W is for Wellness: how the wellness industry became a global phenomenon

The twenty-third letter in the New Statesman's A-Z of the decade. 

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There is no period so remote as the recent past, and so though it may seem impossible, it is true: before the 2010s, we lived in a time when there were no major lawsuits involving Hollywood actresses, unsubstantiated marketing claims, or vaginally-inserted jade eggs. A time before our era of Goop scandals, clean eating, self-care packages, fitness influencers, Deliciously Ella, rose quartz rollers, Outdoor Voices, vitamin IVs, Moon Juice, “perineum sunning”, Sweetgreen salads, sound baths, and meditative breathing apps. A time before the global dominance of the multi-trillion-dollar wellness industry.

The 2010s was the decade of wellness – as individuals, societies and governments began to gain a greater understanding of the importance of mental health and wellbeing, corporations equally began to see how those concepts could be monetised beyond traditional diet and exercise programmes. Simultaneously, developments in technology saw social media become a fertile ground for aspirational, photogenic pastimes and enabled complex health-tracking programmes to enter ordinary lives via smartphone apps. And as social awareness of the negative impacts of systemic oppression rose, the language of self-care, empowerment and inclusivity was sold back to people with disposable income, until those very concepts became something you could buy. Stressed out and run down? Get back to your best with some rejuvenating bath oil, an empowering spin class, 20 minutes of app-based meditation and an energy-boosting poke bowl!

As Jia Tolentino writes in her essay "Always Be Optimizing", the wellness industry operates under “the principle of optimization”, and wellness products are bought to demonstrate you are “either acting on or signalling your desire to have an optimized life”. Or, as Barbara Ehrenreich puts it in her book, Natural Causes, the “nebulous and ever-growing “wellness” industry” encourages an unachievable, never-ending “quest for control” over oneself. These “regimens of self-mastery” have no ultimate finishing line – but that’s precisely the point.

Wellness as a concept has its very roots in this endless, impossible search for optimization. The term was popularised by Dr Halbert L Dunn, known as “the father of the wellness movement”, in the 1950s. In his 1961 book High Level Wellness, Dunn explains that “Wellness is conceptualized as dynamic—a condition of change in which the individual moves forward, climbing toward a higher potential of functioning.”

The journey towards wellness involves “maximizing the potential of which the individual is capable … This definition does not imply that there is an optimum level of wellness, but rather that wellness is a direction in progress toward an ever-higher potential of functioning.” In Dunn’s own words, the individual who aims for wellness is looking towards “an open-ended and ever-expanding tomorrow with its challenge to live at a fuller potential”. It almost sounds like a start-up pitch: the conditions for rampant monetisation of the phenomenon laid in the movement’s very foundations.

As we look towards another decade, the wellness industry shows no signs of slowing. It will bend and shift to accommodate new modes of thinking: just as it did in the 2010s, like when the movement’s most stringent proponents of “clean eating” began to distance themselves from the term when it became clear to the general public that this was just a common restrictive diet in sleek, modern get-up. “This shape-shifting shouldn’t come as a shock,” writes Ruby Tandoh in the Guardian. “The big players in the wellness movement are just following the principles that drove wellness into the mainstream in the first place: they’re putting a bright new face on the diet industry. When a fad wears thin, you give it a new name.”

Perhaps wellness will take on a new name in the 2020s. But as long as people are willing to spend today’s money on that open-ended and ever-expanding tomorrow, the movement is here to stay.

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.

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