Rewind 365 days to the Maxine Ali fresh out of university, emerging from months locked away in a library, completed dissertation in hand, finally free to work and to travel the world (or just scrape together enough money for a day of chocolate and waffles in Belgium), the last thing she would have said is ‘you know what, let’s spend another year knee-deep in books and journals analysing sentence structures and verb phrasing, exploring vowel shifts through history and wondering why ‘cloud’ is masculine in French (un nuage) but feminine in Spanish (una nube), and if then multilinguals perceive a cloud as male or female or neither or both… I was ready for something a little more easy-digest than the work of Foucault and Bourdieu, and to use my writing in a much less critical way. #PositiveVibesOnly as they say…
Except that’s not what happened. Linguistics, for all its conflicting ideas and measured pedanticism, stayed with me. The tools and ideas I’d spent the previous five years studying suddenly made perfect sense as I observed the industry I now worked in manipulate words to paint a prescriptively narrow picture of health and wellness that people only ever struggled to live up to. It was easy to understand why so many of us get lost trying to pull out information from such semantically loaded terminology and confusing definitions.
Then the problems surrounding ‘clean-eating,’ nutrition, evidence and fad claims began to emerge, but the more people tried to distance themselves from the backlash with lengthy PR statements, legal edits and sudden rebranding, the clearer it became that our issues were grounded in so much more than a single word or even what the movement promoted, but instead could be found in an overarching knowledge system signalled and created by the discourse of food, fitness and health overall.
So, I started talking about it and writing about it, bringing up the subject to various brands, influencers and professionals in the industry. Some dismissed me, saying I was delving too deep into a minute issue. Some resisted it, for I was threatening something many people had invested time, money and faith into. And then there were those that listened. The people who took on my perspective and began to look at the language of health in a new way. The interest was there and certainly the conversation sparked, but I knew I wouldn’t be satisfied until the wider discussion was not simply honing in on the problems of using a word or a phrase, but understood how even the absences in our language hold huge psychological and sociological significance.
I’d been researching the area for a while and toying with a lot of my own theories, and what I’ve been wanting more than anything is to be able to share this from a position of knowledge, with access to the literature and support from an academic community who also share my passion for balancing out the biases in health communication. When I came across the MSc I’ll begin in September (Medical Humanities at King’s College London), and read the course outline, nothing had ever resonated with my line of thought more than the questions that it sought to answer. ‘What is health?’ ‘What is illness?’ ‘How is narrative embedded in medical practice?’ and ‘how can the humanities be used to make clinical practice more humane?’ Well, damn. Science gets poetic.
Whilst I’m not seeking a definitive answer to these because I don’t believe one exists, what I want to learn and in turn help others understand is the role and importance of communication in health so that we can a) create a more personalised model for health advice and treatments based on the way experiences are communicated and b) not allow ourselves to be measured against an ideal health that doesn’t exist because under that rule, we will always be geared toward failure personally and as a society.
We’re all obsessed with getting evidence-based advice at the moment, but have we ever considered how much of health is rooted outside of objective science, in social and cultural ideology. How health and nutrition is equated with morality. How the marketed components of a healthy lifestyle (organic food, gym memberships, supplements and bespoke nutrition plans) are not easily affordable for many, and how, as a consequence, those in poverty or those who face long-term disabilities are necessarily deemed immoral and unworthy. That is the current prevailing message that wellness perpetuates, so it’s no wonder we’re all afraid of being unhealthy. We’re afraid of discrimination, and it’s something even science can’t fix unless we change the conversation.
So, above my passion for the subject is a duty as a writer to ensure that this can’t continue without at least being challenged. No, I’m not abandoning my goals as a health journalist and writer, and perhaps things won’t always be so heavy, but I want knowledge on my side to ensure that I am using my words for good on all accounts, and maybe to incite others to do the same along the way. That’s why…
If you have an questions about the course or just want to let me know your thoughts, please don’t hesitate to drop me an email. I’ll be sharing a lot more in my weekly newsletters so make sure you’re subscribed to those as well!