Virtuous Strength

Strong Is The New Skinny, And That’s Not Necessarily A Good Thing—go read this. I read it this morning, and it helped trigger some clarity for the loose thoughts about health and “health” culture (and its inevitable overlap with disability) that have been percolating about my mind without clear form.

A couple of years ago, a woman praised the trustworthiness of a young man to me. “He’s a great kid,” she said, “doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, doesn’t do drugs. Really a good kid.” What, I wondered, do not drinking, not smoking, and not doing drugs have to do with whether I can trust him? Aren’t teetotalers perfectly capable of lying, cheating, stealing, and all of the other human vices? But the woman’s description was perfectly normal to her, and probably would’ve been to most people who’d heard her. It’s a truth generally assumed that abstinence from various substances harmful to the body is a moral virtue as well as a physical one.

Maria Kang, a conspicuously slim woman, surrounded by her three young children, displaying the caption
When this image was circulating around Facebook, I dashed off a hasty rebuttal that quickly became, to my surprise, my most popular post thusfar. I wrote:

Imagine a stranger comes up to you and says “You should be doing ballet. There’s no excuse for not doing it. Anybody can be a ballet dancer if she works hard enough!” You’re perplexed, since you’ve never actually aspired to be a ballet dancer, and you say so. The stranger replies “But I know you can do it if you work hard! I believe in you!”

The next day, you’re walking in the park, and another stranger approaches you and says “Shouldn’t you be practicing your ballet exercises instead of wasting time here at the park? What’s your excuse?” Again, you say that you’re not interested in being a ballerina. The stranger huffs and says “I was just trying to be HELPFUL! I guess you’d rather wallow in self-pity than take personal responsibility!”

This happens to you over and over again. Eventually, you start to wonder if maybe you really are a bad person because you don’t do ballet. You sign up for a ballet class, but find that you hate it, and you keep tripping over your feet. You realize that you have no natural aptitude for it, and you don’t enjoy it, so you sensibly decide there are better uses for your time and energy.

But people keep nagging you over and over again to become a star ballerina. You complain to your friend about it, and she says “Being a ballerina is hard work. You have to keep practicing.” You explain once again that you don’t want to keep practicing; you just want to be accepted as the non-ballerina you are. Your friend sighs and says, “If you’re not happy, stop complaining and do something about it! You can always find time to practice harder!” You say, “But the reason I’m unhappy isn’t because I want to be a better ballet dancer; it’s because I want people to stop nagging me.” Your friend replies, “You can keep making excuses, or you can take personal responsibility for your own level of ballet skill.”

After several years of having variations of these conversations over and over again, you start to get angry. Why do other people care so much about your dancing ability? Your klutziness does not harm them in any tangible way. Why do people act as though you have some sort of obligation to become something that isn’t who you are and isn’t what you want to be? Why do people treat you as though you’re shirking responsibility, when you never signed on for any ballerina job?

Then someone sends you a picture of a woman. She has no arms, no legs, sixteen children, three jobs, and seven incurable chronic illnesses, and she is a world-class ballerina. She’s smiling and saying “If I can be a ballet dancer, anyone can! What’s YOUR excuse?”

Would you find her words “inspiring”? Helpful? Kind? Or would you find them maddeningly offensive?

Not because you’re jealous of her. Not because you hate ballet dancers. Not because you don’t appreciate the hard work and talent that goes into ballet dancing. But because you are sick and tired of people treating what ought to be a value-neutral personal choice of hobby as a moral obligation.

The word “Excuse,” in 21st-century American English, is used exclusively in the context of obligation. You need an “excuse” to skip school or work, need an “excuse” to disobey an order or commit a crime, need an “excuse” to do something you aren’t supposed to do, or fail to do something you are supposed to do. The word is used exclusively in the context of obligation. It has no other usage or meaning. Saying that someone needs an “excuse” for doing something or not doing something always, in every usage, presumes that the person has an obligation to not do or to do that thing.

THAT is why Maria Kang is controversial. Not because people “hate” her for being physically fit. Not because people are “jealous” of her. Not because her demand that we need to make excuses for our bodies “hits too close to home.” Not because we are whiny, excuse-making babies who refuse to take personal responsibility for our insufficient physical prowess.

It’s because her words are built on and perpetuate the idea of physical fitness as an obligation.

I could point out, and other people have, that people may have all kinds of reasons beyond their control for lacking physical prowess (disabilities, chronic illnesses, and so on). But that’s not the point. The point is that fitness isn’t an obligation, any more than ballet is. No one NEEDS an excuse. No one owes physical ability or health to anyone.

