Challenging Social Constructs

On being happy and healthy in an unhappy, unhealthy society

Too often when we think of health and wellness, we think of diet plans and workout regimens because that’s how society tells us we’re supposed to achieve well-being. Studio/E member Pilar Gerasimo is here to challenge that trope.

Following on her 15 years as Experience Life magazine’s editor-in-chief, Pilar now consults with forward-thinking organizations in the healthy, happy living space. She also co-hosts a top-rated podcast called “The Living Experiment,” writes a monthly column for Experience Life, and blogs for HuffPost.

Through all of her work, Pilar’s message is clear: It’s time to shake up the norms and conventions of the health-improvement industry. It’s time to abandon the stereotypes and assumptions of the past and take a more probing, holistic look at what it takes to be a healthy person in today’s unhealthy culture. 

Pilar plans to dedicate the next decade of her career to this work. Why? We sat down with her to find out. 

Studio/E: How did you get into health and wellness?
Pilar: I grew up on a 1970s communal farm where we had a very healthy way of life. But when I went to grade school, I learned that my family’s way of living was considered odd. So I started trying to be “normal.” The more I conformed, the less healthy and happy I got. As a teen, I gained weight, and my self-esteem suffered. I tried conventional diet-and-exercise prescriptions, but none of that worked, and a lot of it made me feel worse about myself. 

After college, I started studying health more seriously, and I eventually adjusted my whole way of living. I realized that my counterculture parents had gotten a lot of the essentials right. I just had to figure out how to fit the best of that wisdom into the life I wanted to live. 

Studio/E: What led you to start Experience Life magazine? 
Pilar: I was fed up with conventional health-and-fitness publications. They were obsessed with six-pack abs and bikini-body ideals. A lot of their advice was bad. They seemed to be stoking readers’ insecurities rather than serving their real needs. So I started dreaming up a better sort of healthy-living magazine. In 2001, I pitched that idea to Life Time [now Life Time — Healthy Way of Life], they greenlighted it, and it just took off.

Studio/E: Why partner with Life Time?
Pilar: There was a natural synergy in our goals and desires. I wanted to connect more people with meaningful information and inspiration that would make a real difference in their lives. Life Time wanted to become more recognized as a healthy-way-of-life brand and to help its members make better progress toward their goals. The partnership made all those things possible. Today, each issue of Experience Life reaches more than 3 million people.

Studio/E: You say you have a desire to “cultivate healthy deviance.” What does that mean?
Pilar: It means I want to help more people master the art of being healthy in an unhealthy world. Right now, more than 50% of U.S. adults are diagnosed with at least one chronic illness. Seventy percent are overweight or obese, and more than 97% aren’t managing the basic health habits required for long-term health. Statistically speaking, that’s the new normal. So if you want to beat those unhealthy odds, you have to deviate from a lot of social norms. That’s not easy or convenient — particularly at first. 

Studio/E: Who’s to blame for our current state of health?
Pilar: It’s a complex convergence of factors. We’re living in a set of unprecedented conditions that no other human beings ever have faced. Those conditions make unhealthy choices the default choices, and they make health improvement a lot harder than it has to be.

Studio/E: How do you define health?
Pilar: I see health as a state of body-mind ease — the sense you have enough energy, enthusiasm and resilience to pursue the life you desire. 

Studio/E: What advice do you have for people who want to improve their health?
Focus on your energy and attention first. Unless you’re actively managing your physical, mental and emotional energy, you’re going to be more vulnerable to unhealthy cravings and self-sabotaging tendencies. Start by getting more sleep, doing mindfulness practices and taking short breaks before you start to feel depleted or stressed out. From there, other healthy choices will become much easier. 

Cultivate healthy deviance at work. Connect with your co-workers to challenge unhealthy workplace conventions (like sugary snacks in the breakroom). If you’re a leader, look for the healthy deviants in your midst to see what they are doing differently. Ask them — rather than outside “corporate wellness” consultants — how your organization could better support healthy behaviors. 

Learn some new survival skills. Most sustainably healthy people are healthy not because they’re lucky or morally superior, but because they’ve developed a collection of new-era survival skills that make healthy living more doable. Focus on building those skills. 

Pilar’s “Healthy Deviant” movement is about challenging the social constructs that have led to an unhealthy and unhappy society. One person does not a movement make, but lucky for society at large, Pilar knows how to enroll.  


This story appears in print in our March/April issue. Click here for a complimentary subscription.