is complicated, multi-dimensional, not an obligation, not a barometer of worthiness, not entirely within our control, and not guaranteed under any circumstances. But even more important, it is deeply personal. The push to have public health focus on making the individual’s health the public’s business, and the accompanying suggestion that people should have to “perform” health or “look healthy” to avoid social stigma, bullying and harassment etc. takes our attention away from things that we could be doing to support people’s choices for their bodies – including removing barriers to healthcare (many of them rooted in the same prejudice that this “who looks healthy” culture perpetuates,) making sure that everyone has access to the food that they want to eat and that movement options are accessible and safe – not just physically safe, though that’s very important – but also psychologically safe. Until everyone can show up for the movement options they are interested in – whether that’s a local swimming pool or body of water, or the free weight area of the gym, or a pole dancing class or whatever – and know for absolute certain that they will not face bullying or harassment for how they look, then we aren’t providing safe options. Public health needs to be about making information and options available to the public, not making the individual’s health the public’s business.
There are things that we can do as individuals:
- don’t use phrases like “she looks healthy” or “he doesn’t look healthy”
- don’t use health status as a response to fat shaming – make it clear that fat people have the right to exist without bullying, stigmatizing, and oppression regardless of our size, or our health status
- speak out when you see people engaging in this kind of discussion. instead of countering “they obviously aren’t healthy” with “they look healthy to me! ” consider making it clear that the idea that we can know how healthy someone is from a picture, and that even if we could we should consider it our business, is absurd
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