Remarkably popular, that.

What I didn’t say, but might have if I’d been inclined to continue in that vein, is that the false obligation of physical fitness, the false morality of health, is competing with, and sometimes surpassing, our actual obligations, our actual moral duties, as traditionally defined by our relationships to other people. Defining ourselves as good people because of our diet and exercise regimens frees us from the burden of more difficult, more meaningful ways of becoming good people, like kindness and compassion to others, advocacy for the good of society, care for our children, and abstinence from abuse and oppression of our fellow humans.

Certain studies validate what many observe anecdotally—exposure to organic foods correlates with judgmental attitudes. More strangely, the use of hand sanitizer seems to influence people to feel more conservative and more sexually judgmental, and washing one’s hands can influence one to feel more morally judgmental overall. To an extent, it makes sense: our society so strongly moralizes health behaviors (like food choices and handwashing) that engaging in socially-approved health behaviors leads one to feel morally superior, which in turn increases the judgmental impulse.

In a larger sense, the entire cultural focus on self-improvement reflects the same skewed moral priorities. There’s nothing wrong with self-improvement, of course, but whether it’s in the form of physical fitness, introspection, perspective, gratitude, learning, or mindfulness, self-improvement is not a moral substitute for service to others. It’s all well and good to learn to appreciate the little things, take up painting, read poetry, practice yoga, meditate, exercise, eat healthier foods, stop and smell the roses, and so on, but these things do not help anyone but oneself.

In this lies the problem of “poverty porn,” a close cousin to disability inspiration porn. Charitable organizations commonly use “poverty porn” to coax viewers to donate to programs that assist the poor, and while this is in many ways dehumanizing and misguided, at least the intent is still, somewhat, to help those in need. But the new trend in poverty porn is detached from any fundraising goals; it is simply meant to “inspire” relatively-privileged people to be grateful for things in their lives that they may take for granted. This cannot even be justified with the claim that the images are meant to help any disadvantaged people. Inspiring a middle-class American to put her problems in perspective of those of a homeless refugee from the Congo does nothing to help the homeless Congolese refugee; it only benefits the middle-class American. I doubt any hungry child has ever thought “at least my pain will help some rich person realize that her broken iPhone isn’t that bad.”

Perhaps its relative uselessness is part of what makes self-improvement culture and health-fitness culture so appealing. It’s easier to fill one’s moral voids by exercising or studying art or undergoing psychotherapy than to view one’s fellow humans as one’s equals. Which is certainly not to say that they’re mutually exclusive, of course. One can lift weights and do volunteer work, read literature and give to charity, eat a balanced diet and be kind to children. The problem comes when doing things “for yourself” is seen as a morally equivalent act to doing things for others, because both are grouped into “doing good things.”

All of which, of course, plays into narratives of disability. Disability is perceived as unhealthiness (and thus, if health is morality, as immorality), and in particular, mental disability/neurodivergence is explicitly linked to forms of immorality. “Wrong” and “mentally ill” are used interchangeably. Violent or otherwise morally reprehensible behavior is commonly cited as both a result of a mental illness or disability and as worthy of punishment. Of course, this is illogical—if “mental illness” were an actual meaningful phenomenon, surely characteristics of such an illness should not be punishable any more than fevers or rashes are. The fact that people instinctively recognize that violent and other morally reprehensible behavior is punishment-worthy (that these things are choices, not symptoms) logically ought to make them question the entire psychopathology model, in which disapproved-of behaviors are “illnesses” akin to physical illnesses. Alternately, if they are wedded to the idea that disapproved-of behaviors are “illnesses” no different from diabetes or cancer, it would logically lead them to question their commitment to punishment for these behaviors. But rather than question either of these cultural sacred cows, the medical model and the behavioral model, they instead adopt the belief that disapproved-of behaviors are illnesses, and that being ill is itself immoral.

This goes a long way towards explaining the social obsession with ferreting out “fake” ill or disabled people, the extreme contempt for those with “untreated” psychiatric disabilities, the passionate hostility to the anti-cure movement for autism and other neurological and neuropsychiatric disabilities, and the general lack of sympathy for the right to refuse unwanted medical treatments. If disability is “illness,” and illness is immorality, then to choose not to do everything in one’s power to “treat” or “cure” one’s immoral illness is no less than an unforgivable sin.

