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Bizarre Bazaar: the ‘health show’ phenomenon

These images are a selection taken from Google’s Image site – using the key words “Festival of Body, mind & spirit”….. they were among the least odd!

Have you been to a “natural living” or ‘health’ show lately?

This posting might irritate some readers, and anger others, but as I have recently been both irritated and angered myself, this possibility seems to me worth while in order to unburden myself just a bit.
So if you feel irritated by my comments I hope you will see this as a therapeutic exchange, since I am bound to feel better after writing this.
The last two ‘health shows’ I attended have been intensely depressing events – to me at any rate.
Well to start with the juxtaposition of downright flaky stalls, unconnected with health in any manner which I can understand – with ones presenting what I can best describe as ‘genuine’ health related topics (nutrition, relaxation/meditation and bodywork methods, healing approaches etc) is something which I find hard to take.

I try to put myself into the position of someone with little background knowledge as to what can justifiably be associated with the provision of complementary/alternative health care, who is investigating one of the major London, or smaller regional, ‘shows’ – in order to educate themselves.
What are they to make of the buffet of choices spread before them as they enter the bizarre bazaar which these shows now comprise?
Putting aside the dubious need (apart that is from the purely commercial) for the presence of stand after stand of aboriginal, or Native American, or other ethnic sources, carrying mountains of costume jewelery, clothing, knickknacks and musical instruments, not to mention the chance to experience tarot card readings (plus crystal balls and palms!).
OK, I understand that at some‘festivals’ of this sort such goings on can just about fit in with the concepts associated with the vaguely post-hippy resurgence. But the truth is that such stalls form a major part of other supposedly purely CAM ‘health’ shows as well, where the association is anything but a justifiable one – or at least that’s how I see things.
Why do I feel so irritated by these connections?
In truth I find it hard to be sure, but it may have a lot to do with the fact that in my nearly 50 years as an osteopath/naturopath /acupuncturist I have seen the acceptability of the methods I have practised and taught, move from being described as quackery, to fringe, to alternative, to complementary …. and now ‘integrated’ – to the point where for many years I taught both naturopathic and osteopathic approaches, in a major university, at both undergraduate and masters levels, while also practicing within an NHS setting.
All this was achieved by the combined efforts of thousands of dedicated practitioners and researchers, working against the odds, and against prejudice, over this period and longer – to prove the value of what we do in clinical settings.
That there is every right for the flaky, off-the-wall, and downright weird, to exist, and to display itself is obvious – just as long as the cocktail of ingredients which are displayed at these shows does not confuse the speculative and unproven with what is demonstrably valid and valuable.
The fact that not a single stand at a recent major London health show related to osteopathy, chiropractic, homeopathy, herbal medicine, naturopathy or acupuncture, indicates pretty clearly that these now well established professions feel it unwise to connect themselves with what is on display.
Those health-oriented stands that were present were struggling against a background of the frankly odd-ball, and plain commercial, which cannot have done them a great deal of good.
Far more importantly, as I indicated at the outset, is the fact that this sort of circus and side-show atmosphere is presented as representing the frontiers of complementary thinking and activities, when it does not.
And what of the health methods on display?
Apart from a selection of books, health foods and supplements, there was one true oasis of calm – a large stand operated by a confederation of healers, where volunteers offered the chance for a healing session for a modest donation.
There were also a selection of aromatherapy, hand, foot, head and other massage variations – all of which were being utilised by the foot-weary and brain-fogged folk who had struggled past the maze of purveyors of crystals, candles, incense, jewelery, new-age tapes and CDs, didgeridoos, drums, tee-shirts and assorted nutritional (and some less than nutritional) drink and food-dispensing stands, not to mention those representing various sects, touting a range of religious and spiritual development possibilities.
There were, of course, also a large number of talks, demonstrations and workshops, many of which were of high standard and very informative – but the vast majority of those attending never see these since they needed to be booked separately, and in the main involve an additional fee to attend.
So what’s my gripe?
That in order to put such shows on nowadays the organisers are obliged to be less discriminating as to who they allow to display and present, than is desirable.
That as a result, what is valid and valuable is tainted by the odd and frankly undesirable, and that there is no way that the innocent attender can make sense of what is and what is not worth investigating and utilising.
What’s the answer?
One possibility would be to attract some form of unconditional sponsorship which would allow for higher standards of entry, so attracting the well established professions to once more display and participate.
At the present rate the degeneration into a selection of side-shows will result in the skeptical and the scornful being shown to be correct, leading to an unjustified – if understandable – return to accusations of complementary health care being quackery.
And yes I do feel better …. not for attending but for letting off steam!

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