Young, Fit, and Healthy: What Role Do Stereotypes Play on our Healthcare Teams?
“I wonder what she feels like in that healthy body?”
I remember one of the earliest days after I received my diagnosis. I moved as though I were slogging through mud as I contemplated the very dire prognosis of this newly named condition. Taking care of my one year old child took every bit of mental focus and physical strength that I had; there was so little cognitive capacity remaining with which to grasp even the language used to discuss this condition -- much less what it conveyed. Many of us spend the initial days, weeks, even months after receiving a serious health diagnosis in a state of shock created by grief.
I was in that shock when I saw a picture of a young model in a magazine. The image was one I recognized, because I had seen photographs like this my entire life: youthful face turned toward camera with hair styled, make-up applied, and an expression suitable to whatever her image was being utilized to sell. Her body was thin, toned, and adorned by elegant clothing and jewelry. She was white with symmetrical features and fell within the narrow band of what advertisers then presented as the norm for beautiful women. I had been deconstructing images like this one for years, teaching the college students in my classes to critique our culture’s presentations of a singular or very limited number of standards of feminine beauty.
But this day, mind hazy and energy diffused, I associated this women not just with beauty, but also with health.
Something spoke within me in answer to my question:
“You don’t know anything about her health. You just see the image that is being presented to you.”
Thank goodness for that voice! Without realizing it, I had already begun to place myself in a category of “unhealthy” based not on my diagnosis but on how I saw myself as different from the standards of what my culture deems to be healthy.
While it is true that I was (and am) navigating a serious illness, which often makes me quite sick (even critically so), it is not altogether true to say that I am unhealthy. Health is not a singular property that we either own or do not. Each of us determines what health means to us, and this can -- and probably is best to -- change over time. My mental, emotional, relational, and spiritual health are stronger in this moment than they ever have been, even though my heart failure is present, for instance. And one of my physicians routinely tells me I am “the healthiest very sick person” he knows.
That is not because I look like an image of a young, healthy, and fit person you would see in a magazine. It is because he, and I, both have broader notions of health than such images could ever convey.
That day when the voice inside me invited me to think again about the picture in front of me, I began to carefully examine the media images I came into contact with not only to determine the stereotypes they presented regarding beauty, race, class, gender, and sexuality -- which I had been doing for years -- but also to consider them in light of our culture’s stereotypes of what health and wellness look like.
What I have found throughout these two decades of careful study is that, not surprisingly, we are presented with very narrow visual representations of health. You may find it helpful to do a little study of your own. It’s simple and very informative! Here are some steps:
As you go throughout your day, pay attention to images of “healthy” people and “unhealthy” people as you meet them in whatever forms of media you consume -- television, magazines, social media.
Notice not only visual imagery but also the ways “healthy” and “unhealthy” are discussed in news stories and opinion pieces.
What are some patterns that you can discern?
How do they make you feel about your own health and wellness?
Once we have identified the stereotypes of healthy people presented in the media we consume, we are able to make choices. We can find images of health that include people like us. We can pay attention to the presence of wellness in the elders we meet, in those who may be differently-abled, and in folks who are navigating serious health conditions.
It is wise to evict unhelpful players from our healthcare teams, even if those players are seemingly simple images of strangers in magazines. Their presence on the periphery affects us greatly in how we perceive and ultimately how we approach our own healthcare. Because we are able to design our own healthcare team to suit our particular situations and requirements, we do not need to allow anyone or anything on our team that does not actively contribute to the work of the team as we define it.