Health is perhaps one of the most difficult concepts to define. It’s so multi-faceted, so co-dependant. It’s personal yet global, internal yet collective. What might be healing in some respects may be damning in others, and what boosts the health of one may be detrimental for another. It’s never certain, nor permanent. None of us ever has perfect health, nor will our health stay consistent throughout our lifetime. Our only guarantee is that health is not a guarantee, and the level of control we can exercise to maintain it is marginal to the control it holds over us. In other words, it’s pretty freaking complex…
Wellness, on the other hand, is a much more straightforward performance. At its core are the principles: eat well, move your body and get a good night’s sleep. But wellness is not merely felt, it’s something we actively pursue, manage, measure. It has an end-point, a goal, a definitive realisation, and a destination of perfection. The ways wellness is sought are concrete and cumulative. One can always adopt more behaviours, be it meditation, mastering home-brewed kombucha, taking hourly plank breaks, and investing in monthly sports massages. With this perceived power comes an attitude that those who prioritise wellness have earned their good health, whilst those who don’t are begging for complications.
But aren’t they the same?
This is where health and wellness divide in definition. Health is a basic human right, something all people deserve by virtue of their humanity. It’s an intrinsic dignity and though, yes, some are healthier than others for various reasons, in order for social justice and equality to be maintained, the opportunity to access health, through support, services, materials and evidence-based education ought not to be kept for only a small part of society. In a similar respect to age, gender and ethnicity, a person’s health shouldn’t elevate their status, nor is it a permissible to discriminate individuals on the basis of their health.
Wellness, however, has different ideas. Inherent in the characteristic Whole Foods hauls, the superfood scrubs, the tailor-cut Lululemons and the celebrity-made diet plans is a hierarchical system of entitlement to wellbeing, and that entitlement is awarded on looks, wealth, and how many boutique gyms are located within a five mile radius. What’s hot in Wellness shifts season on season, much like fashion but with less Chanel, more chakras. It’s trendy, it’s glamourous, and for many it exists only as an expensive fantasy. Wellness, at least in its current form, isn’t health, and that is an important distinction to make.
The human right to health encompasses the right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental wellbeing, irrespective of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition. And sure, though not all wellness initiatives are aesthetic trivialisms, they do little to honour this universally. As we see fitness studios pop up left right and centre, there’s yet to be a well recognised programme for training individuals with physical disabilities. As as we hear magazines talk of body positivity, the appearance of WOC, plus-size or transgender athletes in their features is still far and few. Wellness has built an industry on exclusivity, marginalising those who can neither look, act, nor afford to replicate its vision of health.
Of course, buying into the glamour and glory of Wellness is not a crime. Just like any industry, where there’s demand, there’s money, and if you have funds to spare then who are any of us to say you shouldn’t spend it wherever and however you choose. But as a concept often conflated with health, crafting attitudes and promoting behaviours that directly influence long and short term wellbeing individually and across society, different rules apply. Stepping into the realm of health means meddling with human rights, a responsibility that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
False claims and fraught principles
It’s no secret that Wellness has a habit of sensationalising, misunderstanding and misrepresenting health claims. From advocating unrefined sweeteners as healthier alternatives, to its wild logic on alkalising food, detox cleanses and coconut oil. You might ask what’s the harm in this? If people want to spend double the fee on agave syrup, drink expensive sugar water for 5 days stright and heap a spoonful of lard in their coffee every now and then, who are we to judge? But here’s the issue – these are all claims made from poor scientific literacy, something that the WHO condemns as an infringement on the right to health. Indeed, for some, swapping maple syrup for sugar will make next to no difference, but for others this misunderstanding can be health threatening.
Take, for instance, a scenario I’ve overheard a number of times hanging out in London juice bars. A diabetic customer walks in and asks if they have any sugar free cakes. The server replies ‘yes, everything here is sugar free,’ regurgitating a common misconception that natural sweeteners do not contain sugar that reacts in the body much like refined sugar. The diabetic customer, unaware that the cakes contain a combination of dates, maple syrup and coconut sugar, buys a slice. This mistake, like many falsities in Wellness, can have terrible consequences, which is why making even small claims that are not scientifically and medically appropriate is a violation of an individual’s right to health.
