Ehrenreich: How You Perceive Wellness Is A “Class Cue”

Barbara Ehrenreich

I like so much about this interview with Barbara Ehrenreich. The way she thinks … it’s like she lives in my head (except for: “I pretty much eat what I want and indulge my vices, from butter to wine. Life is too short to forgo these pleasures.” Life would be short, and pretty miserable, if you spent it indulging your vices.)

Barbara Ehrenreich Gets Pumped For Death, Huffington Post Books, 20 May 2018

Back to the parts I liked:

Ehrenreich, now 76, decided to forgo preventive medical care treatments, like cancer screenings, annual exams and Pap smears, after determining that she was, in her words, “old enough to die.”

“I decided that I was also old enough not to incur any more suffering, annoyance, or boredom in the pursuit of a longer life,” she writes.

Preventative screenings have become a money-making scam. They are designed to draw you in to the medical system which itself is designed to “nickle and dime” you (to use Ehrenreich’s book title).  One thing she didn’t mention (a hint of her net worth) is the cost for all these tests and treatments. Even if you have insurance (for which you pay a premium, even Medicare, even though we’ve already paid for Medicare through our taxes), the deductibles, copays, coinsurances, and other ridiculous fees and costs (the prescription drug donut hole!) that the medical industrial complex thinks up to gouge people with, and hides within a structure of complex fees, make these treatments out of reach for many. People think it has to be this way. It doesn’t. You should be able to visit a provider and have that provider bill your insurance company. That’s it.

Why she wrote the book:

I was seeing the best minds of my generation, people who were progressives and activists, being completely absorbed by their cholesterol levels, their diets, their exercise regimens and every kind of preventive test that they are talked into by their doctors.

She was careful to qualify: “middle-class people, I should say.” Because, as I just mentioned, these preoccupations aren’t typical for many working class people. That’s been my experience working in a practice.

She’s right. Many middle-class people have become completely absorbed with their labs, their diets, their exercise routines, their DNA! There seems to be no shortage of technologies to assist them in their self-absorptions.

Next … The interviewer said, “You dedicate a not insignificant chunk of the book to your own sort of workout habits.” So, the article spends space talking about exercise. Ehrenreich exercises. She thinks there are right reasons to exercise (fun) and wrong reasons (adding a few more minutes to your life). I fall somewhere in between. I mean, sometimes it’s not fun walking in the rain, but it improves my overall wellbeing. I feel better, mentally and physically, regardless of whether it extends my life.

I really identify with this next piece. This is the biggest reason why I want to keep on living:

The big thing that I regret is that I will not live long enough to know so many things, to answer so many questions. Like what is the universe made of? I want to know more about black holes. I mean, there is so much I want to know, and it’s not going to be found out in time.

And this! I just can’t with this anymore…

I was talking about the Silicon Valley billionaires. A lot of them have become immortalists. They’re determined to escape death or to postpone it well into the three-figure area. And I guess if you’re a billionaire and you’re one of the smartest people on earth, or so you’re told, why should you die? It’s annoying. It’s insulting. I don’t know. It’s hubris to an impossible degree.

Here she talks about “wellness” as a class clue.

There are two things.

For most working people, wellness is a pretty menacing word because it’s something a company brings in ― a wellness program, which simply means they are going to be monitoring your weight and your blood pressure, perhaps, and you have to participate in this program or you will be financially penalized. It’s none of the boss’ business. Just like it’s none of the boss’ business whether you smoke joints on the weekend or something, and it doesn’t even reduce the health insurance costs of the employer! So it just becomes another exertion of power of the rich over the less rich.

Then there’s the rich people’s wellness industry, and that’s usually what is meant when you say wellness “industry,” and that has a lot of components ― it has things like luxury wellness spas around the world. I did enjoy reading about some of the places, where you go and you meditate and you chant and you get massaged and have hot stones placed on your body. It’s all about very expensively pampering yourself, rubbing ointments and oils and vegetable derivatives into your skin. Another part of it is the celebrity wellness gurus ― Gwyneth Paltrow is the most famous ― that sell super-expensive things you could apply in some way to your body and offer you procedures you could be doing to yourself that would really take up your whole day. So it’s about narcissism. You want to be a narcissist? Here is what you do, step by step.
I always, while looking at these fabulous indulgences, keep in mind all the people in the servant class ― who have to clean up after these other people, serving them their neurotically curated little meals, who are crewing their ships or whatever, their yachts. There’s a lot of labor, often low-paid labor, that goes into allowing some people to live these lives of obscene indulgence.

Finally, the difference between health and wellness:

The only word for a long time was health. It was what we desired and what we tried to get. And I think what happened is that our society became so unequal, so class-polarized that we needed new words. Now we talk about health for the average person or the poor, and we talk about wellness for those who can afford this sort of holistic self-pampering approach.

2 thoughts on “Ehrenreich: How You Perceive Wellness Is A “Class Cue”

  1. David Dreyfus

    I like these excerpts too. What she has done is created a health plan. I believe you covered this some time back, many (most) doctors do not discuss end of life wishes with their patients. This means that people keep showing up, getting care, and waiting until care is no longer going to fix them or they must give up control of their care to others. Having a health plan to guide these end of life decisions makes great sense. End of life discussions shouldn’t be avoided. If done early enough, it can be joyful as you look back on life and look forward to what is left. Finally, having a plan provides a sense of control at a time in life when one is often losing control of their freedom due to aging.


    1. Bix Post author

      I like what you say here. I especially like: “people keep showing up, getting care, and waiting until care is no longer going to fix them or they must give up control of their care to others” I think this could apply to people of any age. As if health resides somewhere in the medical establishment, and not in our behaviors.



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