This morning, I opened Instagram to see a beauty influencer waving sage around her living room. Over top of the video, which showcased her pristine home as it was cleansed from negative energy, she wrote, “Only good vibes this week”. A minute later, an email popped up on my phone with the subject line, “Why This Nasa-Backed Skin-Care Tool Is Our New Wellness Obsession”. Curious, I searched my inbox for the term ‘wellness.’ Hundreds of unopened emails popped up in reply. “Feel the Power of Sexual Wellness” read one. “Kick Start 2021 With Our Veganuary Wellness Zoom Event” was another. “The 5 Best Wellness Products To Combat Stress” alleged a third, which almost had me purchasing a rose quartz drink bottle, promising to infuse my water with positive energy, by minute five.
The notion of wellness to optimise health and happiness without relying on modern medicine was introduced in Halbert L Dunn’s book High Level Wellness in 1961. The idea was radical at the time and took off in the ’60s in California, where early pioneers were exploring the fringes of alternative medicine to prevent, not cure, illness. This included diets based on Zen Buddhism (now known as ‘macrobiotic’) and mindful workshops where breathing was given as much credence as anti-anxiety medication. Those who participated were eyed with suspicion by the medical world and thought of as hippies who’d either lost all faith in science or simply lost the plot completely.
Nearly 50 years later, in 2008, a wellness brand named ‘Goop’ was launched with a simple e-newsletter actress by Gwyneth Paltrow. At first, the company was laughed at as its wellness forefathers had been. Thirteen years on, Paltrow is the owner of a business that spans four-annual wellness retreats, a podcast, a print magazine and a docuseries for Netflix. In 2017, Goop was reported to be worth over US$250M. Paltrow’s success mirrors that of the wellness industry, today worth an estimated US$4.5 trillion. Wellness is no longer something on the fringes of society; it is an ideology that is everywhere and in almost everything we do.
Wellness is the YouTube Yoga with Adriene workouts that 9.3 million subscribers loyally partake in. It’s in crystals, reiki, and mindfulness. It’s oat milk, kombucha, açaí bowls, and the organic section at the supermarket. It’s being gluten-free. It’s also expensive retreats; organic serums that the aforementioned beauty influencer tells me I urgently need; and, according to the Goop website, 68 products ranging from $15 for a bamboo toothbrush to $322 for a Large Standard Singing Bowl Set — the latter essentially some incense and vegan soap that’s supposed to help you meditate better.
The success of today’s wellness industry rests on the idea that it’s not simply good enough to look beautiful; you have to feel it too. As journalist Taffy Brodesser-Akner observed in The New York Times in 2018, “The minute the phrase ‘having it all’ lost favor among women, wellness came in to pick up the pieces.” Brodesser-Akner’s observation can also be said about diet culture. As movements towards body positivity — or, better yet, body neutrality — took hold in 2012 and 2015, respectively, women started to shy away from publicly dieting. That’s when cleanses, detoxes and organic food came in — all in the name of wellness, of course.
Not only did this increased focus on healthy food give rise to a new generation of chefs, ready to help us distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ food one bulgar wheat salad at a time, but it led to a surge in ‘orthorexia’, an eating disorder defined as an unhealthy obsession with healthy food. Through gluten-free labels to juice cleanses and intermittent fasting, wellness made restrictive eating something to be proud of. A prime example of this diet industry rebranding is the company Weight Watchers, which in 2018 changed its name to simply ‘WW’, repackaging as a holistic lifestyle change rather than a weight-loss programme. However, rather than any real change to its core calorie-limiting philosophy, WW’s commitment to this new concept seems to be limited to how users can earn “wellness wins” for logging their weight and daily food intake.
When it comes to a pandemic, this focus on clean everything also fuels the anti-vaxxer rhetoric. Recently, much to the dismay of those who take their classes, many at the forefront of the industry, have begun spreading QAnon theories too. In late 2020, Buti Yoga founder Bizzie Gold stated in an interview that we “should stop being poisoned through vaccines”, while yoga influencer Stephanie Birch uses QAnon-related hashtags, such as #greatawakening, interspersed with book recommendations and posts about motherhood.
Food hasn’t been the only thing rebranded to profit from society’s quest for wellness. So too has exercise. To be a proper, healthy, functioning human being, it is now essential to do a mixture of HIIT (high intensity interval training), weights, yoga, and Pilates each week. As Jia Tolentino notes in one of her essays in her 2019 book Trick Mirror, if you have the money ($40 plus per class) and time to incorporate barre into this regime, you are likely near perfect at self-optimising. After all that exercise and calorie counting, one is bound to need to relax. But these days, a hot bath won’t do it. Instead, you must meditate, practise mindfulness, and fill in a gratitude journal.
In recent years, people have been questioning whether these pursuits that are promising to make us well are actually doing the opposite, resulting in burnout, stress, and exhaustion. And just when you thought we’d hit peak wellness, a pandemic hit.
As levels of stress and anxiety rose in early 2020, businesses jumped in to profit off that fear. Downloads of mindfulness apps, such as Calm and Headspace, surged as people looked for something to alleviate the panic they felt when reading the news. The New York Times reports that last April, as the world moved into a global lockdown, more than two million people paid US$69.99 (NZ$98.14) for an annual subscription to Calm, an app that includes guided meditations, “sleep stories” read by celebrities and a series of “daily calms”. The app told the publication it saw a “100 percent growth in the last year”, with 10 million new subscribers.
