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When Wellness Gets Toxic

Updated: Nov 21, 2021

“I feed the pigeon, I sometimes feed the sparrows too. It gives me an enormous sense of wellbeing.”

- Parklife, by Blur

That was an assessment of wellbeing in the 90s by a band who drank heavy, partied hard and, I’d put money on it, never started the day with a sun salutation. To be fair, wellbeing and wellness mean slightly different things. The latter being an ongoing ambition and the former being a current state. However, the pursuit of wellness, when does well, usually has the sub effect of increasingly moments of wellbeing so they are undoubtedly connected. Either way, the shape of wellbeing is somewhat different today. There are far more boxes to check on the quest for commercial wellness practice and it’s a whole lot more than hanging out in the park and feeding the birds. But should it be?

The concept of wellness is such a simplistic old idea that when it seemed to drift back into the world a few years ago it was as if discovering a familiar face at a party whom you’d assumed had called it a night long ago. Perhaps it was the rise of advocacy for future-proofing the planet which served to remind us that the modern world is so poorly designed for human existence. Ironic really, since it was developed by mankind. Seems that Mother Nature knew best after all. So it’s only natural that health would circle back to this place also.

Perhaps, it even came about as a political backlash to an increasingly obvious capitalist world. Stay with me here because I accept that feels like a reach. Following the rise of the yuppie in the 80s, the drink-fuelled lad and ladette culture of the hedonistic 90s and the tech boom of the 2000s, which saw big tech achieve great influence and leaders amass more wealth than could be spent in a lifetime, we’ve become a nation of climbers. The days of staying in one job for life, of getting home by 5.30 and following the path of our grandparents who never expected to transition out of their class and had a limited idea of earning potential, are done. Over the decades, society has increasingly chased financial success and we’ve worked hard for it. Too hard perhaps. Not to mention, we’ve been expected to party hard too. Clean living was not the mantra of the working classes who found fame. Nor the reality TV stars who sold their privacy, and sometimes integrity, for the chance to top the best sellers list with autobiographies from 20-year-old during their 15 minutes of fame. It’s been a race to the top and it’s no surprise that wellness culture entered to restore balance. Wellness appealed, particularly to my generation. Many of us have partied hard and climbed the corporate, or more creative, ladder for a few years now. Women are expected to break the glass ceiling and the men of my generation are teased for no longer having the skills to build a shed and simultaneously told they must shun gender stereotypes. Enter yoga classes. To be fair, these had been available for some time but it’s at the point now where it would be a challenge to find someone who doesn’t do at least a little. Safe to say many children of the 90s were ready for some ‘om’ in their lives, myself included.

Then came the idea of eating clean, which was followed by superfoods, kombucha, supplements and meditation. With beautiful empowering mantras and the promise that the true path to health is to eat beautiful, practise self-care and reconnect the mind, body and soul, wellness passed the phrase of craze and became a lifestyle practice.

More recently we’ve seen the rise of wellness coaches, meditation apps, retreats and plant-based diets. To be clear, I am a plant-based, yoga-loving, meditation practising (sporadically), candle burning, collector of health-focused podcasts and all-around wellness advocate. So I’m not about to dismantle the lifestyle I’ve adopted.

What concerns me is the way in which wellness has become an industry. Most of us aspire to do professionally what we love to do in our spare time. So I’m immensely supportive of someone passionate about yoga becoming a yoga instructor, or someone passionate about health launching a podcast. The problem is when something so many people love doing becomes a career, it becomes competitive. Then we have to stand out, so the optics of the experience or the showmanship steps up, which drives up the cost of delivery and drives out those with less disposable income or flexible time from entering the space professionally. It then drives up the cost to the consumer, or else it becomes reliant on advertising and advertisers are only interested in audiences who want and can afford their products. So, after a while, what started off as grass-roots, non-commercial, basic good sense and a compassionate approach to health and mindful living has become a high-cost space that comes with a lot of rules, scrutiny of commitment and is not accessible to everyone.

