Back in June I spoke at CLITfest on a panel titled ‘body politics: food, health, fat, disability, class and moral virtue’. This is adapted from that talk. I want to start out by talking a bit about the way our culture views the human body, and by extension issues around health, fatness, disability and food. I’m actually going to use an example from science fiction, specifically from the BBC show Torchwood. For those that aren’t familiar with it, Torchwood is a spinoff of Doctor Who, it’s about a covert British government agency who deal with matters of extra-terrestrials, time travel, and other science-fictiony type threats to humanity.
There’s one episode about a pharmaceutical company that creates a drug called Reset, which cures any and all diseases. It works by ‘resetting’ the body back to its ‘factory settings’. I’m really interested in this idea, that the human body has factory settings. Because as we all know, people are not created on a mass production line in a factory. But I constantly hear people talk about bodies as if they were created in a factory—as if all bodies (and brains) are ‘intended’ to be a certain way, and have certain capabilities. I hear that ‘humans weren’t meant to eat this food’ ‘humans are supposed to be able to do this thing’ ‘humans weren’t intended to live in these places’. And what this does is, it constructs this idea that any body with any kind of physical or neurological impairment, or even difference, is a wrong body, a body which does not fit its intended ‘factory settings’ and therefore needs to be fixed. I find this particular discourse rather illogical. If you’re an atheist, which I am, then presumably you subscribe to the theory of evolution, and you should understand the importance that genetic, physiological and neurological diversity play in human survival. If you believe that humanity was created by a benevolent omnipotent higher power, then you’ve got to trust that that power knows what it’s doing and that human variation is there for a reason. The question we need to ask is, why is this particular discourse about bodies so popular? Whose needs does it serve? What kind of social impact does it have, especially on people who have physical or neurological impairments? There are two dominant narratives around illness and disability. One is the disabled person as an object of pity: the helpless victim of fortune who needs our charity. The other is the disabled person as object of contempt: the person whose hardship is their own fault, because if they just had the correct attitude and worked hard enough, they could overcome their disability. This attitude is also applied to fat people, and to poor people. We constantly hear that the reason that poor people have poor health is because they’re stupid, lazy and don’t take good care of their bodies. Al Nisbett’s cartoon voiced something that a lot of middle-class Pākehā really do believe: that poverty and poor health are people’s own fault because they spend their money on the wrong things (alcohol, cigarettes, pokies).
I once heard a nutrition expert discuss child poverty on National Radio and he explained that oatmeal and liver are foods that are very high in protein and also very cheap. So poor people would be fine if they just fed their kids on liver and oatmeal. How many parents think your kids would be ok with that? When I was a kid I was a very fussy eater, I refused to eat fruit, vegetables, and most kinds of meat. My dad used to get so frustrated that he’d tell me ‘food is medicine, you don’t have to like it, just eat it because it’s good for you’. But that’s not really how it works. People aren’t machines, and food is more than just fuel. We don’t just need it to be nutritious. It also has to taste good, and we need more variety than just two kinds of food. Those aren’t frivolous things, there’s a good evolutionary reason for them. Food that tastes good is likely to be food that’s safe to eat, and that contains the nutrients we most need (fat, carbs, protein). There’s also a good evolutionary reason why most of us get bored if we eat the same thing all the time: the wider the range of food we eat, the more likely we are to get all our nutritional needs met. So not wanting to live on liver and oatmeal is actually pretty reasonable. The idea that people can control their health—and therefore should be blamed for being ‘unhealthy’—is expressed in different ways. Sometimes it’s the idea that you manifest your destiny with your thoughts, sometimes it’s the idea that you can get what you want by praying, sometimes it’s the idea that you can overcome poverty, disability and illness through sheer willpower, determination and hard work. What all these have in common is the idea that if individuals are disabled, it’s their own fault. Blaming the individual for their problem is consistent with neo-liberal ideology, which is all about dismantling collective responsibility and replacing it with individual responsibility. If, as Margaret Thatcher said ‘there is no society, there is only the individual’ then there’s no such thing as social responsibility. It’s a convenient idea because it lets us off the hook when it comes to supporting other people. Taxpayers don’t need to fund sickness and invalids benefits if we can all agree that those people are to blame for being sick or disabled. We don’t need to put energy into supporting people with mental illness if we think that they could overcome mental illness through positive thinking. We don’t need to build public spaces that don’t disable people if we believe that anyone can overcome physical impairments through hard work and willpower. The other convenient thing about blaming people for their health problems is that we don’t have to be scared that it could happen to us. We can tell ourselves that we won’t get sick because we exercise and don’t eat meat, or because we say positive affirmations every day, or because we are pious and God-fearing. In reality we have very little control over our health, which is a scary thing. Life is much easier if we believe that we can protect ourselves