I am a little bit enthralled by the idea of wellness. There’s something so appealing about the idea that wholesome activities and personal investments can make a huge change to all aspects of my life. I recently got hold of a jade roller, and the other day I scoped out my local reformer pilates classes. I keep telling myself that while the price seems steep, it’s an investment in myself and I’ll benefit from it not just physically, but mentally too.
Does this sound familiar? It seems like a lot of the world has had a similar conversation with themselves – The global wellness economy was worth $4.2 trillion dollars in 2017, and has only been growing since then. In this 2017 survey of American women, 39% of millennials surveyed said they had taken classes to achieve greater wellness, 40% had downloaded wellness apps and 30% had tried an over-the-counter/non prescription product. We are a wellness generation, and we’re willing to spend money on it.
So what is wellness? The wellness economy encompasses a lot of different things – retreats and “wellness tourism”, alternative medicine, nutrition, fitness and personal care, just to name a few. I hadn’t realised how expansive it was, but when you take in the range of products and experiences that claim to improve how “well” you are, it really does range from a face moisturiser all the way to a ten-day holistic stay in India.
The core ideas are innocent enough; let’s be real, it’s hard to deny that yoga or meditation is good for us. But as you creep up through the expanse of wellness-related investments, it can start to look like a Gwyneth Paltrow paid endorsement at every turn. Detox diets, boutique fitness classes, an array of beautifully-packaged vitamin tablets… how do we know which one is worth our money? There’s hardly any research on the effectiveness of nutritional detoxes, or whether adding spirulina to our breakfasts affects anything at all. And again, pretty much all of these wellness lifestyle changes involve regular investment, which totals up to a fair proportion of our salaries. I need to start asking myself if these products are worth spending my time and energy researching, as ultimately they will cost a lot more than that if I decide to bite the bullet.
If it wasn’t already slightly sinister in a commercial sense, there’s also the issue of who the industry is targeting. So many of the “innovations” in wellness crossover with other industries who often target women – specifically beauty, fitness and weight loss. I’ve spent a lot of my life being sold hair-removal creams and Spanx through ads on TV, in magazines, on the train… I thought there was something too natural about the way wellness was being marketed to me, and I think it’s because it fits the model of how I’ve been advertised to before so well. The language used alongside the products is concerning too – the word “clean” seems to be written next all over beauty products and cookbooks which all appear in Google when you search for “wellness” products. Is it okay to imply such criticism of our lifestyle habits? Is my old face wash dirty now? Is the sandwich I had for lunch something to be ashamed of? The way that wellness products are being marketed to us is just another way to put pressure on women who are finally finding some empowerment through advertising in recent years.
Why do we adopt these wellness habits, or invest money in wellness products? A lot of the time, it’s because of a recommendation from a friend, an influencer, or a celebrity we look up to. I’m particularly fascinated by just how convincing the wellness influencers are; I first found out about acai bowls, liver cleanses and apple cider vinegar through Instagram and YouTube videos, not Guardian articles or advertisements. Wellness on social media has spilled over to podcasts, Facebook groups and blog posts (ironic,) influencing us to change our daily habits even when we haven’t searched for advice directly. I personally find wellness influencers kind of gross; it frustrates me to watch them blur the lines of spirituality, health and diet culture into a melting pot of self-improvement philosophies under a sweet guise of empowerment. Your Pankhurst quotations aren’t fooling me, Elspeth – I know you’ve got a Goop affiliate link in your bio as you recommend that ninety-day supplement programme to your teenage audience. I am fully aware that as an influencer, I also push a narrative of sorts, but I struggle to not morally judge when I see the faux-empowering tone of those Instagram posts and videos alongside a clear self-improvement complex. They offer a lot to aspire to – daily morning yoga, carrying crystals, travelling the world – all to find an enlightenment that will magically make them feel better. It all just feels a bit too much like magic, you know?
There’s something else worth mentioning with regard to the Elspeth’s of the world – whilst some of the industry is targeting you, a hefty portion of it is probably excluding you too. Ever noticed how these boutique fitness classes only feature size eights in their website photos? How many wellness influencers can you think of who aren’t able-bodied, skinny, rich, white women? Part of the hard sell is that you will always be striving for more, and self-improvement is marketed to people who feel far off from the aspirational images being portrayed on Instagram and beyond. Wellness is being sold to you, but you aren’t likely to feel a part of it unless you fit a specific set of criteria in the upper echelons of stereotypical femininity.
Ultimately, I find this topic a bit uncomfortable to explore. I don’t like to pick holes in the things I enjoy, or second-guess myself on the practises I use to make myself feel better. Is it any wonder that women have picked up crystals or started a juice cleanse on the promise that it will improve the way they feel, after years of being told we need to do better, work harder and be more assertive? Appearing to take control of our lives through such lifestyle changes or purchases seems appealing; it presents itself in an obvious way to others, alongside making us feel like we will see immediate results even if they are a placebo. And often, these unconventional methods or purchases will have been recommended by a female colleague or friend – someone “safe” that you trust, as opposed to some self-righteous, patronising male think tank. It feels sisterly, like someone is looking out for you.
Despite all of this, I think it’s important to ask the uncomfortable questions and to reflect on them honestly. Am I buying into yet another trend that is built around women’s insecurities? Am I then using it to self-medicate? Or does it get reimagined once I take part and become a trend that I, alongside other women, own and shape and ultimately profit from? Many businesses we associate with wellness are often founded or run by women. I don’t have a concrete answer, and as the industry develops, perhaps some of these issues will be resolved. All I hope for at the moment is for the agency of the wellness trend to be in the hands of the women who spend their salaries on it.