On a recent “wellness Wednesday” the Australian model Miranda Kerr burned a stick of palo santo, an aromatic wood used in South American spiritual rituals or by Instagrammers seeking to clear out bad vibes, before reaching for her pack of “Empower Yourself” cards, available for $15 from her skincare brand, Kora Organics.
“I like to shuffle and randomly pick a card because I feel like that’s the message that’s meant for you on a particular day,” she told her followers on Instagram. The card instructed her to “smile often” and when she did, she revealed teeth as bright as lightbulbs.
Kerr, a wellness fanatic who has more than 12 million followers on Instagram, began broadcasting her “wellness Wednesday” videos on the site in April, weeks after her home city of Los Angeles went into lockdown. On this occasion, she practised yoga with a teacher named Onkar Ryan. Ryan, who spoke via a teleconference link, was feeling some full moon energy. Kerr was curious. “I know the tides are affected by the moon and us being human and you know, a high percentage water, I guess it affects us as well,” she said.
“For me personally, it really does,” Ryan said.
The $4.5trn wellness industry – the universe of clean eating and super foods, juices, mylks, supplements, skincare routines and self-care baths, boutique gyms, yoga, mindfulness, meditation, CBD, crystals, alternative medicine, holistic anything – has never been so seductive. Who does not want to boost their immune system during a pandemic? Who does not want to find some way, any way, to ward off the virus and ease their anxiety?
The pandemic has created an opening for wellness gurus to peddle their immuno-boosting tonics and to proselytise to a newly receptive online audience. “Stay Home. Stay Welle,” the supermodel Elle MacPherson’s health brand WelleCo instructed, directing fans to products such as “The Super Booster”, a powdered plum concoction said to provide two weeks’ worth of “immune system support”, for $92 (or £85 in the UK). By going online during the lockdown, wellness brands have expanded their reach. A summit convened by Gwyneth Paltrow (the lodestar for a generation of celebrities-turned-wellness entrepreneurs), In Goop Health, usually costs hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars to attend. This year it costs nothing to watch the events online. High-end fitness studios have begun offering online classes, often through monthly membership schemes that cost less than a single in-person lesson.
The closure of gyms has also boosted the popularity of modern at-home fitness equipment such as Peloton exercise bikes, which allow you to stream spin classes on demand, and a reflective digital workout screen called “The Mirror”. “I have been a club member for many years and never enjoyed the crowded classes, loud music and instructors always talking about their personal lives. I purchased The Mirror so I didn’t have to deal with that. I fell in love with it,” a reviewer recently wrote on the company’s website, perfectly encapsulating the narcissism of modern fitness culture.
“Wellness… there’s a word you don’t hear every day,” the journalist Dan Rather remarked in 1979, introducing a segment for the news show 60 Minutes on CBS. “It means exactly what you might think it means, the opposite of illness. It’s a movement catching on all over the country,” he continued. The documentary focused on the work of John Travis, who in 1975 established the US’s first wellness centre in California. “We don’t treat, diagnose or prescribe; our role is to help the person discover why they are sick,” Travis told the programme. It featured a man named Julian whose persistent headaches were resolved using “biofeedback”. “Biofeedback basically is an electronic device used to measure the amount of stress or tension in a person’s body,” the narrator intoned while on screen a man fiddled with knobs on a machine with handwritten labels saying “TEMP” and “EMG”. “You just raised your hand temperature one degree,” someone mutters to Julian, who has a probe on his index finger and a few electrodes on his forehead. The documentary represented wellness as a form of “self-care” – which meant teaching people to diagnose and treat themselves. “In wellness, you are your own guru,” one interviewee said.
As wellness has entered the cultural mainstream in the intervening decades, it has retained much of this anti-science, individualist ethos. Wellness means something more than simply staving off disease. It’s the belief that it’s everyone’s right and indeed their moral duty to care for and love themselves. Wellness is about celebrating yourself. It’s trusting your body and its innate wisdom, it’s surrounding yourself with people who make you feel good and ideas that work for you, it’s empowering yourself with a playing card and knowing that the moon affects you because you feel it does and you live your own truth. It’s a world view that flourishes amid uncertainty, responding to a desire for reassurance, for protection, for positive affirmation, and it blooms like a corpse flower, at once alluring and grotesque.
The dark side of wellness has always been inseparable from its optimistic insistence that we can all be our own doctors, our own gurus. The modern cult of wellness promotes pseudo-science, entrenches health inequalities and co-opts political terms such as “self-love” and “empowerment” into something you can buy. It encodes a rampant individualism: the idea that you alone are responsible for your well-being. Wellness gurus treat the self as the source of endless improvement while acting as though a person’s socio-economic environment is as immutable as the laws of physics, hardly worth mentioning, unless you wish to add a line about your privilege in a gratitude journal.
