Well Life Episode 2: Medical Anthropology and Wellness

Hey there. This is Johnna. Every week, I’ll be sharing strategies to help women like you love your body, love yourself, and live life well. In future episodes, we’ll dive right into the tips. But in these first few episodes, I’m introducing myself. And I wanted to share a little bit about what medical anthropology has to do with health and wellness.

The simplest definition of anthropology is that it’s the study of humankind. Medical anthropology is what we consider to be a subfield, because it draws from all of the other fields to examine questions related to illness and health. And medical anthropologists answer these questions by looking at what we call culture.

There are probably dozens of definitions for the word culture, but for my purposes, we’ll define culture as: learned patterns of thought and behavior shared by a social group. For most of us, the idea of health is pretty implicit, meaning we never really consider what a formal definition of health would look like. To give you an example, let’s try a little audience participation exercise.

I’m going to ask you a few questions. The first one is, “Are you healthy?” You don’t have to overthink it. A simple yes or no answer will do. Now I want you to think of how you came to that decision. What criteria did you use to determine whether you fit in this category of “healthy” or not? Explain it to me in two or three sentences. Now that we’ve addressed your own experience of being healthy or not, let’s try to develop a working definition of health and illness. So again, let’s think about two or three sentences to define these terms. I don’t want you to look at the real definition, just define it based on your own ideas of these concepts.

Even though this is a podcast, and we can’t read our answers to each other – although, please, email me or tag me on social media with your answer if you want! – I’m pretty sure that everyone listening is going to have a different definition of health and illness than everyone else.

Some of you may consider health to be simply the absence of disease, meaning that at any point you’re either sick or you’re healthy. This is the model many doctors use when they talk about sickness: a foreign pathogen that disrupts the body and causes pain, sneezing, high blood pressure, etc. In order to treat those symptoms, Western medicine prescribes some sort of medicine. Maybe you decided you’re healthy simply because you don’t currently have any symptoms, or because you aren’t currently on any medications.

Another way to think about health could be as a balance. In many traditional medicine models, all aspects of the body must be in harmony for it to remain healthy. In biomedicine, doctors talk about the state of homeostasis, where all of the biological and chemical pathways are properly regulating bodily functions.

Yet another way you might envision health is as a spectrum, from sickness to health, to even surplus health. In this model, health is seen as a commodity, something you could obtain through different practices like eating properly, exercising, and taking certain vitamins or medications to increase the effectiveness of your body or preventing getting sick in the future.

Now let’s take this definition of health a step further. Based on the definition you just came up with, I want you to evaluate the conditions that I’m about to give you and tell me whether or not you believe them to be an illness. Think about why you said yes or no, and remember – it’s based on the definition that you just came up with!

Ready? Here we go:

  • Cancer

  • Anxiety

  • The flu

  • Spirit possession

  • Restless leg syndrome

  • Menstruation

  • Migraines

  • HIV

  • Erectile dysfunction

  • Old age

  • Infertility

  • Poverty

  • Sadness

  • ADHD

  • Insomnia

  • Chronic fatigue

  • Shyness

Interesting to think about, right? I won’t leave you in suspense anymore. For my purposes, I’ll be defining health as: a state of physical, social, and psychological wellbeing, within a given social, cultural, and environmental context. The context part is really important. Let’s do another thought exercise.

Imagine for a moment that you’re a doctor. You meet a woman who’s been feeling upset lately and is having trouble sleeping. You consider her symptoms and diagnose her with depression, and prescribe her an anti-depressant. The woman does not take the drug. Why not? Take a moment and come up with an explanation.

Well, there are a number of things that could explain why this woman isn’t taking her medications. Maybe she thinks she can treat it without drugs, through diet and meditation. Maybe she just lost her job and would rather have counseling to talk about her problems. Maybe she thinks that there are spirits who are preventing her from living a happy life. Maybe she wants to take the drug, but it isn’t covered by her health insurance. Or maybe having a mental illness is something that is stigmatized in our culture, and she doesn’t want people to know she’s on medication for it. So it’s always important to think about context, or culture, in order to come up with a solution problems that work well with each person’s particular understanding of their experience of health and wellness.

So I want you to think about this over the next week. What are some parts of your health that you’ve been taking for granted, but that might be particular to you and your life? Until next time, this is Johnna, and here’s to living life well.

Do you want to get even more tips and tricks for your wellness journey? Then I hope you’ll join my community by subscribing to my newsletter. When you join, you’ll get monthly 4-day wellness challenges, and two research-backed articles sent straight to your inbox every month. If that sounds like something you want to be a part of, then head on over to my website at johnnawilford.com and subscribe to my email list.