We have (we are told) a moral obligation to be “healthy” (where “healthy” also includes able-bodied and neurotypical). If we are “unhealthy” (which includes being disabled, neurodivergent, or mad), we have an obligation to do everything in our power to become “healthy” (and neurotypical and able-bodied). By contrast, others and the general society have no obligation to help “unhealthy” or disabled people. No obligation to grant us equal access to education, equal access to employment, financial benefits, accessible housing, accessible public spaces, accessible technology, or even basic civil rights to make our own decisions about our own lives—especially if we have made the immoral, sinful choice not to do everything possible to “heal” ourselves.

For the disability movement to get any sort of a foothold, we need to challenge this view of health, obligation, and morality, and we need not to do it in the form of “Disabled people can be healthy too” or “Disabled people have valid excuses for being unable to participate in socially-approved health behaviors.” While both of those statements are true, they miss the larger point. A society which defines “healthiness” as a moral obligation, defines disability as outside the boundaries of “healthiness,” and prioritizes the moral obligation to “self-improvement” (including “healthiness”) above moral obligations to other people, is a society which is fundamentally hostile to the equality of disabled people.

Further recommended reading: “What Makes A Health Citizen? Workout clothes, Risk and Fitness” by An Anonymous Newtown Autistic

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30 Responses to Virtuous Strength

  1. acest tip says:

    Hi i am kavin, its my first occasion to commenting anywhere, when i read this article i thought
    i could also make comment due to this brilliant piece of writing.

  2. Extranjera says:

    This is just an amazing post. I wish I could have expressed my thoughts on the image as clearly as you have. Sharing this far and wide. Thank you.

  3. Aaminah says:

    Everything about this post is amazing. Thank you so so much for writing it!

  4. You are setting up a few straw men here. I don’t expect everybody to look like this young mother and I don’t expect everyone to take up ballet. But the health consequences of other people’s decisions to live a sedentary life have a profound impact on all of us. One of the dire lessons from 9/11 was that many (non-disabled) NYers were so profoundly out of shape they couldn’t get down more than a few flights of stairs that day–that had severe consequences for them and the more in-shape people who couldn’t get past them. This is not about disability–this is about a personal choice that too many of us are making, and it DOES affect others. Anyone who’s ridden a subway train can tell you that oversized passengers make it impossible for the seats to accommodate all the riders. The same is true on commercial airliners and buses.

    We do have obligations to ourselves and to each other. And I’m not minimizing how difficult it is to get into a routine of doing physical activity. But there are profound repercussions for a society where people assume a ‘right’ to be physically (or mentally) lazy.

    • adkyriolexy says:

      Humans naturally come in a variety of sizes. We don’t chop off people’s legs if they’re too tall to fit through a door. If stairwells, trains, and buses—all of which are built by humans, to specifications chosen by humans—cannot accommodate the people who use them, isn’t the flaw in the design of these spaces rather than in the bodies of the humans who can’t fit them?

      • Ginger says:

        Great response. The original comment seriously floored me. It reads like something Ron Swanson would say. I mean really this was a lesson learned from 9 11? I really doubt if that many people died from fat people blocking a stair well. I think the fireball from hell did that job.

      • Frequent Flyer says:

        Yeah, that’s all good and well, but when you have to sit next to the guy on the airplane who literally takes up 1/2 of your seat, sure, blame it on design flaw, but also, sorry, I can blame the guy and airline for not making him buy two seats, but he’s just plain too, sorry, fat. And if one is of that size, one needs to make it right by the other passengers and rightfully purchase the two seats that he needs. This was my very personal and horrible experience this summer on a flight from Denver to Baltimore. The worst 4 hours of my life as himself thought nothing of resting on my body for the entire flight. Disgusting. He had the gall to say to me: oh, I was hoping this wasn’t a full flight.

  5. jeneen says:

    Well note that we are moving to a socialized healthcare system it is my business as tax payer if you are obese if i’m paying for your healthcare. Buying your own insurance smoke over eat whatever. But if your on Obama care…..

