We Definitely Reached Peak Wellness in 2016
The Debrief: From #cleaneating and #womenwholift to #selfcare, wellness trends have come thick and fast in 2016. Before she quits gluten and fun for her New Year’s resolution, Tamsin Crimmens asks why we’re so obsessed with improving ourselves.
Illustration by Marina Esmeraldo
This year I have: quit sugar; mindfully coloured-in; taken an IRL yoga class with my favourite YouTube teacher; connected with nature in Wales; thrown out anything that didn’t bring me joy; bought a meditation app; had hundreds of epsom salt baths; listened to Oprah, Deepak and Eckhart podcasts; drank endless green juices; worried about whether cow’s milk or almond milk is worse for the planet; had therapy and life coaching; and bought three clean eating books (none of which I’ve used). All in my never-ending (and increasingly expensive) quest to feel better.
Like many other millennials with a bit of disposable income, an Instagram feed and a history of mental health struggles, I’ve been swept along by the current of wellness and its promises to dramatically improve our bodies and minds.
The shift in people taking greater responsibility for their health and wellbeing is a positive one. But for millennials, eating a balanced diet and doing moderate exercise everyday just doesn’t cut it anymore. Instead we are a generation obsessed with all things self-improvement with a survey last year in the US finding that 94% of millennials reported making personal improvement commitments compared with Boomers at 84% and Gen X at 81%. It seems all those accusations of us being lazy, vain and entitled feeds perfectly into an industry that thrives on people feeling they’re not good enough.
The National Wellness Institute in the US defines wellness as ‘a conscious, self-directed and evolving process of achieving full potential.’
Wellbeing, on the other hand is ‘the state of being comfortable, healthy, or happy.’ It’s a subtle difference but one that speaks of the wellness business model that you can always look better, feel better, be better.
It’s a lucrative one with the global wellness industry now worth $3.72 trillion (£2.93 trillion) according to research by the Global Wellness Institute. Rising by 10.6% over the last two years, the latest figures show that wellness is one of the world’s largest, fastest growing, and most resilient markets.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the uncertainty of Brexit and the insanity that is Trump being elected US President, the ‘wellness economy’ just keeps growing. Newspaper headlines scream warnings about the obesity crisis, an ageing population and the effects of air pollution and chemicals in our food. In our competitive, ‘always on’ culture loneliness, low-level anxiety, depression and sleep-deprivation are so common to almost be deemed a normal side-effect of modern life.
Instead of following the old-school (some would say unhealthy) tactics of reaching for comfort in a glass of wine or slice of cake, now we hit the gym and set some goals as we grapple for some semblance of control. Somehow the old (and untrue) adage from the world of management that preaches you can’t change what you don’t measure has seeped into how we manage our health too. Like a machine going in for a service, everything is recorded: how much protein you eat, how many steps you take, the quality of your sleep - there’s a gadget or app for it.
Thanks in part to the growth of the self-help industry over the last 30 years, goal-setting is now considered a normal part of life. Haphazardly picking a new year’s resolution that you know you’ll quit after two weeks just isn’t good enough anymore. Self-love may be the new buzzword in wellness today, but don’t love yourself so much that you no longer need your favourite bloggers’ new book.
Take the world of weight-training, where it’s not just pro athletes who set themselves extreme fitness goals anymore. #womenwholift has hit the mainstream, in part due to the Sport England #ThisGirlCan campaign and the rise of ‘CrossFit’ training in gyms. Hashtags like #strongissexy abound on Instagram, where women post before and after shots of their bodies and record every meal, to cheers from their followers. While there is something empowering about women taking up space in the traditionally male-dominated weights rooms and the diversification of beauty standards (even if #strongnotskinny is still us demonising one body type over another) the focus is still very much on looks.
It’s been several years since I stepped foot in a gym so I ask fitness instructor and author, Lucy Fry about the rumour I’ve heard about women hitting the gym twice a day. Apparently, it’s true (which truly boggles my mind). “I worry when I overhear young women in the changing rooms complaining about not being able to shift weight even though they're cutting calories and training everyday. The fitness industry claims to have the sheen of wanting you to feel better about yourself but underneath it all it’s shallow.
“I see women who are already stressed out and trying to fit in their workouts who then go and get wasted at the weekend… What people don't understand is that the body is one organism and exercise is another form of stress on it. Overexercising may not feel like overexercising, especially if everyone else is doing it, but too much stress on the body actually causes it to get fatter so people push themselves even more.”
And really, is there anything worse than being (whisper it) fat? Is wellness just Weight Watchers given a holier-than-thou image update? Underneath the green juices and the soul-cycle and the #fitspo lurks the pervading idea that for women to be thin is to be happy. Perhaps unsurprisingly the most lucrative sectors within wellness are Beauty & Anti-Aging ($999 bil.) followed by Healthy Eating, Nutrition & Weight Loss ($648 bil.) So products and services selling youth and thinness. How depressing.
