What is the cost of wellness?


The world has paid Gwyneth Paltrow a quarter of a billion dollars for our living rooms to smell like her vagina; Victoria Beckham places empowerment at the hands of her porcelain flower biopeptides (retailing at a mere £161); and Miranda Kerr kindly energises her products with Rose Quartz, her 100ml Turmeric Brightening and Exfoliating Mask only setting you back $62AUD.

We are all accustomed to wellness by now: the world of products that are baffling and unwarranted but still inherently intriguing and alluring. The power of this $4.5trillion industry is forever expanding into the hearts and minds of its followers; but as it continues to prosper in lieu of coronavirus, it is time to look behind its glamorous advocates and examine the extent to which ‘wellness’ is another deception made at the cost of people’s mental wellbeing. 

First, however, I must note that it is not the premise that I take issue with. Wellness gurus, fanatics and professionals are making an excellent point: the idea that our health, both physical and mental, should be seen as something sacred and something we should endeavour to nourish and preserve, is entirely sound. Though the moment that we start placing high price tags on it and peddling the seductive narrative that a single product can fix your life, it seems suspect. 

I have often failed to practise a self-care routine as religiously as I should and perhaps this has at times resulted in a momentary loss of sanity, but nothing awful has happened yet. I have dipped in and out of meditation and yoga, not necessarily failing to see its benefits or its results but rather failing to prioritise it as much as I should. On the whole though, I would say that between healthy eating, exercise as well as taking time out when I finally remember, I treat my body quite well. Yet, while stress and anxiety remain the order of the day, the wellness industry remains just as seductive to me.

When contrasted with the cigarette diets of the 90s or early 2000s, the wellness fad is certainly more of a positive cult to find yourself a part of; but while they may preach ‘being good to yourself’ as the central tenet to their ethos, digging a little deeper shows this cannot be further from the truth. While food in the fashion industry is now semi-acceptable, all of these diet fads are based on a programme self-hate; and wellness is essentially based on changing your body to fit in with the unachievable standard that the fashion industry sets. This being said, there is nothing wrong with being mindful of your diet but these no-carb and no ‘toxin’ diets are unsustainable. I would like to see Victoria Beckham sprinting for the bus on a freezing Monday morning to make her 9am seminar with a diet of simply light foliage. I find it odd that the world of wellness often promotes a diet that is not meeting your body’s needs.

The beaming smiles of the celebrities that promote self-love alongside the creams that will give you it, speak of an individual’s journey to self-enlightenment that is intrinsically linked with flawless beauty: accept yourself so long as you have perfect skin, shining teeth and a beautifully toned body. Sophie McBain writes for the New Statesman, ‘Wellness diets are enticing because they reconfigure a form of self-loathing as a form of self-love’.

Though more dangerous than the obsession with ‘clean-eating’ is the pseudo-scientific or medical language that claims they can fix mental health with a fancy bath bomb or a range of holistic medication. The language that is utilised essentially promotes the idea that you feel anxiety, stress, depression etc. because it is your fault you are missing out on a secret that everyone else knows. Taking this further, as Jenny McCartney writes for The Spectator, ‘the more extreme manifestations of ‘wellness’ theory, however, can take on some cultish aspects, including a deep distrust of conventional medicine combined with an irrational conviction that recovery from disease is chiefly a matter of willpower and dietary self-discipline.’ 

These ‘cultish aspects’ are not simply associated with holistic medication but also adding greater awareness of the choice of product we use on our skin: it is an enticing prospect to have pseudo-health benefits mixed into our everyday products. While the majority of us would be unprepared to go out of our way to buy a new beauty product simply for its wellness benefits, it might be something that we are prepared to pay extra for: marketing tags such as organic, natural, self-love and gratitude seem to be a worthwhile addition for us to pay the higher price. 

The common critique of wellness is that it is an elitist programme designed for the anxious and affluent. It is difficult to ignore this fact but on the whole, I don’t think this is the major problem. The reality is that the core of wellness will always remain untouched by greed, everyone has the ability to access wellness but what they don’t have is the chance to further the ambitions of celebrities capitalising on this new fad. 

The real trouble lies with the belief that if you aren’t feeling better, its because you are doing something wrong and that to fix it you should probably buy a Peleton bike; or its because you don’t have the new fad in your diet like CBD. The fault will always and forever lie with you, but that’s okay because your favourite celebrity will be here to guide you through more rituals and more products and hopefully you can be as happy as them at the end. It’s an endless cycle of self-hatred fuelled by the desire for self-acceptance. 

The advent of Covid-19 therefore was a breeding ground for this belief. With higher levels of anxiety and stress among a larger proportion of the population, wellness has found a new market: it appeals to those of us who are fortunate enough to not experience anxiety and stress as a daily occurrence and who are looking for ways to rebalance and regain control. 

Commercialised wellness is at best bizarre and at worst unethical but that doesn’t mean that the central idea isn’t sound. Poisoned by our need to replace one negative fad with another, we never truly deal with the underlying problems: it is far more reassuring to buy a detox juice infused with self-hate covered by a label of self-love than to confront the truth. Once again our desire to emulate other people has masked, what could have been, a very positive step forward for healthy living in the fashion and beauty industry and for mental health more generally. Therefore, lets truly take some time for ourselves, on our own terms and in our own way and lead healthy, happy lives because we want to be good to ourselves; and not because someone said that we weren’t pretty enough or toned enough and because as human beings, we get spots from time to time. 

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