On Blogging Against Disablism Day, D H Kelly explores the way that women, in particular, are held responsible for their ill health
There’s a very ancient tradition of blaming disabled people for their impairments. There are still cultures (and elements within our own) where disabled children are seen as a curse. Abuses of the concept of karma cast disabled people as evil-doers in earlier lives. Since the 2000s, The Secret and similar positive-thinking movements have blamed disabled people’s bad attitudes for their conditions. Even the most recent Conservative Manifesto, in rhetoric now familiar in British politics, suggests that some disabled people have only themselves to blame:
We will review how best to support those suffering from long-term yet treatable conditions, such as drug or alcohol addiction, or obesity, back into work. People who might benefit from treatment should get the medical help they need so they can return to work. If they refuse a recommended treatment, we will review whether their benefits should be reduced.
It’s an extraordinarily vague threat and there are only around 1000 people in the UK who are incapacitated for work where obesity is their main condition – a tiny group to mention in a general election campaign. However, the political capital lies in the perception that some folk are willfully disabled. Since our culture persists with the view of disability as a charitable status, with accommodating disabled people as an act of compassion, sick people who don’t look after their health are to be despised.
Our health and personal decisions made around our health should be morally neutral. Of course, if you have a contagious disease, then you must do your best to avoid passing it on. If you are drunk, over-tired or feeling faint, you must not drive or do anything else which may put other people in danger. However, things which effect our own bodies are our own business. It can be immensely complicated and messy, but people do, in general, act in their own best interests. As someone with chronic illness, who has been both poor and alone at times, I’m all too aware that sometimes looking after oneself in one respect, means not looking after oneself in another.
Women bear the brunt of being blamed for their ill health. To the detriment of absolutely everyone, our culture regards health as a women’s issue. We regularly lament that men won’t talk about their problems, won’t go to the doctor and won’t look after their health, but having concluded this, we largely give up on them and turn our attention to women who, we imagine, can be reached and helped and saved.
Men who fail to look after their health are often assumed to have their priorities in rational order; they have a serious job to do, maybe a family to support, they have serious demons which can’t be exorcised and thus their health falls by the wayside – almost every fictional hero over the age of forty has threatening symptoms he is ignoring or a drink habit that’s edging out of control. Women, however, are expected to look after themselves in order to look after everyone else. Overworking is a sign of detachment rather that dedication. We must support our families by being physically and emotionally accessible to them. Our demons are trivial, domestic, and can be dismissed with a slice of chocolate cake.
Women are supposed to be well-behaved, as daughters, partners and mothers. Even in the twenty-first century, there is far greater concern about women who drink heavily or are as sexually promiscuous than their male counterparts – even though men drink more, acquire more alcohol-related diseases, are involved in more alcohol-related violence and contract STIs at similar rates to women. Men are more likely to die of lung cancer, yet novel campaigns target the vanity of women smokers.
There’s also the very sinister but still prevalent idea that women need saving from ourselves. It is remarkable to me, in the aftermath of Channel Four’s Plus Size Wars and the subsequent #WeAreTheThey hashtag, the number of people who seem to imagine that fat women are blissfully unaware that being obese defies cultural beauty standards and is statistically disadvantageous to health.
These things impact terribly on people who get sick and don’t get better. While men often suffer from a sense of moral weakness – as if masculine willpower might allow them to soldier on through everything – women tend to be more analytical. We must have done something wrong; eaten the wrong thing, exercised too much or too little, not prayed or relaxed or had sex in the right way. And there are no shortage of folk around us to make suggestions. Especially if, by coincidence or as an effect of ill health, we happen to be fat.
Ultimately, all this falls away if we regard disability as a social and political experience as opposed to a charitable status. When we feel like we’re doing people a favour by treating them as equals, we want our sick people to be virtuous, inspirational and to endure their suffering with grace and dignity. We want our sick people to keep working hard not to be sick, rather than getting on with their lives as they are.
Today is Blogging Against Disablism Day 2015. You can read more posts here.
[Images is the the Blogging Against Disablism Day logo: a colourful square grid of stick men, including a wheelchair user and another holding a cane. Over the top it reads “Blogging Against Disablism Day”. This image was created by me and is available for use in relation to the day.]