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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: health

body positive

(2000’s | therapese | “secure,” “self-confident”)

An expression with quite a prehistory. Before 1980, LexisNexis returns zero results for the exact phrase “body positive.” In the eighties and nineties, it turns up capitalized as the name of an English organization that helped people who had been exposed to the HIV virus. Back then, gay men wrestled with the decision of whether to take the test to determine if they were harboring antibodies. If you were “antibody-positive,” you had been in contact with someone who had the virus; you might not develop full-blown AIDS, but you could pass HIV on to others. The name of the organization seems to have evolved from the medical term. During the nineties, a U.S. group called The Body Positive, which seeks to help girls and women struggling with eating disorders, formed and has continued to grow since. Possibly an echo of “the body beautiful”?

By 2000, you could find the phrase used as an attributive adjective to mean “healthful.” A trainer or therapist might advise you to engage in “body-positive behaviors,” like going for a walk (if you need exercise) or relaxing with some comfortable music (if you’re wired). It was about corporeal soundness, but also warding off nervous and emotional strain — the two go together, after all.

By 2010, “body positive” had started to show up in the way we use it today, but it doesn’t seem to have taken off until the new decade. The phrase is widespread now, used to mean free of shame or guilt over one’s size and shape, particularly if larger than average — the phrase often appears near “plus-size.” We are told to separate moral judgments about ourselves from how we look, accepting our appearance below the neck proudly. The body in question, as far as I can tell, is always one’s own — and always a girl’s or woman’s — though one might refer to a body-positive group, which would be understood to consist of people who aren’t going to judge anyone else on how fat they are. While we are all expected not to mistreat others on account of their size and shape, being body positive requires you above all to accept your own form confidently, without falling prey to anyone else’s stereotype of how you should look. Once you’ve done that, it will be easier to avoid dismissing others on similar grounds.

Most often used as a predicate adjective following “to be,” the phrase may be a hyphenated adjective as well. “Body positivity” is the noun (I have also seen “body pos” for noun and adjective). The new vocabulary betokens the striking rise of a movement that has spawned minor celebrities and driven people all over America to argue over what it means or ought to mean. (Here is a recent discussion of the state of the movement.) The expression has come far in the last ten years, and it has a strong affinity with surging social trends; it is still hitting its stride. In another ten years it may be even more ubiquitous, but it may not mean then exactly what it means now.

Another entry dropped from the lips of Lovely Liz from Queens, always an informed and intelligent voice in discussing these matters or any other.

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live your best life

(2000’s | therapese? celebritese? | “live life to the fullest,” “make the most of one’s life,” “treat yourself right”)

Maybe I should stay away from this expression now that it has been trademarked by Pharmatech, Inc. — if this post suddenly disappears you’ll know why. I did not come across “live your best life” until a couple of years ago, during an odd moment watching daytime television in a doctor’s waiting room. I believe Kelly Ripa uttered it, in what context I can no longer say: “He’s living his best life.” The tone was a touch surprised but accepting, as if to suggest that most people would not consider such a life particularly desirable, but different strokes for different folks. That’s not the original implication; the phrase started as a clarion call to self-improvement, to make strides toward a better you, whether that means doing that which lifts you up or avoiding that which brings you down, or the ideal combination.

The beauty of this expression — always “your, etc. best life,” not “the best life” — is that it can’t be tied to a specific program; you have to decide what your best life is, with help from advice columnists and on-line quizzes, of course. Locking people into a narrow list of procedures won’t work; giving them a broader set of principles might. But even at a high level of generality, the phrase remains vague. Does it mean you’re as happy/joyous/content as you can be, or having the most fun possible? Does it mean you are kind and forgiving toward yourself? Does it mean you are exemplary, or useful to those around you? (Probably not; most best lifers emphasize self-love and self-care over helping others.) One author who titled her book “Living Your Best Life” added the following subtitle: “Ten Strategies for Getting From Where You Are to Where You’re Meant to Be.” Presumably the book will guide you to figuring out exactly where that is, but clearly it is not the same for everybody. There is no single route to happiness that everyone can follow, but there is a path that you personally can tread that will give you a better shot at living your best life. The concept is great for life coaches, because the trick to being an effective life coach is understanding that what works for you won’t work for everybody.