from illness or injury. It’s ironic that we have a culture where people’s health is viewed as an individual responsibility but at the same time a public matter that we all have a right to pass judgment on. As if poor health is an indication of a lack of moral virtue. Here’s something else to think about: in a capitalist economy which bodies are valued? Bodies that can perform waged work and thus contribute to the economy. Bodies that aren’t able to do so are excluded and disabled because they are disposable to the economy. In The Hunger Games: Mockingjay the Capitol bombs a hospital full of injured rebel soldiers. Katniss doesn’t understand why the regime would do such a thing, until Gale points out that to the Capitol, people are only useful if they can perform the kind of work the Capitol considers productive. Injured people do not make good workers therefore they are disposable. At this point I’m going to get personal and talk a bit more about my own experience. I have ADHD with inattentiveness. I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 17. This has to do with sexism—girls with ADHD are less likely to be diagnosed, because of the different ways children are socialised based on their assigned gender. It also has to do with racism. As an immigrant from a Westernised but not Western country, teachers didn’t expect much from me. If I was quiet in class and had trouble understanding some material they assumed it was because my English was bad or because I wasn’t very bright. Growing up with undiagnosed ADHD meant constantly being told that I was lazy, unreliable, inconsiderate, stupid, and socially inept. So it’s not surprising that I ended up with anxiety disorder, clinical depression, and a tendency to distrust my own judgment—something that’s actually really dangerous and makes you vulnerable to abuse. After I was diagnosed my family’s reaction was mostly relief. Now that they knew what was wrong with me they thought they could fix it. And that goes back to what I said earlier about thinking there is only one kind of brain that people are ‘intended’ to have. They didn’t see neurodivergence as a difference, but as a problem to be fixed, and so I saw it the same way. I’d read that you could manage ADHD through a high protein, low carb diet. I became really obsessive and controlling about my food intake, and I often went without eating if I couldn’t find food that met those requirements. You don’t need a psychology degree to work out that it was my way of ensuring that there was at least one thing in my life that I had control over. One of the ways that I’ve managed ADHD and mental illness is by taking medication. At some points in my life it’s been really helpful, and at other points I decided it was doing more harm than good so I stopped. What I learned is that you’re stigmatised if you do take meds and you’re stigmatised if you don’t. I’ve had friends tell me that taking Ritalin to help me study for exams is like taking steroids to play competitive sports. I’ve also been told ‘you don’t need drugs to be happy, you should just be happy’. On the other hand, I once had a close friend ask me ‘have you considered taking anti-depressants?’ while I was having an anxiety attack. I had family members get angry at me for refusing to take Ritalin because I didn’t like the anxiety it caused. There’s a lot of pressure on neurodivergent and mentally ill people to take medication so that we can just ‘be better’. Refusing medication is seen as a selfish act, as if we’re forcing people around us to have to deal with our impairments or difference when we could just choose to be normal. Psychiatric medications are not magic potions. They won’t instantly fix mental illness or make you neurotypical. They also aren’t a cop-out or a crutch that people rely on because they’re weak. Meds are a strategy that people can use to manage mental illness and/or neurodivergent. It’s a strategy that some people will find helpful at some times, and other people will not. It’s up to individuals to decide for themselves whether the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. Neurodivergent people do not have an obligation to ‘fix’ themselves so that they can be like neurotypical people. Being neurologically atypical isn’t a disorder, it’s a difference in the way someone’s brain works. It only becomes a disability when someone is disabled by the society they live in. I know there are particular things that make it hard for me to participate in society: when university courses consist of three-hour long lectures (because I can’t maintain concentration for that long) or when social occasions are at noisy bars or cafes (because I can’t block out background noise, so I can’t concentrate on conversations). Our goal shouldn’t be to change people, so that all bodies and brains have the same abilities (because that ain’t gonna happen). Our goal should be to restructure our society so that we don’t disable anyone. One last point about meds: the existence of psychiatric medications is not an evil capitalist plot. What is an evil capitalist plot is that people’s access to medications is limited, and access to information about medications is also limited. The problem with the pharmaceutical industry isn’t that it manufactures drugs, it’s that it charges money for drugs. We need to distinguish between the industry and the product. The problem isn’t medicine, it’s capitalist economic relations. The thing about capitalist economic relations is: it requires a particular set of moral values to sustain it. It requires a culture where most of us have very little power and autonomy over our lives, but we’re expected to take full responsibility for ourselves. We need to turn that on its head. We need to build a culture of collective responsibility, where everyone contributes according to their ability and gets according to their needs, so that no one is disabled. We need to build a culture that respects both community and individual autonomy, where people are trusted to be the experts on their own bodies, and everyone’s bodily autonomy is respected.