  6. BCS says:

    “We have (we are told) a moral obligation to be “healthy” (where “healthy” also includes able-bodied and neurotypical). If we are “unhealthy” (which includes being disabled, neurodivergent, or mad), we have an obligation to do everything in our power to become “healthy” (and neurotypical and able-bodied). By contrast, others and the general society have no obligation to help “unhealthy” or disabled people. No obligation to grant us equal access to education, equal access to employment, financial benefits, accessible housing, accessible public spaces, accessible technology, or even basic civil rights to make our own decisions about our own lives—especially if we have made the immoral, sinful choice not to do everything possible to “heal” ourselves.”-
    I have a HUGE problem with this paragraph. I don’t think the author should draw a parallel between ‘unhealthy’ people and ‘disabled’ people. While some people become disabled because of choices they make about their health, many others become disabled for a host of other reasons, most involuntary. But there are many, many unhealthy people out there who are not disabled, neurodivergent, or mad. And, being unhealthy (but not ‘disabled’) affects more than just the person who is unhealthy; in many cases it affects many, many people. While I don’t like the fact that the woman in the photo is showing off her six-pack (this only glorifies her beauty, a little vein for me), it’s a good bet that her health will allow her to easily take care of her family and herself for a long time. For her kids, her health will give her the strength to lift them, the endurance to keep up with them, and the overall health to (probably) live long into their lives. For her, her commitment to health will also allow her to work a wide variety of jobs (if she chooses to), play a variety of games and sports, travel, and whatever else she wants to do for fun, reduce her need for healthcare, and, very importantly, give her the tools she needs to teach other family members and friends how to also be healthy. It will reduce her chances of many diseases, improve her overall mood, and make her a more productive member of society. Yes, we should make sure that anyone with an impairment has equal rights and access to many of the things listed in the article. But, we also need to give our entire society the tools they need to be physically healthy, and make it one of the more important pillars of their lives.

    • adkyriolexy says:

      Strength, endurance, ability to do jobs and sports and travel? Those are disability issues. You can’t very well claim that unhealthiness and disability are completely separate, unrelated issues when your argument for the importance of “commitment to health” is that it will prevent one from becoming disabled. And there are many people who don’t have high physical strength or endurance, can’t play most sports, and may even be unable to be employed at most jobs, who would very much insist that they are as valuable contributors to society as any able-bodied marathoner.

      • Kheris says:

        I think there is a large difference between people who are capable of making choices that will determine the state of their health and those who are not. Telling people there is ‘no excuse’ for not doing what YOU do assumes everyone can choose to follow YOUR path or one very much like it. It is not true. It is also not true that choosing a life of inactivity is without consequence, including a moral consequence in terms of its impact on the self and others. The use of healthcare services is usually the focal point in the discussion. I would be the last to suggest we deny healthcare services to people because they make poor choices, but let’s not sweep reality under the rug.

      • adkyriolexy says:

        But what healthcare services someone does or doesn’t use does not affect your life, therefore it is not a moral issue.

      • Frequent Flyer says:

        >>>But what healthcare services someone does or doesn’t use does not affect your life, therefore it is not a moral issue.

        Really? Vaccinations? TB tests? Even rabies run ins? Hmmm. The choice to not choice in to those healthcare service could very much affect my and/or my childrens’ life. Science. It’s a thing.

    • jenn says:

      Great post.That part got me too. My husband was very healthy before the brain cancer :( now the steroids to avoid brain swelling so he didn’t have a sister have awful side effects such as an insatiable appetite & horrible swelling (ironic huh) :(

  7. Joab says:

    Well written and insightful. I do agree that what one person does for him/her to keep in shape and maintain a healthy lifestyle should not be projected upon others. I would like to argue the fact that within society and the now required Obama Care, it can be viewed that if you are not doing what you can to maintain a healthy lifestyle you are contributing to the burden on the healthcare system. Since Obama Care is being funded by our tax dollars, people who do not exercise are subject to all kinds of diseases (obesity, diabetes, etc.) and therefore will impose a greater burden upon society. I don’t feel that you have to be the typical “gym rat” or the follow an excessive organic diet, I am just saying maybe we need to be better educated on the harms of our accepted sedentary lifestyles and the fast food diet that is so accepted now days.

    • adkyriolexy says:

      People who do exercise are also subject to various healthcare costs (sports injuries, for one). We don’t ban exercises that could injure people, because we respect people’s rights to make choices about their own bodies. The same ought to apply to those who choose to exercise less than what someone else considers “enough.”

  8. Angela says:

    I think personally that when I allow myself to be ‘selfish’, and take time out for me, wether it be going to the gym, walking my dog or reading for an hour, it makes me happier, more open minded, clearer in my judgment and more secure in my self. When I make better food choices, I have more energy and feel more positive, and that in turn effects how I spend my time with my family/children, which can only be a good thing. When I don’t exercise and when I make bad food choices, I am moody, tired, and not inclined to be sociable or want to have positive family time. I know the lifestyle I prefer.

    • adkyriolexy says:

      I agree that there are benefits to self-improvement, whether it be in the form of food, exercise, rest, reading, or whatever the case may be. These actions are not inherently “selfish” in the sense of prioritizing the self over others. The problem is with framing self-care as a moral obligation, or creating the twisted logical claim of an “obligation to oneself.”

