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Why health as cultural capital can be harmful

Why health as cultural capital can be harmful

American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson coined the phrase “health is wealth” way back in 1860. While I hear people invoke that phrase today, one of the reasons we collectively value “health” so much is that it’s become a major source of what’s known as “cultural capital.”

“Cultural capital” is a term and idea developed by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu back in the 1970s and 80s. It describes any non-economic resource that signals power and value and promotes social mobility in society.

When Bourdieu was actively writing about cultural capital, relevant class distinctions included clothing and music. Almost 40 years later, health is a modern form of cultural capital. For many people, this means performing “health.” This performance involves:

  • Having a body that projects messages about “health.” These messages include physical fitness and eating nutritious food. However, perhaps the strongest message is having a thin body that suggests the person has invested time, effort and money into its maintenance. 
  • Having behaviors that signal that you’re healthy or trying to get healthy. For example, ordering the salad instead of the burger, going to the gym, buying only organic food.
  • Talking about things like health, exercise and nutrition at every opportunity in a way that your culture or community approves of.

The more resources you have, whether in the form of financial wealth or cultural capital, the more resources you can accumulate and the more social connections you likely have access to. If you have a lot of resources and capital, it’s easy to maintain or even improve your status. If you have lower status or fewer resources, you will likely struggle to even maintain your current status.

This is true whether you’re talking about money or health, and this is messed up!

From parent to child: spreading cultural capital

I have many adult clients who are trying to perform “health,” even though they certainly don’t talk about it using the language I discussed above. And this pressure to perform is something that parents today are transmitting to their children.

Research published in the journal Social Problems in 2021 (“Healthier Than Just Healthy: Families Transmitting Health as Cultural Capital”) found that when parents encourage “healthy behaviors” in their kids, it’s not just because they want their kids to be well. They also do it because having a “healthy child” is a form of cultural capital, both for the child and for the family.

This plays into kids’ body size, height, athleticism (including what sports and other “active” activities they participate in) and what foods are in their lunchbox. It can also apply to how neat their hair and clothes are, and how straight their teeth.

This is similar to how parents who belong to a marginalized group may focus on their children getting a college education, because they know that education is a form of cultural capital that can help offset the lack of cultural (and often financial) capital that comes from being, say, Black, brown or Indigenous. Trying to accumulate health as cultural capital may also be an underlying cause among people in marginalized groups who develop restrictive eating disorders. “If I can’t be white, at least I can try to be thin.”

But performing “health” and adhering to what society says is “correct” parenting puts pressure on both parents and kids. It’s also dripping with anti-fat bias.

Note: The research paper I mentioned is long and much of it is dense sociological-speak, but if you scroll down to the paper’s “Findings” section, I think you will find it interesting. The “Discussion” section that follows is also good.

Why health-based cultural capital is bad news

There are some big problems with cultural capital based on health (or what we deem as the appearance of health). One is that health is a resource that, if you have it, can be lost through no fault of your own. Another is that it’s a resource some people never have access to, again, through no fault of their own.

We associate health with being thin, tall, young (or having a “youthful” appearance), able-bodied and white, with visible muscle tone. We associate un-health with being short, fat, untoned, older, disabled and not white.

Some of those characteristics are genetically determined, either completely or partially. Some of those things require ample discretionary income (gym memberships, facials or plastic surgery to try to look “forever young,” leg-lengthening surgery…yes, really). And people in fat, Black, brown, Indigenous, trans or disabled bodies — bodies that unjustly communicate un-health — are likely to have less access to quality, compassionate healthcare, making caring for true health more challenging.

(Ironically, when fat kids, adolescents and teens are put on restrictive diets, this can prevent them from reaching their pre-destined height, because calorie restriction impedes growth.)

Health-related aspects of cultural capital are now one of the most major sources of class distinction, although “health” is construed in specific ways. Specific classed performances of health-related behaviors, talk, and physical appearances are paramount and only sometimes relate to actual health. Instilling cultural capital through “health” performances is largely about transmitting social class, yet it directly and indirectly has implications for health.

From (“Healthier Than Just Healthy: Families Transmitting Health as Cultural Capital”

Some of those negative implications includes stress, anxiety, and unhealthy body image. If performing “health,” which largely means physical health, erodes our mental health, is it really worth it?

What you can do to change the culture

Each of us is worth more than our appearance or the state of our health. Creating a world where we value qualities like kindness, humor, intelligence and creativity more than someone’s health or appearance of health is a huge goal that we will probably never see in our lifetimes. But that doesn’t mean we can’t create change in our respective corners of the world.

  • When you notice yourself making assumptions about someone’s health or inner qualities based on their outer appearance, compassionately check yourself. Ask yourself, “Is this true, or is that what I’ve been taught to believe? Can I trace those beliefs to their origins?” It might be that you had parents or partners who enforced the idea of health or appearance as capital. It might be that you simply picked up those beliefs from living in our society.
  • When you notice yourself worrying that you will be judged as lacking if you’re not “performing” health via your words, appearance or behaviors, ask yourself, “Is this true? If so, who will be judging me unfairly? Is this someone important to me? Will their judgment make a tangible difference in my life? If no, can I ignore their opinion, whatever it is? If yes, is this someone I can, and am willing to, have a conversation about these things?
  • When you observe a friend or family member making assumptions about someone based on how they are or aren’t performing health, can you gently but firmly challenge those assumptions? Even if all you do is plant seeds (we rarely if ever persuade someone to change long-held views or beliefs in one conversation), it can be an important discussion.
  • If we feel internal pressure to eat a salad, go to the gym, lose weight, wear clothes that make us look thin, engage in “’good’ food, ‘bad’ food” talk, we can gently ask ourselves why. Who are we doing it for? Is it really making us healthier? Is it making us happier?

Recommended Reading

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Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, is a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance writer, intuitive eating counselor, author, and speaker. Her superpowers include busting nutrition myths and empowering women to feel better in their bodies and make food choices that support pleasure, nutrition and health. This post is for informational purposes only and does not constitute individualized nutrition or medical advice.

Seeking 1-on-1 nutrition counseling? Carrie offers a 6-month Food & Body program (intuitive eating, body image, mindfulness, self-compassion) and a 4-month IBS management program (low-FODMAP diet coaching with an emphasis on increasing food freedom). Visit the links to learn more and book a free intro call to see if the program is a good fit, and if we’re a good fit!

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