By not communicating evidence-based information, Wellness prohibits individuals from the freedom to make informed choices about their health, and this could very well be an indirect act of harm.
The price of wellness at the cost of health
Doubling back to cost, with Wellness being a billion dollar industry, it’s fair to say that the most coveted products come with a hefty bill, shown by the fact that an average spend at Whole Foods is more than the rent of my first flat. Wellness is often considered an elitist space, with the most prominent figures coming from affluent households. It paints a picture of health as expensive and inaccessible to much of the population who aren’t making a living off working out in Chelsea. Although it isn’t necessarily true that adopting health behaviours has to be expensive, Wellness has played a part in making the class divide in health increasingly prominent.
As courgetti and butternut squaffles branch out to Zone 5, and chia seeds get sprinkled over loaves of Hovis bread, few efforts are being done to support the people that need help with nutrition the most. Each month another survey highlights that adults are struggling to get their full five a day, that children are going to school hungry, and that lifestyle-related chronic conditions are on the rise. Meanwhile, Wellness sells its matcha granola and diet avocados, then sits back in its acupressure armchair and asks why people don’t just eat ‘real food’ and hit up f45, ignorant to bigger stressors and struggles than whether pesto contains too much added salt.
With nutrition initiatives drawing on the fallacies of Wellness to counter the problem, such as Jamie Oliver’s sugar tax and the State’s slashing of chocolate bars, they simply make delighting in some small indulgence even more difficult for already disadvantaged groups, without offering a solution to food scarcity or inaccessibility. Any innovation hones in on passing trends, not sustainable solutions. But ‘creative spiralising’ and overpriced energy balls aren’t going to make anybody healthier. They simply keep health behaviours further from the people who need proper support.
A trade-off on mental health
Wellness is often touted as a holistic approach to health, but between articles on the top ten moves for defined abs and books devoted to the glories of gluten free, it shows to have only one concern on its mind: physicality. Modern wellness is so focused on the body’s strength and energy, its immunity, function, cleanliness and optimisation, yet all the while it fills heads with beliefs that the world is toxic, that modern life is making us sick, and amplifying that anxiety tenfold by constructing unrealistic and unsustainable ideals to strive for.
Over the past two years, the Wellness industry has come under serious fire for encouraging disordered eating and disrupting individuals’ relationships with their bodies. Covert attacks on mental health in the form of clean eating and fad diets have profited from the insecurity of its customers by pathologising normal fluctuations in health to further public panic. The narrative that the air we breathe and the food we eat are catalysts for illness is enough to make many of us anxious, and while brands advise cutting out ‘nasties’ and purging ‘toxins’ to mitigate this threat, they fail to warn of what this means on a psychological level. Often, the measures to adhere to these restrictive behaviours result in social isolation, feeling shame and guilt around forbidden foods, and psychosomatic symptoms caused by this extreme fear. Wellness doesn’t attempt to remedy these risks. It simply uses and enhances them to promote acai bowls and cold-pressed ginger shots.
Is our mental health worse-off thanks to Wellness? Of course, some of its initiatives have been immensely beneficial, such as workplace wellness and mindfulness therapies. But these have really only taken off in a powerful way from being adopted into evidence-based medicine and health policy, where the universal rights are a priority. The toxic side of wellness, where the most profit is found and loudest voice are heard, still remains largely a destructive force on wellbeing. Imposing on individuals aesthetic ideals, restricting opportunities for inclusion, belittling imperfection – it’s incredibly damaging, disadvantageous and discriminatory.
Can a wrong be made right?
Our systems of health and the bodies working for it are from perfect, it’s true. But these organisations don’t need an industry like Wellness and the pursuits it promotes further destabilising opportunities to access health. I’d like to think that Wellness can change and use its influence to help everyone, but until it stops being a caricature display of IV cocktails, carb blockers and who can feel wellness the most, it will remain a destructive force on the most vulnerable in society.
*For clarity, I use lowercase wellness to describe the pursuit, practices and philosophy, and uppercase Wellness in reference to the industry.
Agree or disagree? I’d love to know your thoughts.