A friend of mine posted a Cosmopolitan article on her Facebook page. It’s about measures of health other than weight.weight loss/BMI. On the surface, that sounds promising. God knows I’d love to see an end to weight shaming and the rhetoric of fat=unhealthy/skinny=healthy.
But when I clicked through, I was sorely disappointed. Cosmopolitan seems to have traded in weight-shaming for ableism.
To be fair, the article is titled “Signs You’re Healthy,” and I’m not exactly healthy. But the article uses the word “healthy” as a moniker for “acceptable” and “good enough.” It subtly shames people who aren’t doing the things listed, the implication being that we’re not trying hard enough to be healthy, which is apparently something we owe to society. God forbid we should become useless, disabled burdens on society.
Let’s look at Cosmo’s signs of “health,” shall we?
1. You eat more whole foods than processed foods.
Is diet-shaming really that much different than weight-shaming, really? It still promotes the idea that certain foods are good or bad, and since you are what you eat, you’re bad if you eat bad food.
My UC has severely limited my diet. I can’t eat anything containing dairy, gluten, or corn in any form. I have to severely limit my fiber intake. This means very few fresh fruits and vegetables. It means more processed grains, like white bread and pasta. My disease also causes severe fatigue, so cooking is usually not something I’m capable of. I basically live off of one brand of frozen meals that are free from all the foods that make me sick. If I followed the diet generally recommended as healthy, I would be in a constant UC flare, which could literally become life-threatening to me.
I’m far from the only one for whom the stereotypical healthy diet advice doesn’t work. Diet is highly individual, and you can’t reliably judge someone’s level of health by snooping through their grocery cart. I already get intrusive comments from grocery store clerks and baggers, so I don’t need any more diet-shaming from Cosmopolitan.
4. You move your body and call it exercise.
At this point, when I move my body, I just hope it supports me. When I move my body, I pray it won’t collapse in the middle of the grocery store. I beg my shaking muscles to hold me up for just a little longer. I wish my aching joints would stop grinding bone against bone when I move. I hope that I can make it from the bed to the bathroom without losing consciousness. I hope that I will not lose control of my bowels and crap my pants again.
Two years ago, before I got sick, I exercised vigorously. I ran about three miles four or five days a week, I practiced martial arts three days a week, and I walked almost everywhere I went. According to this, I was very healthy–and yet I still got life-threateningly ill. My immune system turned against me, and I nearly died. Now my illness has taken away my ability to exercise, but that’s not because I made unhealthy choices.
6. You have some sort of connection to your community.
Boy, that would be nice, wouldn’t it? I used to. I used to connect with people through my martial arts school and political volunteer work. But when I lost the ability to stand and walk reliably, I lost all of that. No one stuck around; our society doesn’t teach us how to relate to and support people who are sick with no hope of getting better, so instead people just disappear from our lives. Illness and disability isolate us
8. You can physically accomplish the things that are important to you.
Well, I guess I should just give up now, then. I can’t stand for more than a few minutes, even with a cane. Most days even taking a shower is more than I can manage. Cooking is out of the question. My muscles give out and leave me collapsed on the floor when I’m trying to grocery shop. I see my doctors more often than I see my friends. I have to make compromises every day because, while there are many things that are important to me, I have the energy to accomplish very few of them. It’s a good day if I can get through all the things I need to do to take care of my basic physical needs. Anything beyond that is a bonus.
9. You can manage your day-to-day life — or feel like you have the kind of help you need to get by.
So if I can’t manage some aspects of day-to-day life and the help I need isn’t available to me, is that my fault? That is not an unhealthy choice, Cosmo. That’s the reality of circumstances. Because I’m chronically ill and disabled, I’m poor: people with disabilities are three to four times more likely to live in poverty, and the programs in place to address poverty are woefully inadequate. Most poverty programs don’t take into consideration the special needs of people with disabilities. Other community programs don’t either: for example, my town has made the bus system mostly inaccessible to me because most stops don’t have benches for me to sit down while I wait, and they eliminated the stop near my house. I’m not physically capable of walking the mile to the next stop. There’s no service to provide rides to the grocery store or the doctor’s office. There’s no service to have someone come in and cook meals for me so I have healthy food when I’m too sick to cook for myself. Even therapy to help me deal with the depression and hopelessness that come from all of this is inaccessible to me. That’s not my fault. I’ve learned that I cannot demand my body do more than it’s capable of or I will get even sicker. I cannot push my body beyond its limits to try to access services that won’t adequately meet my needs anyway. Ultimately, Cosmo, that is a healthy choice, if not the most ideal one.
10. You can find a way to feel awesome about how you spend your days.
I try, I really do. But let’s set aside all the inspiration porn about people with disabilities: being disabled is frustrating, isolating, and depressing. Positive thinking has its place, but there are some things it’s impossible to reframe to make me feel awesome. When I wake up and find myself and my bed covered in poop because once again, I’ve leaked during the night, that’s not awesome. When I spend all day in the ER because I’m in severe pain and one of my five hundred doctors thinks I might have a bowel obstruction, that’s not awesome. When the meds I have to take to keep myself alive make my bone marrow stop producing red and white blood cells, that’s not awesome. When I collapse in a parking lot because my muscles have just stopped working, that’s not awesome. When I try to make my life meaningful by doing volunteer work, but the people I work with give up on me and forget about me because accommodating my disability is too much of a hassle, that’s not awesome. When poverty and inaccessible public transit leave me effectively housebound and isolated, that’s not awesome.
I would love to feel awesome about how I spend my days, but honestly, I spend most days in bed and in the bathroom. Occasionally days are spent in doctors’ offices or the ER. There are certain advantages to a life spent in bed: my bed is really comfy, and I’m an expert at cheat codes for The Sims 3. I have connected with some amazing, supportive people through my blog, and I value that. But mostly, the way I spend my days is boring and lonely and depressing. Add to that that a lot of society is committed to rhetoric that characterizes me as a worthless drain on society. Then consider that the government, in its failure to sufficiently fund anti-poverty programs, is basically telling me that I don’t deserve to be able to meet basic needs like shelter, food, heating, and medical care. For disabled people, society’s message is that you either have to be an inspiring super-achiever (think Oscar Pistorius or Stephen Hawking), or you’re a totally useless burden on society. It’s pretty impossible to feel awesome about myself and what I do all day when I’m inundated by those messages.
So here’s a radical idea: let’s stop teaching people that their value as humans depends on their health, or whatever markers of it society is currently obsessed with. Let’s stop implying that people are only unhealthy because they choose to be and that bad health is a moral failure. Instead, let’s teach ourselves that we don’t have to earn the right to exist. Let’s teach each other that we’re already good enough. Let’s create a society that includes people with disabilities instead of shutting us out of our communities. Let’s change our perspectives so that we can see and value the contributions all of us make to the world. Let’s start valuing people as they are, not as we want them (or ourselves) to be.