Coronavirus is devastating poorer and black, white and minority ethnic communities: those who cannot work from home, who live in overcrowded housing, who have inadequate healthcare, who are more likely to suffer from chronic stress, hypertension, diabetes, obesity and other conditions that increase one’s risk of dying from the virus. Government figures show that people in the most deprived parts of England and Wales are twice as likely to die of the virus as those in the richest areas. Black people are four times more likely to die than white.
The pandemic brings into sharper relief an old truth: good health is a luxury. Even before the virus hit, the wealthiest in England could expect to live almost a decade longer than those in the least affluent parts of the country. This is a time to look outward, at how to reshape society in the aftermath of a pandemic. Wellness instead encourages people to look inwards, to find spiritual fulfilment and a sense of purpose through practising mindfulness or gratitude or clean eating. Amid this public health catastrophe, it becomes clearer that wellness is not a cure but a symptom of social malaise.
Like many women, I first got into wellness because I have spent most of my adult life wishing I were thinner, and the photogenic rainbow salads and cold-pressed juices offered a more appealing way to restrict my diet than the diet-coke-and-cigarettes, nothing-tastes-as-good-as-skinny-feels philosophy of the early Noughties, when I first started believing that my life would be better if I took up less space. Wellness diets are enticing because they reconfigure a form of self-loathing – the desire to diminish oneself – as a form of self-love. The wellness practitioner’s body is a temple, nourished only by food that is “clean” or “whole” or “pure”. The well celebrity is someone who once struggled with their body image but has now learned to embrace their “strength” and “curves”. That these wellness gurus are conventionally attractive is not coincidental. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t want to be like them. If we did not absorb the subtext – if a slim, toned, Hollywood-worthy body is so hard to love, what about all those other bodies? – they’d have nothing to sell us.
I used to wonder why I cared so much, why it matters to me that my body should return to the shape it was before I gave birth, why I suspend my professionally honed scepticism at every beauty counter and spend too much on creams without knowing what exactly I’m buying – surely not everlasting youth or immortality, though it can feel that way for 30 seconds or so. I once told a friend, perhaps to test the idea more than anything, that in my thirties I wanted to learn to accept that I am not beautiful. I did not mean that I thought I was completely unattractive or unlovable, merely that I did not want to live life as though I could meet some socially agreed standard of beauty if only I finally worked out the right products to buy. She was horrified. I was selling myself so short!
In her 2018 book, Perfect Me, the philosopher Heather Widdows argues that beauty is becoming an ethical ideal. Our appearance-obsessed culture associates beauty with inherent goodness and beauty work – such as dieting or exercise or facials – with virtue. “We view ourselves as successful when we have attained some aspect of our ideal; when we’ve reached our goal weight, filled our wrinkles, or firmed our thighs,” she writes. “The converse is also true. To fail to engage is to admit or accept that ‘you’re not worth it’. Piling on the pounds is not just an aesthetic but a moral failure: ‘You let yourself go.’” The demands of wellness culture, which are ostensibly about health but more often than not actually about aesthetics, are not easy to opt out of. Not everyone is interested in following the latest clean-eating trend or life-changing facial treatment, and few have the means to, but moralistic attitudes towards food and body shape are pervasive, so deeply engrained in how we think about ourselves and others that we often don’t notice them.
A couple of years ago I was nevertheless jolted by some new posters for a sports club close to my home in Manhattan. “Resistance bands not travel bans,” one said. “Warming up not global warming,” said another. The suggestion that one might cancel the other – that going to the gym in some way offsets xenophobic policymaking or climate change – is ludicrous, but the pronouncements were a clumsier version of the sleight modern fitness brands perform all the time, by suggesting that a workout serves some higher spiritual or moral purpose. “Change your body, find your soul,” the cult spin studio SoulCycle promises; “Make yourself a gift to the world,” the luxury gym chain Equinox urges.
Earlier this year, before my building’s gym closed, I became obsessed with its Peloton exercise bike. The instructors, whose classes can be streamed via a touchscreen above the bike’s handle bars, intersperse their directions to pedal harder or faster with pseudo-profound pep talks. What hurts you only makes you stronger, they say. Those highs and lows in a Peloton class? Well they are just like life, and if you can fight your way up this (imaginary) hill you can fight anything. You’re a winner just by showing up today. Thank you for doing this for your friends and your family. When your heart is pounding and your endorphins are surging and your head is filled with Nineties pop, it feels great to believe you’re also doing something noble. But I don’t think it’s true.
