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Oscar Wilde once wrote that "the truth is rarely pure and never simple" (The Importance of Being Earnest). This rings especially true when it comes to modern medicine.
Without certainty, many wander into the wellness industry searching for answers. Everything and anything from toxic inflammation to chocolate sensitivities become a cause of pain. To the wellness industry, no problem (even death) is without an answer as long as you work hard and spend enough money. The dark underbelly of wellness culture exploits people in pain.
[The wellness industry] really gathers the masses with certainty. They say, ‘I can definitely help you. This supplement is definitely going to cure your symptoms. You should try this diet. It’ll get rid of all your pain.
Within the wellness industry, there's a huge variance in subcategories: diet, fitness, workplace resilience, CBD, yoga, skincare, tourism. Commercialized wellness borrows customs from varying traditions and repackages them for modern trends. With promises of authenticity, these products often are shallow, anesthetized versions of the original ideas they're derived from. The profit motives are obvious; the wellness industry "represents a $4.4tn market" (Global Wellness Institute).
The wellness industry at times relies on well established foundations of health, like diet and exercise. That said, they have the capacity to be predatory (e.g. promises that castor oil can cure cancer, cults of true love like the Twin Flames Universe). Once initated into the cult of wellness, for some it becomes a benign obsession and others a debilitating dogma.
Our obsession with wellness might come from our lack of good health. Despite our copious spending on privatized healthcare (more than 18% of GDP), Americans suffer from "lower life expectancy at birth and die more often from avoidable or treatable conditions than people in other high-income nations". Not only are Americans some of the most stressed on our planet, but over 20% of us live with mental illness.
We have become a self-care nation. Though arguably one that still lacks the fundamentals of wellbeing.
Women, who report higher levels of stress , anxiety , depression and burnout , may be particularly susceptible to wellness. The perfectionism we impose on women, especially those with demanding care taker roles, forces us to contort our bodies to visions of how we should be. Admidst unending impossible expectations, how could we not fall into this "new form of faith?" Wellness promises what many religions also promise: happiness, purpose, and above all, everlasting life.
It feels like the world is on fire sometimes and it's not just global warming. Even if we could optimize every moment of our lives, there's no avoiding impending disasters and atrocities. While we have the capacity to direct ourselves through our will, systemic and environmental factors impede real boundaries in our lives. Not impossible or inescapable boundaries, but REAL boundaries.
"According to one well-trafficked statistic , the social determinants of health – factors like air quality, domestic safety, community support and education access – account for as much as 80% of health outcomes."
The Wellness Industry slyly makes promises it won't keep. Think about it. Wellness promises happiness, health, long life, better relationships, stable careers. If any one of these are lacking, whose fault is it? You're not "doing wellness" well enough. If unregulated, it can cyclically convince you that the solution to all of your problems is the right attitude. It's a trick to get you to spend money, and a potent one at that.
We’re sedating women with consumerist self-care. You’re not stressed because you’re not doing enough yoga or taking enough bubble baths. There are other, bigger reasons why you feel stressed out. Maybe it’s because you don’t have maternity benefits. Maybe it’s because your boss is emailing you after 6pm. Maybe it’s because your partner doesn’t help you with the workload at home. These are the things that get shoved under the rug and instead you’re told that you yourself, alone, have to take care of the issues.
When self optimization becomes our main goal, it seeps into our daily rhetoric. Key phrases bombard us everywhere. We have to "take care", buy "mood-boosting" products, and use "hacks" to become "a better you."
Like a hamster on a wheel, we chase impossible expectations of wellness. Our discomfort with our own pain, fallibility, and mortality pushes us into a rat race to escape the inescapable.
We rigidly self regulate and surveil what we eat, drink, wear, think, read, watch, say, write, produce, consume, present, love, hate, feel indifferent towards.
It's a lot.
There will be a day when we are unwell. It may be soon or far in the future, but unwellness is inevitable. If we never feel well enough, when will we?
As consumers, we are required to curate a lifestyle aimed at maximizing our wellbeing. When we engage in boring activities, such as washing up at home, we should think of them as improving our mindfulness. Even baking a loaf of bread is now recast as a way of nurturing our wellbeing.
Wellness culture often implies "that it is not sufficient to simply feel good – we could always be accomplishing more." If there is always more for to be accomplished without rest, this obligation can easily take over our lives. Instead of improving our minds and bodies, it may debilitate them.
You can think of death bitterly or with resignation … and take every possible measure to postpone it. Or, more realistically, you can think of life as an interruption of an eternity of personal nonexistence, and seize it as a brief opportunity to observe and interact with the living, ever-surprising world around us.
The wellness industry often provides snake oil solutions to very real problems. Real Wellness doesn't have a price tag or a combo deal or blowout sale. It's about ensuring conditions we thrive in whether:
And when we don't thrive, it's about accepting that we won't always perform at our best. Not as a cheat code for performing better later, but because we are already enough.
Perhaps wellness, if we are to embrace its full potential, should dispense with the fantasy that we should always be fit and chipper, or strive to be. Perhaps it is far healthier to agitate against the circumstances making us sick and miserable than it is to latch our hopes to another glossy promise.
It may be worthwhile to sit back and consider the hold that the cult of wellness has on our lives. We're here for a reason: because we've made a conscious decision to try to live more meaningful lives. When that goal overwhelms the very life we're trying to appreciate, it's gone too far. We have the option to accept life's unpredictability and relish in it. We can choose.
We're alive. What a gift.
Free Palestine 🇵🇸
This adopted version of Katherine Rowland's incredible article speaks to the dangers of wellness culture gone too far. I've added a few examples and summarized key ideas, but my representation is mostly loyal to the original article. I found this work to be incredibly poignant and relevant, especially on a social media focused on self improvement. I hope you enjoy!
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