Tag Archives: healthism

A self-indulgent account of my journey from ‘Vanity’ to the nature of the contemporary self

identity-self-vanity-nikolas-roseI started this blog because I was interested in understanding the history of the self. Based on the reading I’ve done so far, I can see that various academic disciplines (philosophy, sociology, critical and cultural psychology, cultural and intellectual history) have substantially different “explanations” for how and why the self has changed. I can identify explanations that seem compatible with my intuitive preconceptions (not the most objective approach, I know), but it’s clear that the underlying assumptions of any one explanation are open to legitimate criticisms — most of which I’m not even aware of.

As a result, I hesitate. I am a complete novice with respect to this particular subject matter, and my background in these disciplines is the result of an incomplete and haphazard self-education.

Nevertheless, I seem to have arrived at a strong preference for the explanations offered by Nikolas Rose. Many (though certainly not all) of Rose’s fundamental ideas are indebted to Foucault. I am not a student of Foucault, but — thanks to Rose — I have come to appreciate such concepts as problematization, governmentality, responsibilization (an extension by Rose of governmentality), normalization, techniques of the self, and the conduct of conduct.

I would much prefer to avoid using terms such as these in what I write. I appreciate the efficiency of communication that academic terminology provides, but unfortunately it limits one’s audience. The nature of the self is potentially of interest to anyone, not just to those who engage in academic investigation and debate. Fortunately, Rose writes with the intention of being understood by a broad audience. Read more


Self-help as psychological healthism

Photo: Paul Ruscha/© Ed Ruscha/Courtesy of Ed Ruscha and Gagosian Gallery (“Me”, 2001)
Photo: Paul Ruscha/© Ed Ruscha/Courtesy of Ed Ruscha and Gagosian Gallery (“Me”, 2001)

[W]e are in a new era of mass self-help, wherein the laboratory and the writer work together to teach us how to change ourselves, rather than our world. (Boris Kachka)

I’m interested in self-help for the same reasons I’m interested in healthism. “Self-help is the psychiatric equivalent of healthism,” I once wrote. Healthism is an anxious preoccupation with one’s physical health, encouraged by those who profit financially from inducing anxiety. Self-help is an anxious preoccupation with one’s psychological self, encouraged by an abundance of self-help literature, personal seminars, and tell-all TV shows. (More fundamentally, of course, the proliferation of self-help advice is the result of a profound twentieth century change in how we understand ourselves, which is the subject of this blog.)

Both healthism and self-help assume that individuals are ultimately responsible for their problems, whether medical or psychological. Personal responsibility relieves society of the expense and inconvenience of creating healthier, more equitable lives for its members. Robert Crawford pointed this out in 1980. That early glimmer of a potential trend has done nothing but escalate. Read more


Critical psychology – a new home?

critical-psychologyAnthropology, sociology and history – disciplines that consider a variety of cultures, social conventions, and historical times – make a valuable contribution to understanding the self (along with the many other valuable contributions they make, of course). They force us to acknowledge that what is true for one specific culture, society, or historical time is not universally true.

Because psychology considers itself a science, with theories based on empirically validated findings, it lacks the benefit of the self-reflective qualities intrinsic to humanist disciplines. This leaves psychology open to criticism.

For example, there’s the charge that psychology has been guilty of assuming that what it observes in Western (North American and European) cultures must be true for other cultures, as well as for our ancestors. In an excellent article on this point, The Weirdest People in the World (PDF), the authors point out that those who live in Western societies not only differ psychologically from people in the rest of the world. WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) people are in fact quite exceptional compared to other cultures and to their ancestors. Americans, in particular, are so unusual that they stand out as “outliers among outliers.” (See also on this: Ethan Watters, We Aren’t the World.) Read more


The self-conscious blogger

I blog therefore I amBlogging makes me uncomfortable, but it’s a discomfort that interests me. It’s not the discomfort itself I find interesting (especially my own), but the experience of being a self in a public space, the self-consciousness that engenders, and the reflection that provokes on what it’s like to be a conscious self.

When I first started blogging, I didn’t feel self-conscious. I was probably too preoccupied with identifying and pursuing my subject matter. Within the first year, however, the idea of “the self-conscious blogger” started to appear regularly in my private journal. Why am I doing this? Should I be accomplishing something? How much should I care about not accomplishing what I only vaguely perceive as my intention?

Self-consciousness is usually associated with self-presentation: How am I perceived by others? How does that make me feel? I had no interest in blogging about my personal self, i.e., my private life. By the time I’d accumulated a year’s worth of posts, however, I could see that 1) my choice of subject matter revealed my interests and 2) what my interests conveyed was an incomplete picture of how I understood myself. Read more


Why the self?

As I mentioned in the last post, it was my personal experience of healthism that motivated me to start a previous blog. When I now ask myself why I want to start a blog on the self, I find multiple motivations.

I decided to write a few initial posts where I talk about this. I’m admittedly not aware of all that motivates me, but I should at least be able to reveal some of the personal prejudices I bring to the subject matter. As it turned out, the idea of a “few initial posts” got a bit out of hand, and I now have 24 “introductory” posts. To help you locate what might be of interest, I’ve summarized those posts below.

Washing hands

The self-conscious blogger
Blogging makes me uncomfortable, but it’s a discomfort I find interesting. To blog – to participate in social media — is to be a self in a public space. This creates self-consciousness and stimulates reflection on self-presentation. It turns out what I needed to do to alleviate my self-conscious discomfort about blogging was to acknowledge that learning in public is the best way for me to learn new things. That doesn’t make it any more comfortable, but – I tell myself – it’s only a blog.

Learning in public
For me, writing is a way to pursue new interests and incorporate new knowledge – a type of active learning. As an ex-academic, however, am I willing to be seen learning in public — warts, insufficiencies, and all? After considerable initial hesitation, I’ve changed my mind about this. Read more


Starting a new blog

Century of the SelfWhen I started the Health Culture blog in 2008, I was interested in the question Why was there such an increase in health consciousness (healthism) in the last quarter of the 20th century? I had a personal interest in that question because, in retrospect, I could see that healthism had had an impact on my own life.

I ended up writing mainly about external influences on attitudes towards health: an increased emphasis on risk that proved an irresistibly lucrative opportunity for pharma and other financial interests; neoliberal ideas in the 1980s that created an economic and political climate conducive to holding individuals personally responsible for their health.

I doubt, however, that healthism happened solely in response to external influences. We don’t all of a sudden turn into a herd of sheep just because direct-to-consumer ads proliferate or neoliberal policies prevail (you may respectfully disagree, of course). Those of us in advanced Western countries must have been ready and willing to believe we were personally responsible for our health and therefore obligated to adopt healthy lifestyles. Read more