What is Contemporary “Wellness”?

BY HAZEL O’NEIL

A variation of this piece was originally published on porridge.blog. Check it out here for an in-depth analysis into the historical background and evolution behind contemporary wellness.

            We hear about wellness in advertising at the grocery store and shampoo aisle, we see articles about wellness on Facebook, we check out books at the library about decluttering our homes and the Danish tradition of cozy candlelight hygge in the name of achieving wellness. At its basis, wellness is a holistic state of physical and psychological ease – it is the opposite of “dis-ease.”  Wellness is not strictly medical. Historically, experts have included doctors, spiritual leaders, and athletes or physical trainers in peak physical condition. Yet, with the cultural changes brought about by the advent of internet – niche consumer communities, constant online presence and self promotion, exponential expansion of access to information – the definition of an expert has loosened. A burgeoning DIY wellness culture of “lifestyle bloggers”, or self declared advice-givers seeking to spread good vibes, has rooted itself in the cultural digital milieu.

Gwyneth Paltrow, of Contagion fame, might have been case zero in the lifestyle guru lineage, when she began “Goop,” in 2008. “The Goop Scoop” was originally an email newsletter in which interested readers subscribed to a weekly update of what Gwyneth was eating, reading, and smearing on her face. Since, it has grown into a website and “modern lifestyle brand, offering cutting wellness advice,” and inspired other major news outlets, such as the New York Times and Buzzfeed, to develop their own custom wellness newsletters.

As a result, the web has become a never-ending rabbit hole of listicles and pithy explanations of wellness.

Most readers are not interested in devoting themselves to achieving nirvana, but an easy relief from modern stressors and anxiety. Gwyneth Paltrow’s brand of wellness reduces complicated concepts into easily clickable and digestible titles: How to Get the Most out of a 15 Minute Work Out, These Easy Tricks Can Help You Sleep More, Make Your Commute Stress Free, and other McMindfulness. Wellness seems to be a combination of regimen (diet, fitness, sleep) and appropriated spirituality, often based in Eastern religions. Yoga classes, goddess juices, herbal teas with calming and weight loss qualities are repurposed into a fairly homogenous yuppie culture – wellness, along with everything on goop.com, can be bought.

“Health” and “beauty” have been fashioned into commodities that are means to the ultimate end product of an exalted lifestyle. Many advertisements use fear tactics to push the urgency of wellness. The looming threat of obesity in a highly visual and appearance-oriented society has always existed, disproportionately and at times exclusively for women (see corsets, Twiggy). Our society struggles with incompatible desires for consumption, leisure, and health. Advertisers have exploited this tension to sell not only products, but also insecurity, and have created an industrial health complex. Membership-based fitness studios, organic juice chains, brand name leggings: all are products, many of them expensive, that function as status symbols in a culture that incorporates fitness and nutrition with vanity. Members of this new leisure class are those who can afford to spend time at the gym and money on açaí bowls.

In exchange for their money, customers seek not only a beautiful body, but an overall body high. Gyms sell to fitness junkies, hooked on endorphin rushes. Beauty products sell clearer skin, using natural and organic as adjectives persuasive of a face scrub’s efficacy, and indiscriminately target sugar, carbohydrates, oils, and salts as the culprit for pimples. Sponsored magazines and websites promise their readers justified superiority in exchange for subscribing to their particular brand of lifestyle. Because consumers worked and spent for that beautiful body, their appearance or consumption indicates willpower, perseverance, and economic privilege. In exchange for consumers’ hard work, companies promote rewards: “#treatyoself” with indulgent “clean food” desserts or new workout gear. And then, viciously, the cycle begins again: consumers are guilted into burning off their dessert and putting those new sneakers to use.

