When did talking about health get so offensive?

One day, back in grad school, I bought a King Sized bag of peanut M&Ms.  It was right before one of my more tedious classes with a lot of discussion of obscure literary theory and squinting at journal articles with teensy print.  The class was on the smaller end of the spectrum, less than a dozen students, and a few of us collected beforehand to chat. I offered around my M&Ms to share.

I knew one of the girls was a bit of a health nut.  Because I’d offered the candy to everybody else, though, I offered it to her: a polite gesture, more than anything, just to not have her feel excluded or like I didn’t like her.  (What?  I was one of those kids who said good night to every stuffed animal she had so it didn’t feel bad.  Leave me alone.)  She turned down the M&M, but then turned the offer into a long monologue of why refined sugar is bad for you, why she never touches the stuff, how awful her life was before sugar and how great her life is now. 

She’s a loving, caring person, who, as far as I can tell, would never intentionally hurt another person’s feelings.  She, too, is a writer, and writers tend not to be the most socially aware folk (or at least not in the circles I’ve run in).  There’s also a preponderance of oversensitivity, so a fair amount of squashing of feelings.  I think it’s part of why writers drink so much (among other reasons). Point being: she didn’t seem to get that her response was rude. 

But, of course, it hit a nerve for me, enough so that I remember the moment now, five years later, even though I knew she wasn’t aware that what she was saying was rude.  It felt, to me, though, that she was calling me unhealthy.  And are M&Ms healthy?  Of course not.  But I was 22 years old, working out two to three hours at the gym every day (I had a lot of nervous energy), and still hadn’t grasped that the workouts were causing me to have the appetite of a 13-year-old boy. (I’ve since cut down my workouts considerably, and can eat like a normal adult woman.  Kind of.) I knew I wasn’t unhealthy, knew I was working really hard to be healthy, and I didn’t like the implication that this one nutrition misstep, even if it was King Sized, deserved a public shaming. 

Most of us know the stereotype: That person who’s super gung-ho about fitness, obnoxiously so.  Maybe she’s a personal trainer or maybe she just reads a lot of health blogs when she’s supposed to be copyediting page proofs at the local publishing house.  Either way, she’ll yammer on and on about that this or that regimen is THE way to be healthy and live longer than Yoda. You want to engage her in conversation, but you’re afraid that she may just end up judging you for your choice in groceries or workout or less-than-ergonomic shoes. 

Of course, those who care enough about fitness enough to have meaningful opinions hold issue with the stereotype, and perhaps rightfully so.  Yet many get caught up in their monologues and inadvertently judge, like the girl in my class, without realizing that the stereotype was born somewhere.

Now, I’m the first to recognize that I’m a person who can get easily offended in discussions of health, that the girl’s purpose likely wasn’t to shame me.  I hold my tongue a lot because I know some of my responses are just moments of oversensitivity, residues of feelings of inadequacy of attempting to be healthy, inadequacy at being a fitness professional, blah blah blah, go to therapy already, Kat, why don’t you?

But sensitivity with regards to health is a common enough issue these days.  At my gym, whether folks would like to admit or not, there are tiny divides among the staff members, some rifts larger than others, with regards to how different people discuss eating and exercise in different contexts. Our managers sit us all down to tell us to be mindful of others when we talk about our latest diets or ideas in the break rooms; some people applaud the effort for more empathetic communication, some buck against it, wondering what’s wrong with simply saying your opinion.  It’s interesting seeing who responds negatively to which comments, which dialogues strike a nerve. Who we feel self-conscious eating around, exercising near.   All because of how people talk about health.

Some might say that talking about health is a lot like talking about religion or politics—tread gently.  Except unlike religion or politics, our health is our physical being, not an idea we adopt.  You could say to suggest someone lives unhealthily isn’t simply for her to have a silly belief, it’s to take up this whole act of existence incorrectly.

I initially wrote this post as a list of things people should consider when talking about health.  Rhetorical rules, kind of.  Then I realized a lot of the points stemmed from my own moments of sensitivity, which made me wonder what’s really going on here, and how does this affect both my discussions of health and others’? In moments of miscommunication, the fault could be on the speaker, the audience, or both.  Or perhaps “fault” isn’t the best word, because our understandings of health are so intrinsically tied to our persons, our identities.  To talk adequately about health, we need to understand ourselves and others as much as possible, to communicate sensitively.

Those rules I came up with?  Here’s an abbreviated version.

