Most sophomores in college probably avoid articles about death, but I suppose I skew more morbid than the typical college student. Regardless, I clicked on that Facebook link to the article about Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book, “Natural Causes,” a look into when it is acceptable to die and the cultish way that we attempt to fuel longevity. It really got me thinking about what health is and what it even means. Much of our rhetoric around health is tied up with this thought that certain habits will extend your lifetime. Avoid fatty food, exercise more, eat more greens, never touch fast food. We insist kids practice these habits before they even know the meaning of the word “health.” But despite fads being proven wrong time and time again and the fact that people with “unhealthy habits” live long into their golden years, we still buy into the fad of longevity and blame people for their own deaths.
I realized that I bought into all of this without even knowing it. As Ehrenreich astutely observed in an early excerpt that was published in the Guardian, we fall into the habit of blaming the victims for their “impious” deaths. I practiced this at times, viewing poor people and their “poor habits” as an unfortunate consequence of poverty and something that I wanted to help eradicate. But I never interrogated my own views on what eating fast food and smoking actually meant and how I naturally infused my own thoughts with judgement. We view these choices as a lack of will to live or, Ehrenreich simply put it, as a passive form of suicide. Embroiled in my own upper-middle-class world of white mothers in yoga pants talking about Pilates and white fathers who drink kale smoothies every morning before running, I never stopped to consider what their goal was. What is the point of all they do for “health?”
This is where Ehrenreich brings in our old friend: death. All of this is supposedly in pursuit of a longer life, pushing off your last breath. But we continue to ignore the evidence that all of this might actually mean very little. Some of these fads may even propel you to an early grave, and even the things we demonize don’t necessarily guarantee an untimely death. But when is it okay to not feel guilty for our indiscretions when it comes to society’s expectation of health? And when do we stop blaming the dead for their demise and start blaming ourselves for not giving much of the population the resources to live the life we deem “necessary?” As with all issues, there is no conclusive answer to this question and no conclusive way to find it, but my own start to my journey has already made my view shift.
Conversations with one of my friends about food were a good starting point to interrogating my ideas about “healthy” and “not healthy.” She said that she hated the values that we put on food. Junk food and health food are labels that come with a type of person tied to them and neatly packaged with a bow. The fat woman in sweatpants at McDonalds and the model in tight leggings and a tank top. I was disturbed by how quickly and easily my mind made those associations despite there being no actual intrinsic value to either of those food choices. Tendencies can help you feel better, such as not having a sugar heavy diet or doing some light exercising, but to value these practices as “better” and valuing the people who practice them as “better” is absurd. It is not someone’s failing to eat McDonalds or to otherwise indulge in something “bad.” At the end of the day, food is food.
Ehrenreich provides us with a good answer to all of this. At 76, she has accepted death as a part of life and the valuation of habits and our judgements about them as hurtful and insane. She will go to the doctor if something seems wrong, but in the meantime, she won’t pursue life so much that she forgets to spend time with her grandchildren. Personally, I like this policy. By all means, I will never neglect my needs, but rather, I will enjoy life without feeling as though I have to stress about the elusive thing we call “health.” You might even spend so much time running and buying kale that you forget to stop and enjoy yourself. In the end, we all die someday, so we should enjoy our time here while we have it.