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The secret to good health

Last update - Tuesday, November 1, 2011, 14:25 By Tara Fannon

Good health is the key to success – that’s a notion increasingly popular the world over in recent years. And it requires curtailing potential health hazards by taking charge of the body and the self. The problem with this, however, is that there’s no one definition of health, or grand set of ideas about how to be healthy.

How we define health has as much to do with social and cultural knowledge and ideas, values and perceptions as anything else. Every person possesses health, and though it may mean different things to different people, it’s always the result of a complex confluence of psychological, social and biological factors. We all have some degree of control over our health and with that we also have a certain amount of responsibility to maintaining it.
Western culture tends to take this quite seriously, to the extent that some people become completely obsessed with being healthy. A profound influence on this process comes from the media and health-related industries. The media provides various outlets through which we access and make sense of all kinds of information, primarily from the industries. And both the media and the industries are selective in the language they use to construct ideas about health.
One such set of ideas comprise the philosophy of ‘healthism’. It’s what you might call an ‘absolute’ philosophy, because it aims to integrate the psychological, social and biological. It has become the go-to discourse for conceptualising health in modern societies.
As a way of life, healthism promotes complete wellness as a moral obligation, achieved through adherence to the many and varied protocols of feeling good, being good, looking good and thinking good. Yoga, meditation, acupuncture and massage, tailored fitness regimes, super-food diets, preventative medicine and homeopathy are a few among many examples.
Everywhere we turn we’re urged to be positive, empowered and responsible about our health. The language of health on television, in magazines and on the internet is meant to excite us, empower us and instil us with self-confidence. Having such a perspective about health isn’t necessarily a bad thing so we go along with it; we believe what we’re told.
But really, the mainstream language of health is framed within the context of social, political and environmental uncertainty, and our belief in it relies on the reproduction of anxiety about the world around us. When we consider ourselves to be in good physical and mental health we feel secure, stable and free. We feel that we are limited by very little.
Nonetheless, despite our health being something that is distinct and personal, in a sense it has become a commodity like so many other things. We believe that we have a responsibility to good health because it will minimise the short and long-term risks to our wellbeing. Because there is definitely truth to this, we can easily buy into the many and varied protocols on offer without having to justify our actions. We simply want to do right by ourselves, and our health is the single most effective way to carry this off.

Tara Fannon is a Sociology student at UCD. Her column appears regularly in Metro Éireann.

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