“Quantified self”; “naturopathic medicine”; “nootropics”; supplementation and diet manipulation. There’s a lot of it around. In the world of lifestyle fitness (as opposed to performance fitness), the idea of the perfectibility of the self, achievable through certain regimes, foods, and ideologies, is prevalent. I think that a lot of the discourse around these ideas is dangerous and distasteful, for a variety of reasons.
Qui bono? Who is profiting? The best way to sell a product is to create a need for it. If you are in the business of selling “health”, the first step is to create a market by inventing a theory of illness. If your customers are generally healthy people by standard measures (athletic, active, not ill in medical terms), by finding ways of measuring things that will convince them that they could be more well, and that they are negligent by not pursing that end, you have a ready made market. Actually, this is the least malignant aspect if this sphere. So long as harm is not done, businesses are making money and people think they are healthier. If it is placebo, does it really matter? Perhaps it keeps healthy but worried people out of the congested standard healthcare sphere, which is a positive byproduct.
However, it does create people who become reliant on the approval of their chosen practitioner or guru for their “health”. They only think they are ok if they are told they are. And those whom they are paying have a vested interest in finding more areas where they fall below an arbitrary standard of purity. More money must be spent on more testing, more expensive nootropics, supplements, dietary changes. Suddenly, those who can’t afford or choose not to engage are deemed not as healthy. The tribal mindset is established, which perpetuates the idea that those who don’t follow the accepted way of thinking are the “other”: dangerous, ignorant, and diseased. This is the by product of the magical thinking that lies at the heart of most of this sort of practice: I took x product, or y diet, or z supplement and I’m HEALTHY. You are sick because you didn’t take x,y, or z. Nothing else matters, context is irrelevant.
I think many practioners genuinely believe in what they are doing, and are not deliberately setting out to deceive. They are taking advantage of a healthcare system which is very poor at preventative medicine, and of an affluent, individualistic society in which a healthy body has become both a status symbol and an instrument of self expression. If the body is the ultimate expression of ones individuality, the thing that bestows worth on its owner, it must be curated and perfected as far as possible. This is where things get malignant. Both the individual and the practitioners they are paying engage in the illusion of the body as a separate entity, to be manipulated to the benefit of its owner. This splits the body off from the person, as though it is something outside, something that can be bought, traded, and controlled. But it can’t be controlled. And it isn’t separate. Just as the individual is not separate from the societal context in which they exist. You get ill or injured. You have an accident, bereavement, loss. Suddenly the perfectability model is irrelevant. The person who has gone deep into this way of thinking searches for what they did wrong, what thing did they miss that led this thing to occur. It becomes their own personal failure. They didn’t try hard enough, do it right, spend enough money on the programme.
The other area of concern is the power of suggestibility and anecdote. We want to believe so our critical faculties get suspended as we hear the heavily framed story of someone who has “got it right”. Again, context is ignored. Blame is shifted back onto the individual who is made to feel inadequate for not “getting it right”. And so the cycle continues.