Well-being Wednesday: Predatory Wellness
The wellness industry is an economic behemoth – raking in over $4 trillion worldwide1. It includes a variety of modalities and realms, including preventative medicine and public health; mental health; fitness; anti-aging; weight loss. The weight loss realm in the US reached a record of $78 billion in 20192
What often leaves me uncomfortable though is the predatory nature of certain components of the wellness industry. While not true for all forms, much of the pushed for services reinforce, even promote, oppressive systems, such as colonialized beauty standards by way of racism, ageism, ableism, and sizeism.
For instance, the weight loss industry: what the general public often does not know is that diet and exercise are not proven to provide sustained, long-term weight loss3. In fact, weight stigma and yo-yo dieting can contribute to long term weigh gain4. Along these lines, fitness professionals should not promote weight loss as a primary goal for exercising5. But cultural bias, colonialized body terrorism, and the marketing power of a $78 billion industry, we don’t often hear of these more current recommendations and findings. What is important for health if weight loss isn’t a primary driver? Encouraging physical activity, reducing sedendary behavior, and improving cardiorespiratory fitness (which does not necessarily correlate with body size).
Exercise is incredible for your body, mind, and spirit; it is also a lot cheaper than liposuction or bariatric surgery. Further, when we decolonize and broaden our beauty standards and stop moralizing bodies, we all become gorgeous (and less concerned overall with looks).
Much of the current wellness industry depends on an individual’s failure to meet some cultural or perceived expectation. For example, our culture’s stance if you are stressed?, that is your individual problem, fix it with ______ (a new job, breath work, wine, supplements, sex). And fat?, don’t challenge your internalized and culture’s externalized sizeism, instead, starve yourself and exercise to exhaustion.
Superficial, individualized techniques lead to superficial, individualized solutions. Because we are marketing these issues that burden many as individual failures and self-care needs rather than the result of oppressive, marginalizing, and traumatizing systems, we create cycles of coping, even addiction, that are not sustainable (individually and environmentally). Rather than change the systems for the people, we ask individuals to bear the burden and adapt (or get sick trying).
So we buy the crystals, try the spa, get the makeover, force down the supplements and kale, online shop, change jobs, and quiet the inner discontent with sex, while remaining on the hedonic treadmill6. But, job burnout will likely follow you job to job in some form until we change our culture’s ableism, productivity standards, and equating of individual worth to how much you work and/or make. And while I wish we could sex ourselves out of stress and into bliss, our structural and systemic oppressions will still be there after the orgasm.
All of these can be great coping mechanisms, and I am not shaming them. Coping is an ingenious and critical survival strategy. But, many of these only offer short term relief and wellness precisely because they are individually focused. Interrogating the intention behind the coping and why it is that so many of us need to self-soothe is as important as the relief that comes from the coping mechanism itself. Our current culture and systems were not made for thriving. Instead, by way of enforcing rigid standards of behavior and looks through hierarchies and body terrorism, our social systems create profit for a few and pain, trauma, and need to cope for many.
Individualizing issues and profiting off of a person when really many of these issues are spiritually, communally, collectively-based and inherited is predatory. Further, self-care feels superficial because it is. What many of us are escaping are shit systems and what many of us are seeking is rich, authentic connection (but, re: the shit systems and bereft culture – we don’t often have anything worth connecting TO).
We need a both/and from the wellness industry. Individual autonomy, responsibility, self-care, and the right to pursue the superficial, while also promoting systems level, cultural change. This both/and idea parallels the upstream approach in preventative medicine that examines bigger picture challenges like social determinants of health (including racism and poverty) and how those determinants at a social level create individual stress and medical issues like type 2 diabetes and increased mortality.
We need upstream wellness.
How can we create nourishing and thriving, in systems? To bring about an expansive sense of connection, purpose, and gratitude? To treat people like they are beloved and deserving and not cogs in the wheel of grind culture or isolated, self-serving automatons? It feels nearly impossible, which also makes this new vision difficult to imagine.
As a wellness/well-being practitioner, I think of these issues often. I don’t have all the answers, but what has worked for me and my clients?: I empower my clients. I ask in for deeper meaning and motivation behind behavior and give them social context and validation for their discontent. I offer a sliding scale so I don’t perpetuate poverty and keep people stuck. I don’t “keep” my clients indefinitely; they often meet our bigger goals in a few sessions, only staying with me for maintenance as needed and enjoyed by them (personal training, yoga, and reiki might be coping mechanisms but these tools feel incredible and can be part of our both/and strategy). I connect clients to community, either ones I have crafted around spirituality or sexuality or those facilitated by others (a sense of belonging is a pillar of health7). I also assist clients in manifesting a sense of purpose and creativity (essentially spiritual practices), often through the very same communities I mention above. And I (almost) always reference the social justice framing in the work I do.
Questions for the reader:
What is wellness to you, and how do you practice it? Have you found it predatory, and if so, when? And when you practice, what are you seeking?, and do you ever find it? Is it possible that these self-help practices don’t work because they don’t target the more appropriate level of change? Are these practices nourishing for you both for your own self and for the collective? How do you determine nourishment? If you are a wellness practitioner, how do you address the need for upstream approaches?
References and Resources:
- See Health at Every Size: https://haescommunity.com/ and check out other resources associated with this website and Lindo Bacon.
- The hedonic treadmill is like the hamster wheel – a person keeps chasing the next good feeling without considering why they are running in the first place.
- Together: Why Social Connection Holds the Key to Better Health, Higher Performance, and Greater Happiness by Vivek H. Murthy. Also see my Social Connection tab on my website for my community offerings and ways of becoming a We.
Other resources to consider are Sonya Renee Taylor’s The Body is Not An Apology, and Lindo Bacon’s Radical Belonging.
Written by Dr. Allison Mitch, wellness practitioner working to awaken and re-center joy and pleasure through Ignite Well-being. PT (DPT), CHEK practitioner, RYT500, sexuality counselor and educator; copyright protected, please cite accordingly.
The image is from Pexels.
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