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Is the definition of health universal, or is it different in some cultures or beliefs? 


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The definition of health is essentially universal, but due to differing socioeconomic states around the world, the experience of healthcare can be vastly different.

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You could make an argument that health is universal in theory. However, in practice—in the real world—you could contend that health is more defined by a person’s specific culture or belief system.

You could contend that health is universal since there are certain things that all humans need in order...

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to remain healthy. That is, there’s basic, almost indisputable things that humans require to survive and exist. Regardless of their culture or belief system, humans need clean water, clean air, shelter, and food. Without those things, humans might have difficulty creating different cultures of beliefs systems. They’d be too unhealthy or, to put it bluntly, dead.

However, if you looked at how health functions in reality, you might reach the conclusion that health is not universal. There’s plenty of real life examples in which the universal quality of health is transformed into a privilege or entitlement linked to certain cultures and beliefs.

Look at what happened in Flint, Michigan. You could argue that the lack of wealth in Flint, Michigan—along with the fact that it’s a community composed mainly of people of color—is what led officials to jeopardize its water supply. The residents’ lack of connection to wealth and whiteness deprived them of their health.

Another example of how health is much less universal and much more fragmented is the ongoing conflict between Palestine and Israel. In her book The Right to Maim, professor Jasbir K. Puar writes how Israel—the wealthy country with links to Western cultural values and beliefs—has the power to harm, maim, and create an unhealthy environment for Palestinians or people not normally associated with Western cultural values and beliefs.

I’m sure you can find many other examples, but the Flint water crisis and the Palestine–Israel conflict both seem to highlight how health is defined by specific cultures and beliefs in the real, physical world. If you’re a person in Flint, Palestine, or New York City public housing, you might have a harder time staying healthy.

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I would argue that the definition of health is universal but that the experience of it differs drastically in different parts of the world.

Fundamentally, the definition of health is the absence of illness and a body that works as it should. However, if you have been malnourished your whole life, your bar for what "healthy" looks like will be drastically different to that of someone who has never had to wonder where their next meal is coming from.

In discussing this matter, you could also look at the issue of mental health, which is taken far more seriously in some parts of the world than others. For example, child rape victims who fall pregnant are barred from getting an abortion in certain parts of the world, which not only jeopardizes their physical health, but almost certainly shapes the future of their mental health.

In some cultures, poverty dictates that people must walk miles every day just to find a flushing toilet or to get to a river where they can fetch water for their households. For them, the definition of "staying healthy" will be vastly different from a wealthy person who goes to the gym to work out.

In summary, I would argue that the definition of health comes down to socioeconomic status rather than culture or beliefs in most circumstances.

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“Health” is a subjective term with culturally specific meanings; there is no universal definition of this term. While international organizations have developed a definition of health and aim to apply standards for achieving good health, they also recognize that cultural factors undergird this concept. Understanding of the causes of illness vary widely and may be attributed to disease, according to Western medical models, or to religious beliefs, such as spirit possession, among other explanations. Understanding the cause of an illness is crucial to treating that illness; if people place little credence in Western medicine, they not only may be unwilling to seek the attention of a physician but also may refuse treatment or fail to complete a course of treatment.

Since 1948, the World Health Organization uses the following definition of health, which is included in the Preamble to its Constitution:

Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.

The Society for Medical Anthropology, a unit of the American Anthropological Association, offers many resources for understanding health and illness, including the social, cultural, biological, and linguistic factors which influence health and well being.

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While the definition of health has some objective and universal aspects, it also has aspects that can differ with culture.  It is something of a hybrid of these two.

Of course, all cultures would agree on certain aspects of health.  Clearly, someone who is wasting away and dying from an incurable disease is not healthy.  Similarly, someone who has gotten a fever and is delirious, or who has a festering wound that has led to gangrene is not healthy.  These are things that all cultures can agree on.

However, there is also an aspect of the definition of health that is more cultural in nature.  In a sense, we decide what is normal and what is not normal as a society.  The different ways in which we define health are sometimes set by cultural values.  For example, there are places where obesity is seen as desirable because it shows wealth.  In the US, tanned skin is prized and is seen as healthy even though we know it brings the risk of cancer.  Sometimes, our definitions differ because of our levels of medical and scientific knowledge.  In a less developed culture, a person of 50 who has a hard time walking might be seen as healthy for their age because everyone in the society has to do hard physical labor and therefore ages quickly.  By contrast, we in the US expect people to be physically active into their 70s and beyond and we would say people are not healthy if they cannot do this.

Thus, there are aspects of our definition of health that are universal and other aspects that are not.

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