There’s a growing tribe of people who are willing to go to radical extremes to protect themselves against future disease and degeneration, much like Salt star who has lent her name to the Angelina Jolie Syndrome after she underwent a double mastectomy and got her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed because her mother had died of ovarian cancer, and her grandmother and aunt of breast cancer.
While many of us think preventable surgeries are an extreme step to prevent the probability of dangerous diseases when annual screening will do, Jolie’s surgeries did their bit to raise awareness. And advance warning has its uses. Tests to identify genetic disorders in embryo are now a norm, though there is growing ethical debate on whether advances in diagnostic technology is leading to medicine losing its therapeutic role to eliminating what it cannot cure.
The problem, say critics, is that people are trying to fix things that are not broken. Growing healthism — peremptory self-preserving behaviour – is headed towards obsessive extremes, with its converts becoming increasingly intolerant and critical of anything that doesn’t fit into their fixed ideas health and perfection. Now we’re told that sixties is the new forties, and forties is the new twenties, and if you are not inclined to live it up like someone half your age, you are dismissed as someone lacking the energy and the will to take control of your life.
In its most extreme forms, healthism is close to eugenics, which rejects human imperfection and fuels hypercorrection to achieve perceived physical perfection and opt for surgery and other radical measures to prevent hypothetical disease, writes Evgenia Golman in the Journal of Social Policy Studies, which was published on Friday.
More ubiquitous forms of healthism are superfood fads, exclusion diets, obsessive fitness-monitoring, cosmetic procedures and reconstructive, body-shaping surgeries. Everyone is trying to lose weight, or talking about doing it. And those who have a healthy weight are swapping fitness regimens and obsessively tracking their body’s functioning, making apps that feed you data about how much exercise, calories, activity and sleep you get among the most popular ones today. But with information, though often conflicting and sometimes incorrect, on everything available online, people end up taking life-altering decisions based on half-baked information.
A healthy lifestyle undoubtedly boosts energy and prevents disease, what needs to be questioned is how this reasonable willingness to stay healthy is being carried to absurd levels. The fitness and beauty ideals are often fuelled by commercial interests that portray health as a prestigious necessity — like an educational degree — that gets you the life you desire, be it a partner, job or lifestyle. Popular media plays up this perception, with photoshopped magazine covers and television dramas showcasing unrealistic ideals. The fictional reel stereotypes are universal the world over. Overweight men are more likely to be portrayed as greedy and corrupt, while overweight women are overbearing, desperate and needy. And the selfless ones who unflinchingly demolish all opposition to find love, money and success are the ones who look close to perfect.
These stereotypes have added to the stigmatisation of obesity, which is regarded more as a character failing than a physical state, with people who are overweight dismissed as lazy, gluttonous, and lacking in discipline and control.
In their search for perfection, some are no longer happy with looking perfect themselves, some are now forcing their families and loved ones to undergo the scalpel to meet their unrealistic ideals. Increasingly, “imperfect” spouses and children of the bold and the not-so-beautiful are getting surgeries and body sculpting done to match so that the family looks pretty for photo-ops.
With how you look becoming a measure of success and socio-economic status, those who don’t fit in are snubbed and excluded from among those who have made the cut. “The less an individual complies with contemporary standards of a healthy lifestyle (healthy nutrition, exercise etc) and appearance (slim and attractive body), the more they risk being negatively evaluated in terms of their personal and professional qualities,” writes Golman in her paper.
Whether healthism become the new caste system remains to be seen, but we need to question whether it’s wise of the healthy to use the crutches of technology, therapeutics and surgery just to be a part of the brave, new world.