I decided to make a list of the books I’ve recently read, browsed, or added to my reading list. This turned out to be a thought-provoking process. Although this may sound naïve, when I first imagined this blog, I didn’t anticipate that psychology would be such a major category in my bibliography. My main interest, after all, was the social and cultural history of the self. But of course the self is a subject of considerable interest to academic psychologists these days. The ‘psy’ disciplines – psychology, psychiatry, psychotherapy, psychoanalysis — have been incredibly influential in how we think of ourselves. That’s something I’m now beginning to appreciate more fully.
[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
When 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