Listen – Better yet, ask questions.  The most “offensive” commentary in our breakroom usually isn’t meant to be offensive, but the person at hand generally doesn’t think to ask others’ opinions, to open up a conversation rather than a monologue.  Sometimes people assume others’ replies and respond to those (ie, I hate running.  You think running is good because it burns lots of fat, but here’s why that thinking is wrong), but it’s not the same as actually listening to others’ reasoning.  Chances are, if you don’t understand another viewpoint, it’s not because the other person is completely misguided, it’s because you haven’t explained to you in a manner that you can truly understand.  Heck, the person may have completely different opinions than the ones you assume she has.

More simply, if you want someone to care about what you have to say, then show that you care about what she has to say.

Know your audience – Basic rhetoric here: how you talk about an argument with someone who agrees with you is different from how you talk about an argument with someone who disagrees with you.  If you’re going to say you think Pilates is lame, it’ll come across a lot differently to someone who hates Pilates than it does to someone who loves Pilates. 

Perhaps more importantly, though, know your audience’s sensitivities.  You’re totally entitled to an opinion.  But if you’re treading on sensitive territory for your audience—for instance, saying people who do this or that exercise look inadequate in this or that way, when your listener does said exercise and has body image issues—you’re probably better off reconsidering how you state your argument.  It’s not that you don’t have a right to say what you think.  But you’re not going to convince anybody of it—in fact, you’ll probably turn people off to it—if you’re not empathetic to your listener.

Know the speaker – On the other side, if you’re listening to someone talk about her opinion and feel yourself being hurt/bothered/etc by it, take a step back and look at the person who’s saying it.  How likely is it that she’s making the argument without considering her audience? What’s going on in her life?  What might make her feel this way in particular? It’s a lot easier to swallow someone’s dogmatic views about food when you take it in context of, say, her currently tumultuous life or family history of obesity-related illness.

Know your context – In other words, is this the time and place for this discussion?  I think this was the major issue that occurred with the girl in my classroom.  How people will respond to a conversation depends on whether the conversation grew naturally, was invited by questions, or if it occurred without warning, completely waylaying another discussion.

Remember, it’s emotional – Health, food, and exercise are for most people intrinsically tied to emotions, self-image, and so on, whether the individual acknowledges it or not.  Saying, Well, it’s just my opinion, others can take it or leave it, prevents us from fully acknowledging how and why these opinions exist, why they hold so much weight with us. It cuts off the conversation before we get to the real meat of the matter: the discussion of gluten-free diets versus vegan versus Paleo doesn’t matter because of the details of the individual regimens, but because of what it means to us find the “best” way of eating. What we believe and how we act stem from our past and current psychological states, as do others’.  To try to separate belief from emotion will not only hobble our attempts to communicate with one another, but it will also prevent us from fully understanding the very topics we discuss. 


8 thoughts on “When did talking about health get so offensive?

  1. Sarah Thomas says:

    “Except unlike religion or politics, our health is our physical being, not an idea we adopt.”

    The historian and comparative culturist in me could unpack this for chapters.

  2. anniecardi says:

    I think the emotional part is so good to bring up. You can’t know someone’s history with food, exercise, etc. and how your comments might strike a nerve. The girl in your class might have thought she was being helpful by talking about how not having sugar is good, but I tend to felt attacked when people try to label foods as somehow morally bad. Should I eat a diet of just M&Ms? Probably not, but I don’t like being made to feel wrong by having a bag every so often.

  3. Eric Hubert says:

    As a personal trainer with 20 years experience and working on PhD in education, I have come to realize change never comes from someone telling you what to do. It is insulting.

    In that 20 years, I have also faced at least two life threatening illnesses, one that happens to be chronic and I still deal with on a daily basis. I eat what I want, I drink what I like and live my life as I like…We take in way too much information about what is supposed to be good for us without critically thinking about what the information says, whether it is right for us and whether we should prostitute that information to others…

    Eat your M&M’s and enjoy them…I do….

    • Kat says:

      It seems, too, like the huge amounts of information makes it really hard to discern what’s right/wrong/etc. Talking to others can help with figuring out what will work for the individual, but it’s like you said– it’s doesn’t come from saying “Do this” or even talking in excess about your experience and how it great it is. The most helpful conversations for me have been ones that simply helped me look at situations slightly differently– a new angle, say– not that prescribed one method or another as the right path.

      Thanks for reading, Eric! 🙂

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