Health Projects

One outgrowth of the health lifestyle currently common among middle- and upper-class Americans is the rise of the “health project.” The idea of a health project draws on the idea of a body project. As originally developed, the latter term referred to the intense focus that many young women now bring to shap- ing their bodies and to the ways that those activities are now considered both important work and central to individual identity. Similarly, we can speak of a modern health project, which is common among many affluent Americans, that requires individuals to actively protect their health and defines this as important work central to individual identity. This health project reflects both the modern emphasis on appearance and the long-standing American emphasis on the virtues of hard work.

Embedded in the concept of the health project is the idea that good health comes not from God, nature, or genes but from individual hard work. Similarly, the health project is based on the assumption that the body is both unfinished and highly malleable, so individuals can always choose to shape and control it. Conversely, the health project suggests that those who don’t take on this work are “slackers,” less morally worthy than those who do so. For this rea- son, it’s not at all unusual to hear lawyers, businesspeople, and others offhandedly mention their various athletic injuries, not only to elicit sympathy but also to subtly suggest their “moral” worth. These ideas are reinforced by a wide range of media (television shows, magazines, advertisements, and others) that constantly exhort us to work on our diets, “abs,” and cholesterol levels.

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