Health is the foundation for prosperity; the quality of one's health has a direct effect on one's ability to not only earn a living, but to enjoy the fruits of one's labor. A state of optimum health means having a strong digestion, a consistent and high level of energy throughout the day, the strength, endurance and flexibility to do a variety of tasks, a robust immune system, a clear mind, clear complexion and lustrous hair and nails.
It is not easy to maintain health in modern America. Lots of people make obscene amounts of money from pushing unhealthy "foods" and the medications, weight-loss programs and treatments required from a lifetime of eating poorly and getting little physical exercise. It requires a near-constant vigilance to eat well and get the amount of physical activity needed to maintain even a moderate level of health.
Admittedly, I'm reluctant to discuss this topic for fear of offending those who seem to think the only appropriate response to the growing obesity epidemic is polite silence. Let's face it, as an acquaintance of mine once wrote, "The Pagan community doesn't photograph well." Take a lap around any Pagan festival or gathering and we seem to be riddled with chronic health problems, bad teeth and obesity. I have also observed that on the whole, we eat poorly and do as little physical activity as possible.
I am not a fat-basher; I am not filled with disgust or hatred when I am in the company of those who are overweight. I am related to and friends with lots of overweight and obese people and I confess that currently, I am heavier than I would like to be. I love my fat friends for the same reasons I love my slender and athletic relations and acquaintances; they are funny, intelligent, kind, creative, witty and I feel good when I spend time with them. My concern for my overweight friends and family is for their personal comfort. They are often in chronic pain and I hate to see anyone, especially someone I love, suffering in discomfort.
My favorite aunt suffered her entire life because of her weight. She was diabetic and grappled with all of the problems diabetes causes: poor eyesight, numbness in her extremities, heart and kidney problems, arthritis and joint problems. Eventually she had to use a wheelchair because the cartilage in her knees was worn down to painful bone-on-bone contact. She couldn't get the knee replacement surgery that would have restored her mobility because of her obesity and other related health problems. It isn't uncommon for the women in our family to live to 100, but her life was truncated by her excess weight. She eventually died a few years ago - she was only in her late 60's.
Expense is another problem related to being overweight. Many people in my life who are overweight must take a fist full of pills to control their blood sugar, their blood pressure and their cholesterol levels. These medications are very expensive and often I see them compromising on the health care they could receive in favor of a pharmacy plan that provides their medications at a reduced rate.
Lastly, and more specific to the Pagan community - our health affects our magic. Not many of the Witchcraft 101 books mention how much physical endurance it really takes to run energy for rituals, sabbats and spellwork. I've observed that many Pagans get sick or run-down after a festival or major ritual. They aren't healthy and strong enough to manage the amount of energy they are using and end up depleted and ill. We need to be fit - mentally, emotionally and physically - to practice strong magic.
So, why is the Pagan community so chronically overweight and unhealthy? I have a few theories which I will share below:
Pagans are a brainy bunch with an increasing roster of PhD's in our community. We read a great deal and love to talk shop with other Pagans, Heathens and Witches. We value the intellect and learning, often to the neglect of other aspects of the self.
According to the Pagan census, the majority of us work in the computer science field and lots of us love to play video games. Many of us are crafty, enjoying needlework, knitting and crochet. These activities don't burn many calories, unfortunately. In fact, the first time I had to start paying attention to my weight was when I went to college. The intense study sessions, library visits and classroom time meant I spent a lot more time sitting than engaging in physical activity.
The tendency for Pagans to live in their head seems to lead to a dissociation with their body. They simply are more interested in thinking than doing.
Lack of Grounding
The most popular and sexy parts of magical practice seem to exclude the body - astral projection and possession work - actively concentrate on the psychic rather than the physical. Many Pagans seem to get attached to the high one experiences in sacred space and in the concentrated presence of invoked deity.
To use a different model to illustrate what I mean--it seems Pagans are most often operating from the 5th through 7th chakras. They seldom engage, let alone integrate their personal energy with the 1st through 4th chakras. This "head in the clouds" default position means that Pagans are not functioning in a grounded manner, resulting in a neglected body and physical environment.
This theory is what I like to call "You're not the boss of me!" Pagans tend to be distrustful of authority, if not downright defiant of it. I suspect that there are Pagans out there who rebel against their parents, medical research or other authorities in favor of having cookie dough for breakfast. They eat like they would have liked to when they were fifteen, but now they can, so they do.
There are also feelings of injustice in this group; they feel put upon having to watch what they eat and exercise, so they cry, "It's not fair!" and continue to eat poorly in brazen challenge to what they know to be true.
Pagan refugees from some of the more strident monotheisms seem to suffer from discounting the value of their body. Because they were taught that their body was inherently dirty, sinful or temporary, they tend to focus exclusively on their spirit. The concept of the body as a meat car for the spirit is as common and persistent as it is pernicious. It isn't possible to embrace a religion that says, "Thou art God/dess" and hold that the body is merely a vessel for one's spirit without creating cognitive dissonance.
Pagans value diversity and have created a community that is safe for those who may otherwise feel like an outsider. Unfortunately, I think that this laid-back, everything goes attitude has fostered an environment anathema to discipline. Many Pagans simply don't care about their body and promote an acceptance of unhealthy behavior as a condition of being accepting of diversity. To admit to caring about the body is akin to admitting to being shallow.
Ignorance & Laziness
If Pagans applied themselves to learning about nutrition and exercise with the same zeal that they employ in their spiritual study, this would cease to be an issue. Learning and practicing new habits can be tedious and difficult - learning to eat more healthfully and consistently getting exercise is no different. These new skills and practices don't have to remain drudgery - exercise and learning to cook can be fun. Lots of community centers, kitchen supply retailers and gourmet food outlets teach cooking classes. Grocery stores like Whole Foods regularly offer tours and classes on shopping for and creating healthy, balanced meals.
Community colleges, dance studios, martial arts schools and intramural sports associations offer a variety of alternatives to dressing up in spandex and hitting the gym.
Lack of Self Love
Ultimately, I think that health problems stem from a lack of self love and respect. If we loved ourselves, we would honor our body and honor our boundaries - and demand that others do as well. We should treat ourselves with the same generosity of spirit, compassion and respect we treat others. Frequently, we comfort ourselves with tasty, but unhealthy foods instead of observing and serving our real needs. Additionally, there is seldom immediate feedback when we abuse ourselves in this way - it takes awhile for the pounds to pile on and the health problems to make themselves urgent.
Perhaps many consider these issues to be personal; I agree that people's relationship to their body is often sensitive and fraught with painful experiences. Many Pagans have very good reasons for not wanting to fully inhabit their body. I do think however, that ignoring this issue is not the correct way to deal with it. We need a great deal of healing in this area and should seriously consider the most effective methods for increasing the physical vitality of our community.