Wellness is starting to feel like a treehouse club that you can’t get into unless you know the password, have the latest swag and eat an avocado a day. Wait - not avocados - we had to change our mind about avocados. You can’t come in if you didn’t know that! Or maybe you can, but we’ll make you feel bad about it.

One of the big attractions to wellness is the rejection of diet culture. A bigger focus on health and less on appearance. Yet, for many women, it is an ongoing challenge to stay away from those toxic food obsessions and ideals of beauty that have infiltrated their lives for so long. I’m a great example of talking the talk but not walking the walk. I adopted a plant-based whole foods diet to provide my body with the best nutrition and energy to live my fullest life - not for weight loss. Did I expect to lose weight though? Hell yes! And I was pissed off when I didn’t? You bet! Yes, I feel better physically, but how will the rest of the world know this? Somewhere in the back of my mind all these wellness roads still lead back to the skinny idealised version of myself, and I’m not the only one who has noticed this. The industry knows it too. It’s why most companies who claim their values are in wellness still sport images of young, thin, commercially beautiful women on their websites.

Why are these wellness models always so smiley and clear-skinned and standing in front of a fan? Is this achievable or aspiration? And if it’s aspirational isn’t that more of the same old shit? Keeping us on this quest for perfection keeps us spending money.

So have we just replaced toxic diet culture with toxic wellness? It is beginning to have that competitive element where you can’t just be doing yoga every few days and eating well. You must take collagen and go on luxury retreats to reach your ‘true potential.’ The messages have the same general theme but the tone has changed. We’re still talking about eating whole foods, but now we’re being sold supplements and are told we need to eat four tablespoons of raw turmeric every day or other seemingly drastic measures. Yet, there is still much to be taken from wellness and many good intentions and thesis to the lifestyle. What we need to do is begin to scrutinise and ensure we are keeping a healthy balance.

For instance, do you know what is really great to wear for your morning yoga? Pyjamas! Why change clothes as often as a teenager going on a first date? If you’re doing yoga at home, stay in the PJs and save yourself the washing. That’s self-care in the real world! And the best store to get the superfoods that will keep you healthy? Supermarket - fruit and veg aisle.

Honestly, you do not need the most expensive classes, the best fitness wear, enough supplements to make your handbag rattle or luxury pamper sessions put on your credit card. Sometimes looking the kids out of the bathroom so you can enjoy a warm bath with some low lighting is enough to reset you. Rose petals in the water are lovely, but are they really helping you reconnect with yourself? If you love yoga great but if it’s not working for you it’s not your fault. You’re not doing it wrong. Just try something else. I love yoga but I’ve discovered kickboxing recently. It’s not something classically associated with wellness but my god has it been a stress release. Not to mention empowering. So it’s meeting the wellness goal. Hours of meditation a week are wonderful (I expect) if you have the time. But most of us follow the wellness path to learn to deal with busy lives not escape them. 10 minutes a day will still have a great impact and you’re less likely to get anxious over making the time.

Lockdown was great for long walks but as we return to normal this can’t be achieved daily. Try to find 5 minutes to watch the birds in the garden or ditch the car and walk to the shop instead.

Overcomplicating health and wellness is driving us crazy and costing us both in time and money. Plus, it has the potential to lead us back down that toxic mindset path. Many people’s practice of wellness includes mindfulness at the core. So I urge everyone on a quest for wellness to be mindful as they do so and be aware that amongst all the goodness and positivity, there are some who would seek to make your efforts inadequate. Remember that this contradicts everything you’re trying to achieve. There is power in an industry that makes you feel as though you aren’t ‘doing it right.’ That, in some way, you’ve failed.

In a capitalist society, is everything we find that is authentic and sacred, destined to be monetised? And, when it does, does that make it unavailable to some of us?

On the whole, wellness practises have made me healthier in mind and body and I will continue to enjoy them. However, I will also continue to reject and speak out against those elements that make wellness seem unattainable for some. Mostly, because it’s simply not true. Wellness is a basic human right and it’s not complicated. So long as you remember that wellness - real wellness - is the pursuit of learning to respect and love yourself.

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