There are undercurrents of social Darwinism in wellness rhetoric. Foodies are concerned with preserving their bodies, ingesting only the most pure and high quality sources, and achieving peak health and performance, towards easy reproduction. Their disgust of those who are “poisoning themselves” with industrial processed food is a coded way of expressing disgust towards the consumers of these foods, at their existence and at their role in society. Self-titled “America’s healthiest grocery store,” Whole Foods™ is the corporate winner in channeling anxiety over health and consumption into a profit, utilizing targeted ad campaigns guilt-tripping parents into feeding their children organic food, making eating healthily a familial obligation. There is willful ignorance on the part of many shoppers that many people are economically restricted from Whole Foods™, or “Whole Paycheck.” Those who are excluded from the elite wellness culture might reject the movement entirely and swing hard to the other side of the pendulum and actively reject exercise and healthy eating. This has played out nationally in a partisan fight over public school lunches – wellness for our children. One woman in a rural Tennessee town, one without a Whole Foods, said that feeding her kids tater tots for lunch was a “personal f— u to Michelle Obama,” the former first lady who devoted much time and energy into fighting the national childhood obesity epidemic.

The solution to democratizing wellness, however, is by digitizing it.

In many ways, the wellness movement manifests itself most forcefully on Instagram. Social media is appearance-oriented in form, especially Instagram, where users only post photos. A recent UK psychology study cited Instagram as the most detrimental of all social media platforms for users’ mental health. According to their findings, the app exacerbates low feelings of self-worth and body image, competition with celebrities and real life acquaintances, anxiety about missing out, and deprives its more obsessive users of sleep when they wake up in the night to check new posts. By formal definition, the app explicitly encourages self promotion. Thus, appearance-oriented Instagram becomes a political arena of virtual quantifiable popularity contests. Photos of yoga poses backlit by a setting sun, green smoothies in mason jars, water with lemons in mason jars, and body positive post-workout selfies, for example, are all images associated with wellness that might be construed as competitive self promotion.

“Eat like me to be like me,” say the lifestyle gurus, and their photographs become a conspicuous consumption of a doctored life.

Further, corporate Instagrams are fluent in the visual language of wellness culture. The photo of a glistening cucumber water becomes repurposed into an advertisement for a brand of water bottle, or a spa package. But for many, Instagram wellness culture serves as a grassroots archive of inspiration and information for those seeking guidance on how to care for their bodies. In the 1950s, nationally syndicated magazines, self-help books, recipes on the back of food brands assumed the role of the nation’s parents. Betty Crocker and Dr. Oz taught the young people recently separated from their families and living on their own in the brave-yet-isolated new world of the suburbs all sorts of How To’s. Today’s iteration of those modern pioneers, coming of age in the post-digital, globally connected, 3/4 overweight world, are also crowdsourcing advice; but thanks to the advent of the internet, their pedagogy comes not only from celebrities, but from friends and the real people behind blog posts and popular Instagrams.

Instagram is a free app. Although access is limited by digital hardware – one needs a camera, the internet, and usually a smartphone to participate on the social media platform – it has had an enormous democratizing effect on health and wellness media. People of all different beliefs, ethnicities, shapes, and sizes post on Instagram. The vast majority of mainstream media glorifies a limited beauty standard that has been subjectively defined, and certainly not with health in consideration. Women in film and television never eat much. When they exercise, their faces are glowy and flushed, never dripping wet or grimacing (excluding the comic relief fat friend character).

Today, beautifully, niche interests can thrive without competition for a single broadcasting channel, and anyone can find a fitness instructor who looks like them, or a recipe blog that is sensitive to their specialty diets. We live in the age of gluten-free vegan pizza rolls. We live in a world where fitness gurus squash watermelons with their “thick thighs” and get thousands of likes. Through online community, individuals are able to seek connection and affirmation by sharing their experiences with others, thus providing support and alleviating the overwhelming nebulous goal of attaining wellness. What is important is that wellness remains an inclusive and inspirational lifestyle for everyone.

This lifestyle writer recommends mindful gratitude, long walks, and lots of water.

For more on health, Instagram, and food culture, visit porridge.blog and other musings here.

Illustration by the multitalented author, Hazel. Illustration by the multitalented author, Hazel.

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