  9. Sam says:

    This article is HIGHLY flawed, though I DO agree with the basic premise that ALL of us are commanded to help those who are ill, disabled or less fortunate than we are- REGARDLESS of how they became that way. Frequently, their circumstances are not a result of anything they have done. However, more & more frequently in our gluttonous, lazy society of high-calorie/low-nutrient “foods”, disease is a direct result of personal sin. Nursing homes are becoming more & more filled with people who suffer from diseases & deterioration that are a direct result of the bad choices they have made. We MUST minister to all of them as best we are able, but we must also not enable them or others to continue down that destructive path. We cannot (short of oncoming socialism) force anyone to eat healthy foods, but I believe we are required to give incentives for healthy choices, dis-incentives for making poor choices, & the education to discern the difference. Our responsibilities neither begin nor end at taking care of the sick & infirm. It is a matter of body STEWARDSHIP. Our bodies are AMAZINGLY complex & highly specified – and are GIFTS to us. The quality of our service can depend greatly upon how well we care for this gift. Excessive focus is just as wrong as complete disregard, though if we are serving in a place where healthy foods & habits are unavailable, service takes precedent. It is a fine balance, but – we are headed (as a society) down a path of self-destruction, for which we WILL be held accountable. We must also learn to recognize the valuable contributions that can be made by nearly everyone – no matter what they “cannot” do – almost everyone CAN do SOMETHING!

    • adkyriolexy says:

      “Disease is a direct result of personal sin.”
      What makes behaviors that can cause disease in an individual in any way, shape, or form comparable to “sin”? A sin is an immoral action. Unhealthy behaviors are not immoral, because they do not affect others. Therefore, an ethical system which classifies them as “sins” is clearly a deeply flawed one.

  10. These are very valid points. I can understand peoples frustration when others are telling them what they should be doing. On the other hand I got back in shape very quickly after having my son and was shocked at how mean other moms were to me because of it! Lets all just leave each others lives alone already!

  11. Ginger says:

    Brilliant post. One of the best I’ve read on a blog. How people can defend a the link between morality and health astonishes me. These are NOT given terms but rather they are ideas embedded with meaning as you so eloquently point out. I’m sharing this post with everyone I know and am finding my own thoughts and writing on this topic to be heavily influenced with what you are sharing here.

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  13. Nurse Tammy says:

    I think most reasonable people could agree that we each have some degree of moral obligation to maintain some reasonable level of healthy lifestyle lest each of us become an 800 pound person who requires a crane and 2 firetrucks to get them from place to place, but I totally agree with the premise that excuses are tied to obligations and the gal with a muffin top and size 10 jeans is not morally corrupt when juxtaposed to the mom with the washboard abs.

    I think the ballet analogy is a rather good one here. I am slim and healthy but my favorite vegetables are candy corn and pumpkin pie and I get sick of lectures about my diet. I hate all those veggies that others seem to find glee in telling me how much they love – I dont care, leave me alone about it.

    Your thoughts on the “good kid” definition are also thought provoking…in my experience, any time I hear the phrase “good kid” it is either preceded or followed by an explanation of something decidedly NOT good that they did. I remember with acutely almost 40 years ago realizing that I would never be in the “Honor Society” because I struggled at math. In the pit of my stomach I realized that they were considered “better than” me. Why was I (despite any other actions I might display) not honorable? I would have been fine with me if they had the “Super smart and good at math” club or even the “Academically Advanced” club, but “honor”? – that is quite a thing to claim for ones self and exclude others from. Our powers of observation show is that “washboard ab lady” doesnt make excuses about exercise (and yea for her) but she may very well not excel at something else that she makes excuses for.

  14. Jim the P.E. says:

    It would be different if we still lived in neighborhoods that fostered physical activity. Forty years ago, at least half of all school kids walked or biked to school. Now it’s about 10%. The same goes for adult commuters. We’ve built our communities around the car, and now we spend too much of our lives in them to be physically active.

    Even if we had the time and desire, there are no sidewalks to walk to school of work on, and no schools or jobs within walking distance. Wide streets encourage fast driving and make it harder and scarier to walk or bike.

    Is it fair to blame people for their lack of fitness, when at least some of the fault lies in our zoning laws and street design standards?

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  17. Jesse the K says:

    Here from a link dropped in weight-loss related MetaFilter about mental costs of weight loss.

    Your brain is shiny, thanks for sharing it.

  18. Bonch Nifkin says:

    Eh, I’ve read better.

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