1.2 Health and the media
There is certainly no shortage of coverage of health topics in the media. Every night television has at least one, and frequently two or three programmes about aspects of health. There are specific programmes about health such as Health Watch, and there are other programmes with a health aspect such as environmental pollution, as well as programmes on the politics of health services such as hospital waiting lists. There is also no shortage of warnings about health. Health can be seen as a set of risk factors with a lot of do's and don'ts about how to achieve health. Some of this is conflicting and certainly confusing. But health also comes as a commodity; people are selling health, or at least selling products with a health promise. Mail order catalogues, among other things, sell remedies for bunions, ingrowing toenails, snoring, soap for fungus and skin problems and incontinence aids. Also on offer are dietary supplements to cure all ills and to give you vitality, longevity and even tranquillity. The promise of this ‘health’ is total wellness and a resource for living.
Is health too much of a factor in our everyday lives? We are bombarded with health information but are we getting the information we need and can we process and use it, or are we in danger of information overload? Crawford, a medical sociologist, thinks that health is too pervasive:
A new popular health consciousness pervades our culture. The concern with personal health has become a national preoccupation. Ever increasing personal effort, political attention, and consumer dollars are being expended in the name of health. The past few years have witnessed an exercise and running explosion, the emergence of a vocal and often aggressive anti-smoking ethic, the proliferation of popular health magazines, and the appearance with amazing frequency of health themes in newspapers, magazines, and advertisements for even the most remotely related products. Vitamins and other health aids are being consumed more and other items consumed less – all for health reasons. On numerous social occasions, and in spite of much professed rejection of concern or derisive amusement, personal health has become a favourite topic of conversation.
(Crawford, 1980, p. 365)
Crawford refers to our obsession with health as ‘healthism’ and thinks that this obsession is in fact unhealthy. His ideas on healthism are quoted in Box 1.
Box 1: Healthism – the one-dimensionalization of well-being
In healthism, healthy behaviour has become the paradigm for good living. Healthy men and women become model men and women. A kind of reductionism or one-dimensionalization seems to occur among healthists: more and more experiences are collapsed into health experience, more and more values into health values. Health, or its supreme – ‘super health’ – subsumes a panoply of values: ‘a sense of happiness and purpose’, ‘a high level of self-esteem’, ‘work satisfaction’, ‘ability to engage in creative expression’, ‘capacity to function effectively under stress’, ‘having confidence in the future’, ‘a commitment to living in the world’, the ability ‘to celebrate one's life’, or even ‘cosmic affirmation’, ‘Health is more than the absence of disease …’ writes one of the new pulpiteers (Goldway, 1979, p, x), ‘it includes a fully productive, self-realized, expanded life of joy, happiness, and love in and for whatever one is doing.’ In the ‘high-level wellness’ ethic, ‘health is freedom in the truest sense – freedom from aimlessness, being able to express a range of emotions freely, a zest for living’ (Ardell, 1978). In short, health has become not only a preoccupation; it has also become a pan-value or standard by which an expanding number of behaviours and social phenomena are judged. Less a means toward the achievement of other fundamental values, health takes on the quality of an end in itself. Good living is reduced to a health problem, just as health is expanded to include all that is good in life ….
More values are incorporated under the rubric of health and thereby lose the clarity of distinctiveness.
(Crawford, 1980, p. 380–1)
Essentially Crawford is arguing that health is taking over all or certainly too many aspects of everyday life as happiness, self-esteem, creativity, confidence and so on are subsumed under the umbrella of health. But he argues that, as these experiences are collapsed into health experience, they lose their richness, clarity and distinctiveness.
Crawford goes on in another part of his article to suggest that healthism is a middle-class phenomenon and that it also represents the medicalisation of everyday life. In later parts of this course we will be exploring other views which are more optimistic about the current emphasis on health. These are views which see the potential to get away from a preoccupation with disease and illness and the medical dominance of health and to give control back to individuals and communities. However, Crawford’s work acts as a useful word of warning as we explore the many and diverse meanings of health.