Wellness is largely the domain of the wealthy
Wellness is a $1.5 trillion industry that is expected to grow by 5–10% each year. It encompasses apps, watches, kombucha, gyms, crystals and yoga retreats, among other products and services. Opting in can be costly, granted, but what’s the harm in taking such steps to feel your best?
One major downside of this quest for health is that it becomes exclusionary. Wellness is largely the domain of the privileged. It is arguably much easier for someone to achieve their ‘optimal state’ when they can afford an expensive gym membership, a personal nutrition coach and a private therapist.
Driving up the prices of ancient practices such as yoga results in these activities becoming less accessible to the less privileged. Commercialisation also removes them from their original philosophies and contexts, appropriating other cultures for profit in the name of wellbeing. A large survey published by the British Medical Journal found that yoga can offer significant physical and mental health benefits but that practitioners are predominately white, well-educated women. Although some teachers, such as Nadia Gilani, are striving to make yoga more accessible, far more needs to be done.
The culture of wellness can, paradoxically, result in anxiety and guilt
Wellness can also be problematic when people become obsessive about it. The list of things you think you ought to do can feel relentless, taking away from your time to simply be. And then, just when you’ve settled into your new routine, the guidance changes once again, and you’re reading yet another article about the terrible harm that medium glass of wine you had last Friday may have caused.
Michel Foucault spoke of ‘self-surveillance’, which has been adopted by some feminist thinkers (Sandra Lee Bartky and Susan Bordo, among many others) to talk about women’s relationships with their bodies. The idea is that chasing the perfection dictated by consumer culture serves to keep dissatisfied customers and exercisers constantly chasing (or feeling guilty for not chasing) that which does not exist: total wellness.
What’s more, some posit that wellness culture is used as a way to perpetuate ‘healthism’, which is the idea that a person’s health is entirely their own responsibility. A growing prevalence of this idea across society raises concerns about national health services and what social provisions the government ought to provide.
Does putting the responsibility of health on the individual mean that governments are held less accountable for social provisions that affect health, such as housing, adequate school meals and air pollution? If the wealthy and most powerful among us can afford more to improve their health, there may be fewer people advocating for greater public health for all. (See Australia’s air pollution masks for an idea of where we might be headed.)