It’s no surprise then that clean eating became the biggest diet - sorry, I mean ‘lifestyle’ - of the year. Much has been said (by Ruby Tandoh, Hadley Freeman, Grace Victory and Bee Wilson), about how thoroughly daft it is for bloggers like the Helmsley sisters, Madeline Shaw and Deliciously Ella (they just blur into one after a while don’t they?) who have no relevant qualifications to tout extreme diets in the name of wellness. Thankfully the veneer is starting to wear off and I think we’re all in agreement that cutting our entire food groups for no known medical reason isn’t the smartest idea. But my God are those bloggers convincing. It’s so easy to look at them and think ‘the root to all my problems is gluten. When I eat like this rich, thin and successful woman I, too, will be rich, thin and successful with perfect skin and go on exotic working holidays to Bali’. These were my thoughts this summer when I tried giving up sugar. Newsflash: it didn’t change my life but it did cost me several hundred pounds and the joy of eating birthday cake.
Soup cleanses, potatoes cleanses, juice cleanses, eating raw, vegan, veggan, flexitarian, running-away-to-a-dessert-island-to-escape-it-all-ism. In the world of wellness it seems everyone is trying to make a quick buck and moderation doesn’t sell. “It’s not as fun. A little bit too balanced and boring and normal.” Says Holli Rubin, a psychotherapist and body image specialist.
God forbid we would ever be too normal! No, we have to be extraordinary. We have to stand out, lean in, follow our passion, reach for the stars, be our best selves. We are told we can do anything (apart from get paid the same as our male colleagues, expect any help with the cost of child-care, buy a house, or get a pension - soz) but by golly we can make a mean bowl of porridge (I melt 90% dark chocolate in mine. Maybe I can be a famous wellness blogger after all?) The pursuit of perfection is exhausting – and impossible to maintain.
'In my clinical work I’m seeing bloggers who are putting beautiful pictures on Instagram but are finding themselves binge eating in the middle of the night because they’re starving.' says Holli. She works with Susie Orbach on Endangered Bodies, a global project that seeks to ‘challenge the current toxic culture that promotes negative body image’. A culture in which pharmaceutical and diet industries (and we surely must include wellness bloggers in that category) profit from insecurities about our bodies.
They have produced a report about the impact of body image during pregnancy for the UK government. It looks at the myriad of health and psychological effects that body image can have on pregnant women and new mothers, and shows how preoccupation with body image problems can be unconsciously transmitted down to their children.
Orbach published Fat is A Feminist Issue nearly forty years ago, yet pressures on women have only intensified and standards of beauty have become even more extreme. I think of my own mother who, when I was growing up, one day put a Jane Fonda workout video on in the living room and who may even have given the cabbage soup diet a whirl. The desire to be calmer, thinner, better is the same, we’ve just given the tools to get there shiny new names.
What is different, however, is that neither my mother nor I had to contend with social media growing up. Instagram has acted as rocket fuel for the wellness industry with its glossy veneer of perfect lives where no one ever spills tomato soup down their shirt or has PMS. Social media gives us a distorted window into the lives of people whose circumstances we know nothing about. We see the endless possibilities and feel powerless to grasp them (unless we learn to love ourselves a bit more and surrender to the Universe). The dichotomy of being told that we can do and be anything we want, coupled with the reality of a broken economic and political system that serves only a privileged few, is enough to drive me to my mindfulness colouring-in book. Is it our unmet ambition that motivates our self-improvement obsession?
A persistent warning of the focus on the self (self-help, self-improvement, self-love, self-care) is that it fosters a dangerous apathy. We are unhappy because structural inequalities in education, housing, work and family life make us so. But instead of actively working to dismantle them we look inwards, taking a kind of power back in the American idea that we are in sole possession of the key to our transformation. Which is, of course, BS. Power comes from recognising that your own personal problem is a collective problem and working together to find solutions. But that’s not terribly sexy or Instagrammable is it? Perhaps we wouldn’t have the gender pay gap if activists and politicians looked like Deliciously Ella?
I am reminded of a scene from this summer’s TV obsession, Fleabag, in which two lycra-clad women carrying yoga mats enter the protagonist’s struggling cafe asking for 'like, hot, organicy food?' The show’s creator and star, Phoebe Waller Bridge’s sharply observed dialogue sums up the problem with our obsession when one of the women says, 'I’m so happy with my body now. I don’t have to define myself by how I look because I have a fucking great body. I can do other stuff now. Mike wants to start trying for a baby. I can’t blow this body on a baby, I’m going to have to leave him.' This is the same cafe, by the way, that Fleabag charges £20 for a sandwich in because 'London.'
It seems to me that the point of wellness should be that it allows us to live our lives, not be the focus of our lives. At the end of 2016 and, despite all my efforts to improve myself, I’m somewhat disappointed to find that I am still me. My hair is a bit shorter and I don’t have as much stuff as before but, weirdly, no matter how much money I spend I am still neither rich nor thin. Must try harder this year.
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