Selling Wellness

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Photo by Crew on Unsplash

If you’ve spent any time on the internet you’ve encountered “wellness.” You can probably list off the things that “wellness” is a euphemism for: whiteness, thinness, able-bodiedness, middle/upper classness, performative consumption.

Wellness, rather than the state of being well, is an ongoing project by which certain (mostly? exclusively?) women either signal their inclusion in an exclusive strata or strive to gain entry.

As the president of Saks Fifth Avenue said,

“The wellness thing is big”…”We’re calling it ‘the new luxury.’ It used to be about fur and leather. But people just want to feel better.”

Wellness, if you were to only examine it through the lens of Instagram and lifestyle bloggers, is about $12 cold-pressed juices, yoga poses that photograph well, $50 water bottles (no, I will never get over how expensive those god damn water bottles are), and something else. What is that other thing? Oh, yes, being young, thin, white, and conventionally attractive. 

Wellness is the lie that severely restricting your diet promotes health, rather than being perhaps necessary to maintain the level of thinness that sells wellness. Wellness is the patina of body positivity that covers the same old expectations and privilege of thinness. Wellness is the same old diet culture given an empowerful makeover.

In both my undergraduate and graduate degrees I was challenged to define health. Is it the absence of disease? Is it a positive state? Is it a state at all? Is it a continuum that we move up and down throughout our lives? Is it the choices we make? Or is it the particular intersection of our genetics and histories with the social determinants of health?

The social determinants of health are the social and economic factors that impact our health, either positively or negatively. There are fourteen generally recognized social determinants of health (although the particulars vary slightly by country and thought system, these are the ones used in the Canadian context):

  1. Income and income distribution
  2. Education
  3. Unemployment and job security
  4. Employment and working conditions
  5. Early childhood development
  6. Food insecurity
  7. Housing
  8. Social exclusion
  9. Social safety network
  10. Health services
  11. Aboriginal status
  12. Gender
  13. Race
  14. Disability

These are often studied using a political economy of health lens which, in the words of one of my grad professors, asks “who has the power?” when looking at which policies are enacted, who those policies benefit, and how they reify power.

I would argue, using a feminist, social determinants of health, political economy of health lens (that is, how I generally engage with the world), that this focus on wellness as both project and site of performative consumption works to obscure the levers of power, thus reinforcing them.

In a time of intensifying privatization, where a neoliberal ethic pervades all public policymaking, it is notable that the two main conversations happening culturally on health are a) the stripping of the ACA (in Canada we’re seeing smaller, slower inroads at privatizing medicine and dismantling universal healthcare), and b) wellness. In both cases, we see a shifting of the burden for health from the government/collective to the individual. In the case of privatizing medicine the underlying narratives are that 1) if you can’t afford healthcare you don’t deserve it, and 2) it is your responsibility to not get sick. In the case of wellness, it’s that 1) if you can’t afford healthcare you can’t deserve it, and 2) it is your responsibility to not get sick.

Now, these narratives are much subtler in the world of wellness. No one is coming right out and saying them. But we see them over and over again in the ways that wellness is sold. Wellness is an aspiration we (may) reach through buying the right organic superfoods, through spending $35 a class at Soulcycle, through ditching gluten+sugar+dairy+carbs+nightshades+[insert food category du jour], through spending big money on scientifically dubious treatments, and through other means of performative and conspicuous consumption. If you can’t afford these things? Well, you must not want wellness enough. We also see it in the mythos of wellness gurus, who were plagued by some form of unwellness before cutting x,y,z out of their diet, embracing “clean” foods, and simultaneously becoming highly paid “influencers.”

I’m not denying that food can impact your health (as someone with two chronic illnesses that are managed, in part, through diet, I can attest to the impact food has on you). Rather, I am highlighting the way that the focus on food (clean food, paleo food, plant-based food, energizing food) and other means of consumption (expensive exercise classes, cute yoga pants, overly expensive water bottles) lets us remake health into an individual project rather than a collective responsibility.

Because if you’re focusing on goji berries and ClassPass, I can already guarantee you that you’ve got most or all of the social determinants of health working in your favour. If you are dealing with race-based stress and trauma, poverty, unemployment, unsafe housing, lack of access to education, the ongoing impacts of adverse childhood experiences, or any number of combinations of  social determinants of health inequities, your focus is not going to be on fine-tuning your diet, it’s going to be on surviving. But making the conversation on health about wellness (an individual pursuit) rather than on tackling economic inequality, systemic racism, gender-based violence, etc. helps reinforce these human-made systems of power as “just the way things are,” rendering them invisible. And if they’re invisible, then those who benefit from them, prop them up, and normalize them are not called to account.

I’m not saying you can’t follow and be inspired by the health guru du jour, but I am suggesting that we all engage critically with the images and narratives we are being sold around health and wellness and ask ourselves who benefits from these stories being the ones that are told.

 

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