Endeavoring to live your best life raises the classic Epicurean dilemma: Live it up now knowing I’ll pay a price later, or practice self-restraint in the hopes of a long, untroubled life? Epicurus preached moderation, and modern medicine raises plenty of red flags for those who overdo it in youth and middle age. I haven’t seen much explicit discussion of the question among best lifers, but there is an implicit bias toward thinking about long-term well-being. We tend to consider this question in physical terms, but who can doubt that there are mental and emotional patterns that cause us harm down the line?

Some expressions come from movies, and some from magazines. This bit of psychobabble, or sociobabble, is one of the latter. No more suspense: “live your best life” goes straight back to Oprah Winfrey. In 2000, she launched a magazine called “O” (not Jackie, you understand), and on the cover of the very first issue was emblazoned “Live your best life!” Whether she is the author of the slogan I don’t know, but she put her muscle and money behind it and pushed it into the vocabulary, and it has hung around ever since. As Oprah defined it at the time: “to see yourself differently . . . peel back the layers of yourself, look at who you really are, read stories about other people who have done it, accomplished, dreamed big, done well, people who failed but kept getting up, people who shared their aspirations with other people and said, ‘This is how you do it. Living your best life.'” It’s notable that she left out bodily health, concentrating on mental and emotional work. But she did indicate the inherently interpersonal nature of lining up your best life: other people offer lessons, you learn, you tell your story, and others benefit in turn. We are social creatures, whether we like it or not, and there aren’t enough isolated caves for everybody to have one. You can’t even be selfish without reference to other people.

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wellness

(1980’s | doctorese | “well-being”)

“Wellness” is not a synonym for “health,” or even “good health.” Most objections to the term assume that it is and so are easily dismissed, not that even the most principled objections would have stood a chance — the term has routed the field and now is heard everywhere. It goes with holistic, or perhaps alternative or preventive medicine (now you hear “integrative medicine”). The point of wellness is to distinguish itself from conventional ideas of bodily soundness, which involve purging microbes, following rigid, one-size-fits-all guidelines for diet and exercise, and ignoring everything else. From the beginning, practitioners of wellness have preached “Mens sana in corpore sano” (or the other way around), paying due attention to one’s emotional and physical gestalt over antibiotics and cholesterol counts, not that a holistic physician would disregard dangerous symptoms and proven treatments. Nowadays, wellness is most often touted as a result of preventive medicine.

Was the word invented in the seventies? No, the book “Dynamics of Wellness,” published in 1970, cites a psychologist named Dunn for inventing it in 1957 (the New York Times provides a detailed history). The expression became much more common after 1980; as early as 1984 Ronald Reagan urged employers to “sponsor wellness programs that reduce smoking, improve eating habits and promote physical fitness as ways of cutting costs and improving workers’ health” (Associated Press, March 13). A recent post on forbes.com notes, “When corporate wellness programs first took off, the focus was primarily on smoking cessation or weight loss goals. Current wellness programs have come a long way since then –- and program offerings have expanded to focus on more than just the physical aspect of health. Employers are . . . combining more traditional well-being efforts with career development efforts.” Such programs continue to grow thicker on the ground every year, as wellness, like mindfulness, has become popular around the workplace recently. They are both cheap ways to show concern for employees while doing as little as possible to improve working conditions or morale and butting further into everyone’s personal life. On the other hand, wellness programs generally dispense reasonable advice and may actually do some good.