To date, one of Calm’s most popular pieces of content is a 39-minute bedtime story called Dream With Me, read in a slow, sensual voice by British musician Harry Styles. Released in early July, it immediately crashed the app because Styles’s fans — this writer included — were so eager to listen to it.
At the same time as the pandemic plunged people further into wellness pursuits in the name of good health, Covid had a similar effect on the optics of wellness as it did on that of the influencer industry. Just as influencers and celebrities began to look tone-deaf in the pandemic, so too did spruiking expensive products, treatments, and detoxes in the name of ‘self-care’. With a long-overdue wake-up call from the Black Lives Matter movement, it became impossible to ignore not just the privilege associated with wellness but how whitewashed the industry is.
Appropriation of cultures aside — incense, acupuncture, reiki, crystals, the list goes on — it’s hard to ignore the overwhelmingly white faces at the forefront of the industry. As Amira Rasool wrote for Glamour in 2019, “If you’re a young Black woman, there are far fewer opportunities to find artfully curated content on Instagram related to our hair type, skin type, or overall well-being. There are far fewer opportunities to feel seen in the wellness world.” Black lesbian feminist poet Audrey Lorde’s famous words, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare” were originally written as a radical feminist statement for Black women in 1988.
But today, Lorde’s words have been turned into a catch-all phrase used by wealthy white wellness influencers, emblazoned over the likes of canvas tote bags and T-shirts (available to buy online for $42 plus shipping). Covid made elitist white wellness seem unhearing and at odds with what we need as a society. Wellness as we know — just like influencers — seems ready for an overhaul.
When you go back to basics, wellness as an idea shouldn’t be elitist, whitewashed, and driven by capitalism. In traditional Māori culture, te whare tapa whā, the four cornerstones of Māori well-being, show that a focus on the mind, spirit, and community is as important as physical manifestations of illness. Made up of taha tinana (physical health), taha wairua (spiritual health), taha whānau (family health), and taha hinengaro (mental health), these four pillars are often illustrated in the shape of a Māori meeting house. When all the sides aren’t prioritised equally, the house falls down. Nowhere does a $300 jade roller fit into the equation.
“The way the term ‘wellness’ is increasingly marketed — and the ways the media increasingly covers it — is very wrong and limited,” says Beth McGroarty, vice president research at Global Wellness Institute. “The equation of wellness with the narrow luxury wellness market has profound human costs. We need to step back from the easy target wellness-bashing, and remember the core pillars of wellness: exercise, healthy food, sleep, stress-reduction, and human connection,” McGroarty explains. “These are not only free, or near free, but there is no more medical evidence for anything on earth than these preventative wellness approaches.”
Wellness, at its core, is a positive thing. Take The Body: A Home for Love, a community in New York that uses wellness to empower Black sexual-assault survivors or, closer to home, Le Va, a community-led organisation that focuses on supporting Pasifika families and individuals through learning initiatives, scholarships and workshops.
Governments also have a role to play in making wellness accessible for all, and, currently, this charge is largely being led by women leaders. Prime Minister Jacinda Adern was the pioneer, announcing in 2019 that her government would roll out the world’s very first ‘well-being budget’ in New Zealand. Iceland’s prime minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, and Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, followed suit soon after.
On a recent Instagram Live, journalist Laura Pitcher, philosopher Bobo Matjila, and musician Donovan spoke about the notion of community slipping away as society becomes increasingly individualistic. Now, people turn to therapy as a way to have someone listen to them, without the person bringing themselves or their own experiences into the situation. “Instead of having a community to help with problems, the free therapy you used to get from friends, family, and those in your community is behind a paywall,” Donavon noted.
You now have to pay $200 an hour to speak to someone about your problems. New York–based chef and activist Sophia Roe is a huge advocate of stripping back wellness to its core principles. On an Instagram Live in 2020, Roe told her 282K followers, “A $20,000 yoga retreat won’t make you well if you don’t focus on the community around you.”
Later, on a Zoom, she elaborated: “Wellness is simple: food, air, water, sunlight, movement, purpose, community. Without community, you don’t have wellness.” Before speaking to Roe, I was planning on spending part of this article pushing people away from the wellness industry as it’s now marketed and more towards self-care: a long bath in the evening when you’d usually stay on your laptop working, going for a walk on a sunny day, sleeping in, and reading in bed instead of partaking that intense HIIT workout.
Though focused less on expensive treatments, these are again, all luxuries. Moreover, they’re all focused on the self. Self-care, like wellness, is still an idea rooted in a neoliberal tradition of looking out for ourselves, rather than seeing ourselves, our health, and our fates as inextricably linked to our fellow human beings.
“If all you’re worried about is exercise routine and diets and meditation, it’s about you,” Roe explains. “You can have all the vegan food, do all the yoga, all the meditation, but what is keeping people alive is purpose, is connection. If your wellness protocol does not involve community and does not include purpose, it is absolutely not wellness, and it is absolutely not setting you up for success.”