Over winter break, I went to my first-ever spin class at the gym my mom goes to. Although I had certain preconceived notions about what the class environment might be like, I tried my best to enter the workout space with an open and receptive mind. I thoroughly enjoyed the actual workout, but found the messages that the instructor launched at the class participants questionable. While having us imagine that we were on a cycling trip across Europe, she encouraged us to mime refusing croissants in exchange for berries and water and to pretend to wave at and flirt with attractive men we “saw” as we biked past them. These “distractions” caused me to struggle to concentrate on the workout itself. Even though other parts of the workout encouraged wellness by having us love ourselves, love others and strive to be our best selves inside and out, there was a definite emphasis on meeting a certain physical and aesthetic standard to be found attractive by other people.
The term “wellness” was introduced in 1959 by Halbert Dunn, who defined it as “a condition of change in which the individual moves forward, climbing toward a higher potential of functioning.” In 2020, the idea of achieving personal wellness has birthed an entire culture and industry centered around reaching physical, mental and spiritual peaks that are supposed to enable people to live their best, fullest lives. “There’s a lot of money being made off of people’s own insecurities or questions on ‘What do I need to do to be healthy?’” said Claire Mysko, CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA).
Some people view focusing on wellness as a healthier and more holistic alternative to diet culture. However, novelist Jessica Knoll notes in an op-ed for The New York Times that it is impossible to separate the wellness and diet industries from each other. “The diet industry is a virus, and viruses are smart,” she wrote. “It has survived all these decades by adapting, but it’s as dangerous as ever… The wellness industry is the diet industry.”
The internet and social media have played huge roles in the promotion of wellness culture. It is incredibly easy to get caught up in the countless articles and social media posts which promise that investing in a certain vitamin or supplement, or trying out a new and trendy workout method, is the key to unlocking a higher sense of self-discovery. “Clean eating” and “detoxing” are often promoted, which has assigned moral values to different foods, classifying certain foods and food groups as either “good,” “clean” and “pure” or “bad” and ones to avoid. “The term ‘clean eating’ is not at all quantifiable, with varying definitions depending on the person — an important reason to be wary of its validity,” wrote nutrition therapist Emily Fonnesbeck.
Not only are we often fed vague, conflicting or misinformed material by advertisers and influencers, but the ingredients that make up highly promoted detox teas can cause drinkers to suffer from dehydration, diarrhea, sleep disruption, seizures and other harmful side effects. The same products that are meant to be helping to make us healthier and happier are actually making us sick. The term “orthorexia” was coined to describe an obsession with healthy eating that could damage someone’s well-being, with warning signs and symptoms including cutting out an increasing number of food groups, showing high levels of distress when “safe” or “healthy” foods are unavailable and obsessive following of food and “healthy lifestyle” blogs on social media.
Wellness culture’s insistence that everyone must constantly be working toward their full potential can be damaging in other ways. The boutique exercise classes, organic nonprocessed foods and other products that are peddled to people are financially out of reach for many. “Clean eating often means eating a set of very Eurocentric foods that leave out many cultural foods,” said Tessa Nguyen, founder of Taste Nutrition Consulting. Yoga teacher and author Jessamyn Stanley adds that exercise spaces often only feel catered to a certain kind of customer. “The messaging is essentially: You’re allowed in this space if you are white, slender, able-bodied and less than 45, cisgender and heterosexual,” Stanley said. “And if you’re not, then you’re not welcome.”
People’s relationships with food, exercise, the concept of “health” and what it means to be happy are all different and are incredibly personal. It is important to be critical of the wellness industry, especially because it claims to be completely different from restrictive regimens that are damaging and unsustainable.
Annick Tabb is a senior double-majoring in German and English.