The expression looks to be the sort of crude formation that springs so easily from the mind of a technician or bureaucrat. Find an adjective, glue “-ness” to it, and voilà! a noun. Sometimes, as I have noted elsewhere, this approach has the advantage of creating a term both relatively precise and more or less free of connotation. Other times, it’s just one more blot on the language. “Wellness,” clumsy as so many well-intentioned locutions are, does attempt to name a state of soundness that encompasses peace of mind as well as strength of physique, a comprehensive and balanced picture. And wellness has survived on its own terms as it continues to denote a way of looking at a person’s health that stresses a fuller account of it than you’ll get from your standard health-care provider. Though it is closely related to several other new expressions, it doesn’t cover exactly the same ground as any of them and so can’t be deemed entirely redundant.

Lovely Liz from Queens asked me to point out that the eminent poet and critic John Hollander despised “wellness.” Its unidiomatic sound would naturally have displeased an ear as refined as his, but I don’t know if he would have conceded that the word has a certain use-value. I find myself rolling my eyes at the neologism, but I can’t help but acknowledge with a bit of a grudge that it adds to the language in certain ways as it wounds it in others.

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listen to your body

(1980’s | athletese | “don’t overdo it”)

The injunction “listen to your body” has nothing to do with listening. The verb is an exact substitute for “pay attention.” Oh, you might not like the way your joints crack, but that’s only one corner of the room this expression occupies. The doctor listens to your body every time you go in for a check-up — that’s called “auscultation” — but this phrase has nothing to do with stethoscopes, or little rubber hammers, even though it’s always reflexive. You would never say, “Hey, doc, listen to my body. Something doesn’t feel right.”

Listening to your body, in fact, has more to do with how you feel than with any of the other senses. Pain, weariness, rapid heartbeat, that kind of thing. “Feel (or sense) your body” creates the wrong impression, I suppose, and listening does include the idea of actually learning from what you’re hearing. The expression started to appear in the seventies, according to my sources, invariably in the context of running, a burgeoning fad at the time, or physical fitness (just before the spread of “wellness”). Over time, it came to be used more generally about health or lifestyle. The first instance I found in LexisNexis dates from 1977, uttered by a doctor, and doctors still use it to mean “don’t discount your symptoms.” Trainers, coaches, physical therapists. It is used both by those who can’t afford to have their bodies break down — dancers, manual laborers, pregnant women — but also by the rest of us, as a way of reminding ourselves not to push too hard. Like “give back,” it is boiled down from longer phrases: listen to what your body is telling you, listen to your body’s signals, etc. By the time George W. Bush used it in reference to Dick Cheney after a pacemaker implant in 2001, it was a cliché. I’ll quote the entire statement: “He is such a good example for Americans who may share the same condition he has, and that is to listen to your body, to take precautionary measures, and to be active.” Notice how he put it; he didn’t say, “He has to listen to his body.” It doesn’t sound natural that way.

In the imperative, it has become quasi-proverbial. Uttered sententiously, it pretends to a kind of universal irreducible truth, mother-wit so basic that even the dullest cretin recognizes it instantly. Not listening to your body buys you a hospital stay, or an early grave; the phrase is always given as an admonition or warning. I’ve covered other new phrases turned maxims: “no pain, no gain” and “pick your battles.” Will these apothegms join the ranks of “Better safe than sorry,” “Waste not, want not,” and “Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched”? Some day, “Think outside the box,” “Be careful out there” and “Been there, done that” may follow. Those of us old enough to remember a time before such phrases littered the landscape will slowly, grudgingly die off, and then such parvenus will seem just as immemorial. The connection to “no pain, no gain” is pretty obvious, but when I hear “listen to your body” I think of mindfulness, the mind-body problem notwithstanding. That’s what a lot of mindfulness boils down to, anyway — put yourself in a meditative state and pay attention to what your heart and lungs are doing until your mind gets limbered up and starts doing its stuff, or shuts down entirely. It’s all part of the introspective, omphaloskeptic method. Maybe the full phrase should be “make your mind listen to your body.” Now there’s a proverb worth weighing.

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