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.
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.
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.
Tags: cancer, healthy privilege, illness and the workplace, life-threatening illness