After I completed 100 Peloton rides, the dubious achievement of having spent at least 50 hours cycling on the spot, the company sent me a T-shirt and, here’s the thing, I wore it with pride. It’s not uncommon for converts to gym culture to remark on how “strong” and “empowered” they feel now. I felt strong. But the brute strength acquired on an exercise bike or lifting weights is redundant if, like most of us, you spend more time sending emails than, say, subduing wild animals. In this context, strength and empowerment are reduced to little more than personal feelings, not tools for making change in the world. Wellness culture has shown remarkable success, however, in reducing political concepts – such as solidarity, freedom, independence – to emotional states, so that politics becomes something marketable and unchallenging, a personal journey rather than a collective one.
It could be argued that the rise of wellness reflects our collective disempowerment, the sense that we are buffeted by economic forces beyond our individual control. “Having no hope of improving their lives in any of the ways that matter, people have convinced themselves that what matters is psychic self-improvement: getting in touch with their feelings, eating health food, taking lessons in ballet or belly- dancing, immersing themselves in the wisdom of the East, jogging, learning how to ‘relate’, overcoming the ‘fear of pleasure’,” historian Christopher Lasch wrote in The Culture of Narcissism, a 1979 book that still resonates. “The contemporary climate is therapeutic, not religious. Today people hunger not for personal salvation, let alone for the restoration of an earlier golden age, but for the feeling, the momentary illusion, of personal well-being, health and psychic security.”
In The Wellness Syndrome (2015), André Spicer and Carl Cederström argued that when wellness became a moral imperative, “turning life into an exercise in wellness optimisation”, it both distracted people from pressing questions of social and economic justice and fuelled prejudice against less healthy members of society. “These people are demonised as lazy, feeble or weak willed. They are seen as obscene deviants,” they wrote.
The sad truth is that although wellness has now been taken up by an anxious elite, many of the ideas co-opted by the movement were developed in response to inequality and marginalisation. Feminists and civil rights activists in the Sixties and Seventies recognised that health equality was inseparable from their political goals and established their own health centres and programmes to redress the bias of a white, male-dominated medical profession. Before it was a hashtag, self-care was a way for an individual to assert their worth in a society that routinely overlooked them. “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare,” the black lesbian feminist poet Audre Lorde wrote. Now the idea of self-care as a prerequisite to social activism has been eclipsed by the idea of self-care as simply pampering oneself, which is seen as a moral end in and of itself.
A similar process has occurred with the rise in popularity of mindfulness, first among the wellness community and then by the cultural and political mainstream. Countless newspaper articles have promoted it as a tool for coping with pandemic anxiety. Mindfulness, the psychological practice of being fully aware of the present moment, has its roots in Buddhist meditation and can be a radical and even revolutionary undertaking. It can be interpreted as demanding the relinquishment of a false attachment to the self in favour of global compassion, and an instruction to pay attention to injustice. Yet, as the management professor and Buddhist Ronald Purser argued in his 2019 book, McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality, the version popularised in the West directs people to pay no heed to the gap between what is and what should be, and to accept their feelings without judgement. It teaches that the cause of our suffering is internal, rather than a product of our social and economic circumstances. Mindfulness is reduced to a “tool for self-discipline, disguised as self-help”, Purser wrote. Stress has been “depoliticised and privatised”, so that, “if we are unhappy about being unemployed, losing our health insurance, and seeing our children incur massive debt through college loans, it is our responsibility to learn to be more mindful”.
Radical stillness: a monk meditating at a Buddhist monastery in Korea. Credit: Steve McCurry/Magnum Photos
The popular makeover show Queer Eye shows how the strange moralism and insidious neoliberalism of wellness culture has infiltrated mainstream thinking over the past decade or so. In the original TV show, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, which premiered in 2003, five gay men help a succession of hapless individuals transform themselves by throwing money at them, giving them new haircuts, new wardrobes and a total home renovation. When it rebooted in 2018 the Queer Eye makeover was more about spiritual than physical change. The “fab five” are all tastemakers but their suggestions on what clothes to buy or moisturiser to use are inseparable from their moral guidance, their tips on how to broaden one’s horizons, overcome internal obstacles and, above all, love oneself.
The American show has found ways to talk about divisive issues such as police brutality or homophobia in the church, but it is strikingly silent on questions of economic justice. One episode focuses on Bobby Camp, a 48-year-old father of six who works two jobs. His wife complains that he “never takes time for himself” and “looks like a homeless person”. Jonathan Van Ness, a big-hearted, witty hairdresser with long hair and a manicured beard, asks Camp to describe his daily routine. Camp gets home from work at 4am, rises at 6.30am to get the kids ready for school and then has ten minutes to get ready for work again. “If you could create three minutes of time in your day where you get to, like, be there for yourself, that would be nice,” Van Ness says, before prescribing him sunscreen and pomade.
