‘Healthy Privilege’: ‘I’m Healthy, So Are You’

Posted on: August 14th, 2013 by

Sometimes paths are clear, and sometimes they are challenging walk-throughs. When people are healthy, they take the clear path for granted. Guess which path the ill must walk?

Blogger Carolyn Thomas posted a comment on my Illness and the Workplace post that piqued my curiosity. She mentioned the term “healthy privilege,” which I had never heard before. What I discovered turned out to be the catalyst for me to explore that term’s implications on how our culture views people who are ill.

What is ‘Healthy Privilege’?

In a post earlier this year, psychologist Dr. Ann Becker-Schutte modified Kendall Clark’s definition of white privilege in order to create a definition of “healthy privilege.” According to Becker-Schutte, “healthy privilege” is defined as:

“1. a. A right, advantage, or immunity granted to or enjoyed by healthy persons beyond the common advantage of all others; an exemption in many particular cases from certain burdens or liabilities. b. A special advantage or benefit of healthy persons; explained by reference to divine dispensations, natural advantages, gifts of fortune, genetic endowments, social relations, etc.
2. A privileged position; the possession of an advantage healthy persons enjoy over persons with illness.
3. The special right or immunity attaching to healthy persons as a social relation; prerogative.”

And Dr. Becker Schutte added her own commentary on what “healthy privilege” means:

“Healthy people enjoy the privilege of bodies that work in the ways that they expect, free from regular pain or suffering, without extraordinary effort. Healthy privilege allows healthy people to assume that their experience is ‘normal,’ and to be unaware that coping strategies that work for them will not work for someone dealing with illness.”

Thomas’ post, titled Healthy Privilege: When You Just Can’t Imagine Being Sick, complements Becker Schutte’s post beautifully. Both posts are must-reads and highly insightful.

And they got me thinking.

Healthy privilege….

Perhaps that’s why my gym’s trainer looked at me with a glazed over expression when I told him that I wanted to gain confidence in my cancer-affected body. Perhaps he – the epitome of health and fitness – couldn’t relate.

Perhaps he was “healthy privilege” staring me in the face.

Perhaps healthy privilege was behind my boss’ and some co-workers’ inability to relate when I was going through cancer treatments. Through their actions and their words, they conveyed nothing was wrong with me despite my life-threatening illness. That’s why they took such offense to me setting boundaries on my workload. That’s why they thought I was being overly dramatic when I felt faint and needed to lay my head on the desk. That’s why they couldn’t – or wouldn’t – understand my fatigue.

No one at the company truly seemed to understand what it was like to be seriously ill.

Except me, that is.

The Healthy Privileged

Healthy people’s obsessions are far different than those of ailing or formerly ailing individuals. For the healthy person, tracking carbs, proteins, lifting weights, and setting pedometers can be all the rage, and it’s fun to track how much progress one makes. Those who’ve had one or more serious illnesses and still track these components to stay healthy are in a different position altogether. They may have the same intensity, but they know – they understand – what it’s like to be seriously ill. They don’t have the luxury of being untainted by illness.

Then there are the people who have always been healthy. Many of these individuals might see themselves as exempt from the dark burden of serious illness. The healthy privileged might believe that one stays healthy if one chooses to be healthy; that is, live a healthy lifestyle.

It’s an indirect way of blaming the victim. If one chooses to be unhealthy, then he or she will attract ill health. If one chooses to live a healthy lifestyle, then all good things will come to him or her. And while there’s a grain of truth to this, the truth is that things don’t always go according to plan.

Healthy Privilege Pic

And now I realize that prior to my breast cancer diagnosis, I was one of them – you know, the healthy privileged. I believed to my core that if I exercised and ate well, I could count on being healthy well into old age. I expected my body to respond well to all the care I was putting into it. I didn’t drink. I didn’t smoke. I didn’t do drugs. I was a runner. My pass-with-flying-colors doctors’ exams bored me.

I did have empathy for people who were seriously ill, however – although I never could relate to them. I was never seriously ill. How could I relate?

Then cancer came knocking at my door. And my card-carrying health privilege membership was immediately revoked.

After learning about healthy privilege, I now wonder: Is it true that many healthy people can’t or won’t relate to others who are ill? Are we that self-absorbed of a society that we no longer have empathy for those less fortunate? Or are we simply in denial as a culture?

