Although the “wellness industry” may be relatively new, it is not new. Dr Halbert L. Dunn was the “father” of the movement who popularized the term “wellness” in the late 1950s. Since then, the difference between health and wellbeing and wellness has been distinctly drawn: while Dunn defines good health as an absence of illness, wellness is an “Active, continuous pursuit” – focuses on improving one’s self. As wellness has grown and morphed into an estimated $1.5 trillion industry, this image-conscious version of health has held fast.
There are many ways to improve your self-health. Greater physical flexibility, mental clarity, stronger body, clearer skin, shinier hair – pursuing these attributes under the guise of wellness is pitched as the key to unlocking a life free from insecurities and anxieties. It sounds good and, in practice, can often feel good too: many of the habits that fall under the wellness umbrella (like meditation and bespoke exercise classes) are enjoyable and beneficial to many. It’s not difficult to see that taking care of your mind and body is beneficial for your health. The way wellness is sold means it’s easy for it to turn from beneficial to harmful.
You are the light at the end the wellness tunnel: A happy, glowing you, capable of navigating life’s stresses with ease and ideally, while standing on one leg. It is an ideal version of the self, one that can be reached simply through determination and ingesting the right adaptogens.
It can be a motivating thing for some. Dr Rumina Taylor, chief clinician officer and clinical psychologist at Hello Self, says, “Setting goals can give you a sense of purpose and be motivating and even thrilling.” Dr Taylor says that healthy striving is achieved when these goals are set with flexibility and realistic expectations. “We set realistic goals and learn from our mistakes. To be successful in your pursuit of health, you must enjoy the process. If your motivation to improve yourself through wellness isn’t realistic, it can lead to perfectionism.” This is especially problematic when you consider that wellness culture promises that your best self can be achieved through your own actions (though the definition of best can vary from moderately achievable to impossible).
Dr Tom Curran is an assistant professor at LSE’s department of psychological and behavioral science. He is also a British Psychological Society chartered psychologist and social psychologist, whose main area of expertise lies in perfectionism. Perfectionism is a personality characteristic that he defines. It has two main components. The first is an incessant striving to be perfect or flawless. The second is deep contempt for or anger at oneself when we don’t live up to our high expectations.
No matter what form of perfectionist you are – whether it’s self-directed, driven outwards by social pressure or directed inwards – it is about setting high standards and punishing yourself for failing to meet them. There is no psychological flexibility, leaving you prone to anxiety, hypervigilance and obsession if you slip up on your path to meeting your own exacting standards. People seek perfection because they believe that they are not good enough. This belief is the driving force behind wellness.
Wellness culture is characterized by a double-hander that combines high standards with harsh consequences. Dr Curran says that self-betterment puts on the individual to resist things they don’t control. What good is self-betterment, if there’s still a hostile and competitive world outside? Yoga, smoothies and expensive spin classes can help you gain clarity about yourself. However, it can be difficult to feel calm when your daily anxieties or dissatisfaction with your body don’t go away. The fault is not always on the people who were supposed to help you.
Dr Curran says, “The blame you place on yourself [for not meeting those standards] is the responsibility you impose upon yourself.” He says that the focus should be on what you can control. This is more of a feature than a bug in the industry. It’s easy to create a sense of guilt and self-criticism when you place pressure on people to improve themselves. It is easy to see how this spirals into perfectionism.
This can lead to serious health problems. Perfectionism in itself is immensely detrimental and is co-morbid with several other conditions, particularly anxiety, OCD and eating disorders like orthorexia (obsessive need to eat clean and healthy). While the ideal image of wellness is still based on unrealistic Western beauty standards (a beautiful, thin, white woman with shiny hair), much of the wellness messaging uses language from activist spaces to discredit the notion of perfection. Your inability meet this standard is compounded when you are unable to love yourself and accept yourself. Another personal failure is your perfectionism, which is facilitated by the wellness industry.
The problem is that wellness culture has been centered on the self since its inception. Sirin Kale, a journalist for The Guardian, writes that wellness has been based on “three tenets”: strong individualism and distrust of Western medicine, as well as a commitment towards self-optimisation. In practice, this hyperfocus on the self results in messaging that subtly promises to eliminate insecurities without challenging their basis, enabling fatphobia and exacting beauty standards. This mindset also focuses all power on you, and the ability to eliminate struggle and disease by your willpower. It ignores the many external and biological factors that play a crucial role in people’s health. This has led historically to a disregard for and misinformation about neurodiversity, chronic illness and disability, and can come with devastating social consequences, seen most acutely in the connection between wellness communities and COVID vaccine conspiracy theories.
This belief in the wellness of you as an individual above all else is how the wellness movement ends up liberally borrowing from other cultures with little regard for its impact on those cultures, and disengaging from others on a local and global level.
All of this is made worse by the $1.5 trillion market for ‘wellness. While many of the goals of the wellness industry, such as flexibility, fitness, meditation, and self-care, can be beneficial for individuals, they are part of a larger complex that sells solutions to your problems. If you don’t already believe you have a problem, why would anyone buy the solution? Dr Curran said, “It’s the circular argument of an industry which needs to continue growing on the backs of people’s discontent.”
In an uncertain world, the wellness industry provides certainty. However, focusing too much on oneself can lead to distorted perceptions that can lead to dangerous behaviours. There are two options: First, there is radical acceptance of oneself through total embrace of it. Second, you need to look beyond the self.
This can look like a return to Audre Lorde’s definition of self-care as arming yourself for a fight. Or, to put it another way, improving your life is part of improving others’ lives. This can take many forms and will be different for each person. Maybe meditation is helping you manage anxiety and allowing you to be more involved in your community. Maybe it’s letting go of fatphobic views about bodies and health, and advocating for better healthcare access. Maybe it’s offering a yoga class at no cost to your neighbors.
Perhaps we can learn how to be more connected with life after the past two years of being so disoriented and fragmented. Instead of trying to control it, we can start to enjoy the ride. While it won’t eliminate the perfectionist tendencies that wellness culture instills in us, it can help to lessen them and allow us to accept the beauty that wellness promises us.