Healthsplaining our way to (not) being helpful

 

Many of us are now familiar with the term "mansplaining" which, according to Merriam-Webster, it is when “a man talks condescendingly to someone (especially a woman) about something he has incomplete knowledge of, with the mistaken assumption that he knows more about it than the person he’s talking to does.” So (and I'm sure I'm by no way the first person to use this word) I would like to introduce us to "healthsplaining," one of the most commonly enacted behaviours of health providers, wellness warriors and diet gurus alike. Yep, ouch. We all do it. I do it. The question is.....can we do better?

Health" is an extremely complex and pretty nebulous idea, one that is held up as the pinnacle of human existence, something we should be working towards at all times. It can be confronting and painful to realise that, in fact, health is not available to everyone and when we (as "health providers") provide well-intentioned "health advice" we may in fact be perpetuating the very narrative which maintains inequity, privilege and oppression.

As way of an example which we can all relate to - consider the National Dietary Guidelines of your own country. If we can pause on the "but they're just guidelines!!!" argument for a second (an issue itself...), consider this:

  • Who are they aimed at? 

  • Whose experience do they not address?

  • Who is *actually* able to enact the guidelines?

  • Who is not, and why?

*insert opportunity for reflection*

You are not responsible for what the guidelines say, but we can certainly be under pressure to reinforce their messages in a myriad of ways which I suggest are highly problematic for many people.

If you're a provider, what can you do to address your own healthsplaining? 

Some ideas you might consider are: 

1. Acknowledge your own privilege - if you're white, able bodied, cis-gender, straight, smaller-bodied, educated (amongst many other privileges) then you already have culturally-supported kudos which offers you opportunities you may not even realise. Particularly when it comes to health, and your ability to pursue or enact health behaviours.

2. Consider the "audience" who you are addressing - who are you including, and who are you excluding (and yes, this is usually unintentional!)

3. Use invitational language (such as "consider", "perhaps" or "options")

4. Reflect about how your message may be received through the lens of someone who is NOT YOU. By "not you" I mean someone who does not have the same privileges. For example, if you are white, consider the experience of other cultures. If you are smaller bodied, consider those who are larger-bodied. If you are able-bodied and/or cis-gender, consider the experience of those who are not. If you do not have a chronic health condition, consider the experience of those who do.

A reminder to all Mindful Dietitians.
We all want to help. We will ALL stuff it up, even when our intentions are 100% coming from a place of kindness and care. The difference is what happens when we DO stuff up...when a colleague or a client points out something we've done or said which has been unhelpful or hurtful. Notice if your reaction is to become defensive, explain your intention as being honorable, or become annoyed with the person. How do I know this reaction? Hint: hours of supervision and self reflection :) I KNOW this is my default, and I still need to be mindful that this is my go-to response when feeling challenged, regardless of what the situation is. But being open to imperfection, learning from others and feeling uncertainty most of the time, whilst at the same time feeling fiercely committed to doing better is how we, and our profession, will progress.

 

I love this quote from Hilary & Dana from Be Nourished....
"When you see a health care provider, how much they know about food is secondary to whether they are skilled at showing up to respectfully receive and witness your story and lived experience..."

By expanding our lenses, we are able to see "health" as the complex beast it is and more truly be of service to those who may benefit the most from the work we are committed to. Shining a spotlight on how we can all (yes, ALL of us) fall into "healthsplaining" we can also create opportunities to do better as a community, and support each other as we keep growing and learning.

 
Fiona SutherlandComment