What does health feel like? This question is challenging, especially if you are trying to be specific. According to S. van Hooft, a Dutch sociologist who never uses his or her full name, health is an enigma. It is ‘a state of being which is absent from consciousness and experienced only in its negation by disease and injury.’ I think, however, that a perception of health can be present immediately after an illness is over. When that lingering cold has finally departed and you can breathe easily, sleep well, and run as hard as you can during an impromptu soccer game, then you experience a bodily energy and power that are not yet taken for granted. This fleeting glimpse of ‘vibrant physicality’ might suggest what health feels like.
In an article entitled ‘Looking Good, Feeling Good: The Embodied Pleasures of Vibrant Physicality’ (2001), sociologist Lee F. Monaghan explores the representations and sensations related to health, noting that scholars have tended to focus on illness and disability in their research. It’s true that historians of medicine have been far more concerned with disease, or with historical attempts to prevent it, than with health per se. Perhaps the body becomes present as an object of study when it is malfunctioning, in pain, or unable to perform; that is certainly when it arises in the documents and archival records used by historians in their research. Suffering people represent their bodies and have them represented by others. Freud described this sick person as a particular kind of narcissist. When in pain, a person’s energies turn inward out of necessity, with the self and its physical needs overshadowing all other concerns. This claim reframes illness as a kind of selfishness, an intriguing idea at odds with current cultural understandings. It might be better to say that discomfort encourages internal rather than external action.
How many of us document our physical pleasures? Calm down. I am not talking about those naughty home videos now hidden under your bed. No one wants to see them. I mean the kind of vibrant physicality that interests Monaghan: the sheer sensation of health. I felt something like it a few days ago, while sprinting during a spin class. I closed my eyes and savoured the intensity of my muscles and their movement. This experience was not about how I looked; nor was it about bodily mastery, an argument used by many sociologists (yes I have been culling through the soc database lately) to explain the attraction of intense exercise. It was about being a body, a body that was insistently present, but in a good and expansive rather than limiting way.
Monaghan argues that weight lifting provides such an experience of pleasure. He claims that: ‘For individuals embroiled in the positive moment of bodybuilding, such activity is beneficial to mental, physical and/or social health.’ I found this statement to be a breath of fresh air when I read it this morning while sitting in my local bistro, drinking a cup of coconut cream flavoured coffee, an admission that is somewhat embarrassing. Many other scholars have linked bodybuilding with masculinity in crisis, desperate attempts to manage neuroses (neuroses should be treasured and not eradicated in my opinion, a topic for a later blog), or efforts to control the unruly body. As I mentioned in the previous post, I think bodybuilding pursues failure, broadly defined, rather than simply embracing a rigid kind of discipline. In any case, these accounts focus primarily on the bodies of men, especially those of gay male bodybuilders. When scholars consider female bodybuilding they contend that competitive heavyweight women defy gendered categories, while average women such as myself strive to conform to dominant norms of feminine beauty. Now that might be partly true, but wouldn’t there be easier ways to do that? Please post any suggestions you might have…
Of course the very definition of health differs historically and culturally, and these definitions inform our embodied experiences. In the dominant culture of the western world, health is regularly defined as looking good. Being healthy essentially means looking healthy, which involves appearing to be young and sexy. So bodybuilding is indeed one way to achieve that look, making it a normalizing practice that will produce positive social feedback in a multitude of contexts–as long as you don’t go too far and become obsessed. The acceptable limits on working out are equally culturally defined. One article I read, by psychology types who like to pretend they are doing something scientific by producing lots of graphs, assumed that going to the gym three times per week was reasonable, while five times per week constituted obsessive behaviour. Sounds dubious to me, but it was reported in chart form, so it must be true.
Has health regularly been conflated in the western world with the appearance of health? Maybe. It seems like appearance was key during the early modern period, when the French King Louis XIV had to prove that he had recovered from disease by walking in public, riding a horse for all to see, and eating huge meals before an audience. He was obliged to demonstrate that his body could perform these activities in order to bolster his rule. It is my original idea that official royal portraits (and likely other kinds too) were in large part representations of physical health and thus evidence used to justify the monarchy. In some ways, this understanding of portraits has not changed, as they assert corporeal well being, among other things. At the same time, displays of physical fitness and health are linked with power even today; those who look healthy are more likely to be trusted and believed.