It’s true that until one gets sick, one doesn’t really know what it’s like to be sick. But if we deny the illness exists, then we convince ourselves the ill person is just fine. And there’s nothing fine about that.

What can be done to educate others about healthy privilege and to encourage others in the non-ill world to be compassionate to the less fortunate?

Please feel free to share your comments, additional insights, personal stories, and other types of responses.

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9 Responses to ‘Healthy Privilege’: ‘I’m Healthy, So Are You’

  1. Carolyn Thomas had this to say about that:

    Thanks so much, Beth, for mentioning my Healthy Privilege article here – and especially for including Dr. Ann Becker-Schutte’s important work on this largely under-appreciated concept.

    I suspect that it’s not so much that our society is self-absorbed or not empathetic to others (although both may generally be true for many people!) but more that until others have walked a mile in my hospital booties, they just don’t “get it”.

    And why would they? Like you, I sure was guilty myself of “healthy privilege” around others who were struggling with a serious diagnosis, given my own lived experience with reliably good health (remarkably similar to your own) – right up until I suffered what doctors call a “widowmaker” heart attack.

    I now cringe with deep embarrassment when I recall the judgmental comments I used to make (out loud!) about those whose only sin was to become sick in a way that I couldn’t/wouldn’t understand.

    They say awareness is the first step to changing attitudes/behaviours – so thank you, Beth, for helping those who read this to become a little more aware.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      You are welcome, Carolyn. Thank you for contributing to the discussion. I believe that it takes time, but we hopefully grow for the better as individuals.

      Perhaps there should be more empathy training in the world today, perhaps especially in the workplace.

  2. Susan Zager had this to say about that:

    Beth I also thought of myself as a “the healthy privileged and wasn’t even conscious of it. When I got breast cancer so much changed. I also had empathy for people seriously ill, but my perception changed drastically as a result of breast cancer. I also am sure that there is no way I would ever blame anyone who gets breast cancer or seriously ill on them. It’s so important that this perception needs to change. I think that’s why I especially connect with doctors like Dr. Susan Love who most unfortunately had to go through cancer treatment. I really appreciate you bringing this out in this post as there really needs to be more “awareness” about this. What is most important is that no one be blamed for this horrible disease ( as well as many others) at any stage. When it comes to your questions about society being in denial, I wonder if this concept of “healthy privilege” would help people understand. All I know is I do and many reading this will. I hope it will help people have more awareness as you really touched on something that would be uplifting if society as a whole shifted their understanding.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      Our perceptions do change once we become seriously ill, don’t they? In one publication, I wrote about how I never knew what “ill” was until I got cancer. I also connect with doctors like Dr. Love; she “gets it.”

      And my dream is that our society be more compassionate as a whole toward one another. Empathy should be part of our collective psyche rather than something that must be taught.

  3. Kathi had this to say about that:

    Carolyn, I will have to read your post. I also think that, most infuriatingly perhaps, this may explain why even healthcare clinicians ‘don’t get it.’ However, it is incumbent on us clinicians to use our imagination & work on our empathy a lot harder, AND to listen to our patients & then TAKE THEIR WORD FOR IT!!

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Amen, Kathi! It’s infuriating, indeed, how some in healthcare and in every field, come to think of it, do not use their imaginations to be able to empathize with patients and each other. When I was really sick, that’s when people seemed to want to kick me where it hurts. And it hurt.

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  5. eileen@womaninthehat.com had this to say about that:

    Rewarding health and frowning upon illness starts early on. Many parents have young children in grade school where you get some reward for perfect attendance throughout the school year. Why would a teacher do this? It gives a bad message that not getting sick is something to aspire toward, as if it’s a skill to attain as opposed to luck. It’s not a child’s fault if he/she gets a cold or a fever. Are we training kids for the future workplace where you get a limited amount of sick days so you trudge to work in sick mode?

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Eileen,

      You are so right about rewarding health and having a negative attitude towards illness starting early. I remember when I was in high school and beyond, I thought that taking sick days was irresponsible. We are humans, not machines, and we get sick. We need to acknowledge this and accept illness as a condition of living. Thank you for your comment.

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