It’s never suggested that Camp’s main problem is that he must work two jobs. His problem is his poor self-grooming, a worrying symptom of low self-regard and poor self-discipline, and luckily there’s a solution to that. The dark undercurrent of wellness’s feel-good, love-yourself philosophy is that what appears to offer a relief from participating in a competitive, unequal, neoliberal economy in reality ends up blaming individuals for their own unhappiness. Why can’t you be more mindful, or practise some self-care?
The minute the phrase ‘having it all’ lost favour among women, wellness came in to pick up the pieces,” the writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner observed in the New York Times in 2018. For women, wellness can feel like a corrective to the twin ideals of maternal self-sacrifice and corporate “girlboss” feminism. Crucially, most wellness trends are pitched towards women who are privileged enough to have once expected they could “have it all”. They are affluent and, almost always, white; they are disappointed and tired and frustrated; they feel worn-out, ill. Wellness professionals will take your pain and your suffering seriously. The anti-medicine, anti-science attitude that prevails in this world did not emerge in a vacuum. Doctors still frequently dismiss women’s pain and misdiagnose physical symptoms as psychosomatic. In the UK it takes an average of around eight years for a woman suffering from endometriosis, an excruciatingly painful condition that causes infertility, to receive a diagnosis. Doctors are twice as likely to prescribe women anti-depressants even when they do not report feeling depressed than they are to men in the same position. “Wellness arrived because it was gravely needed,” Brodesser-Akner wrote.
The anti-science strand of wellness culture is one of its more dangerous elements as coronavirus spreads around the globe. Medicine offers the best hope of salvation: we need effective treatments, a vaccine, a plan for how to reopen economies without provoking devastating second and third waves of the disease. But for those seeking reassurance or certainty science has little to offer. There is so much doctors still don’t understand about Covid-19. That’s scary. The desperation for answers and a tendency towards wishful thinking create an opportunity for wellness gurus to market alternative therapies.
Even as Donald Trump drew widespread condemnation for suggesting bleach or sunlight injections as a cure for coronavirus, Cristina Cuomo, a wellness writer married to the CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, shared virus-combating tips on her blog that included bleach baths “to combat the radiation and pollutants in [her] system and oxygenate it”, as well as a “body charger”, a “pulsed electromagnetic field machine”, and various vitamins, “medicinal florals” and Ayurvedic foods. Accompanying the pseudo-science were faux-woke acknowledgements of her own privilege. “Many of the treatments that I relied on are actually cheaper than conventional medicine, like the broth of cayenne pepper, ginger and garlic or the lemon and ginger tea or vitamin C,” she wrote. “Once you commit to managing this lifestyle, it’s actually the easiest and least expensive way to manage health,” she alleged, as though herbal tea could protect a supermarket worker from coming into contact with the virus, or an immunocompromised person from ending up on a ventilator. The idea that we can individually “manage health” suggests that what really separates the sick and the well in this pandemic is not economic, social and racial inequality so stark and so pervasive it should shame us all, but an insufficient personal commitment to staying well.
Despite all this, I think most wellness gurus are well-intentioned. They do not understand the harm they are perpetuating. Their cures can bring real relief. The problems they identify are often genuine, but they tend to treat the wrong patients: thin white women with freshly diagnosed food intolerances are not the demographic most affected by the unhealthiness of our modern, over-processed diets; city bankers are not among those in greatest need of stress relief. Those who most need wellness are less likely to have access to it.
It would be ungenerous not to point out that almost every wellness guru I researched while writing this piece is involved in charitable fundraising during the pandemic. It would, however, be remiss not to also point out that I have found it easier to clap for healthcare workers than seriously to consider the changes I would need to make to my own life to contribute to a radical restructuring of how work, and people, are valued and remunerated.
A dedication to wellness offers temporary relief, and an easy way out. I want to believe that the best I can do now is to care for myself, to meditate and exercise daily, to eat wholesome food and soak in aromatic baths. I wish I could wait out the pandemic in some remote, self-sufficient cabin, and feed my children perfect food to keep them strong and safe. I wish I could practise mindfulness and let my feelings float by like fish in a tank, accepting my fear and anger and sadness, and then letting them go. But now is the time to hold on to one’s righteous fury and desperate sadness and to try to turn it into something. In a pandemic we all deserve something better than wellness.
This article appears in the 17 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The History Wars