Earlier this week on WNYC’s newish program, Midday on WNYC, Barbara Ehrenreich spoke with guest host Kai Wright about her new book Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer. (Buy through this link and I’ll get a commission, or get it from her website.)
There were a lot of great insights into this interview, especially her critiques of medical testing, wellness, fitness, and mindfulness that mirrored a lot of Michel Foucault’s work, particularly that which deals with surveillance, discipline and what he calls “discourse,” knowledge that is produced by a power structure. Here are a few takeaways from the interview:
- Ehrenreich characterizes the escalation of medical testing to surveillance over the body, bringing to mind Foucault’s critical history of the panopticon as a technology of surveillance.
- Ehrenreich describes the dedication to fitness as a kind of control one exercises (ha!) over the body. In an age when people feel powerless over various social and economic conditions, exercise acts as a mechanism to maintain a sense of power.
- Ehrenreich argues that the contemporary obsession with wellness can function in two ways, largely dependent on economic class.
- For the working class, it acts as a form of Taylorist surveillance for the employer to manage the employee’s health. This is done in the name of reducing health insurance payouts but in effect trains the employee to shape his or her behavior.
- For the upper class, wellness is a form of conspicuous consumption, where rich people can show off their commitment to fitness through expensive workout regiments and pricey foods and nutritional practices. While Ehrenreich illustrates this trend with a wellness coach who advocates eating pearls to combat aging. I immediately thought of the boutique gyms that pepper affluent cities and communities that were the subject of a recent Washington Post article. The article describes a diversity problem—a disproportionate number of young, rich, and white people in an otherwise demographically diverse cities—at expensive, boutique gyms. However, I think that the diversity problem is largely due to the uneven distribution of wealth, especially among younger people who have ascended economically since the Great Recession of the last decade. Hence, these gyms function as a token of affluence and commitment to health.
- Ehrenreich also critiques the recent surge of mindfulness as Silicon Valley’s solution to the problem they created with digital devices and their distracting platforms. What began as a spiritual ritual practiced by Buddhists has been emptied of any religious properties and reduced to an app on a smartphone or Apple Watch.
I do quibble with one of her suggestions: to Google your health questions and add a few keywords such as “controversy” or “evidence based.” I think one of the reasons that so many people have become followers and practitioners of junk science is because of this very practice. On the Internet, good information and quack-pot theories are almost indistinguishable, especially to many who lack the training or experience in doing research.
Overall, however, I do appreciate her larger message that I would paraphrase as this: life is too short to worry about death.