The wellness industry may be a relatively recent mainstream phenomenon but it is far from new. The term 'wellness' was popularised back in the late 1950s by Dr Halbert L. Dunn, the so-called father of the movement. Since then, the difference between health and wellbeing and wellness has been distinctly drawn: while Dunn defines good health as an absence of illness, wellness is an "active, ongoing pursuit" that focuses on the improvement of the self as defined by the self. As wellness has grown and morphed into an estimated $1.5 trillion industry, this image-conscious version of health has held fast.
Wellness promises countless ways of improving the self. Greater physical flexibility, mental clarity, stronger body, clearer skin, shinier hair – pursuing these attributes under the guise of wellness is pitched as the key to unlocking a life free from insecurities and anxieties. It sounds good and, in practice, can often feel good too: many of the habits that fall under the wellness umbrella (like meditation and bespoke exercise classes) are enjoyable and beneficial to many. That taking care of your body and your mind is good for you isn’t up for debate. But the way in which wellness as an industry sells itself means that it doesn’t take much for it to tip from helpful over into harmful.
This can be positively motivating for some. Dr Rumina Taylor, chief clinical officer and clinical psychologist at Hello Self, tells R29: "Setting ourselves goals can give us a sense of purpose, be motivating and even exciting." When these goals are set with flexibility and realistic expectations they are a form of "healthy striving", adds Dr Taylor. "We set ourselves goals that are realistic and the road to achievement is one of learning." For the striving to be healthy, the pursuit must be a process you actually enjoy (so that it doesn’t become a burdensome routine). However if your motivation towards self-improvement through wellness is not realistic, whether consciously or subconsciously it can slip into perfectionism. This is particularly pernicious given how the promise of wellness culture is that through your actions alone you can achieve your 'best self' (with the definition of 'best' veering from mildly out of reach to completely unattainable).
Dr Tom Curran is an assistant professor in the department of psychological and behavioural science at LSE and a British Psychological Society chartered social psychologist whose primary area of expertise is perfectionism. He defines perfectionism for R29 as a personality characteristic with two main elements. "The first is an incessant striving or need to be perfect and flawless. And the second is a deep contempt or rage at the self when we haven't lived up to those high expectations."
Whatever form perfectionism comes in – whether self-directed, driven by a social pressure or directed outwards at others – it is less about being perfect and more about having incredibly high standards and punishing yourself to achieve them. There is no psychological flexibility, leaving you prone to anxiety, hypervigilance and obsession if you slip up on your path to meeting your own exacting standards. The reason why many people pursue perfection is because they believe themselves to be fundamentally not good enough in the first place – a belief that is a core motivator for people getting into wellness.
When you put pressure on people to better themselves and don't talk about the things around them that they can't control, that leads to a lot of self-blame and a lot of self-criticism.
Dr Tom Curran
This double-hander of high standards and punishing repercussions goes hand in hand with wellness culture. As Dr Curran puts it: "The self-betterment movement puts the onus on individuals to push against things that they have no control over. But what good is self-betterment if at the end of all that effort to improve ourselves it's still a hostile, competitive, individualistic, pressurised, insecure, precarious world outside, just waiting there when we've finished!" When yoga or smoothies or expensive spin classes are meant to help you reach clarity about yourself, it can be mentally jarring when your daily anxieties or dissatisfaction about your body does not go away. But the blame is never directed towards the acts that were meant to help you.
"The blame that you impose [for not reaching those standards] is the blame that you impose on yourself," says Dr Curran, "that you're not good enough or strong enough." The focus is entirely on what is within your control, which he says is less a bug and more a feature within the industry. "When you put pressure on people to better themselves and don't talk about the things around them that they can't control, that leads to a lot of self-blame and a lot of self-criticism. You can begin to see how that spirals into perfectionism."
This can be very damaging. Perfectionism in itself is immensely detrimental and is co-morbid with several other conditions, particularly anxiety, OCD and eating disorders like orthorexia. And while the image of wellness still adheres to impossible Western beauty standards (beautiful, slim, white woman with glossy hair), a lot of wellness messaging defines itself against the idea of being perfect by using language borrowed from activist spaces (particularly the activism of Audre Lorde and fat activists pushing for radical body acceptance). Thus your inability to meet that standard is compounded by your inability to love and embrace yourself. Your perfectionism, enabled by the wellness industry, becomes another personal failing.
The crux of the problem is that since its inception, wellness culture has centred on the self. As Sirin Kale writes for The Guardian, wellness has consistently been structured around "three tenets: robust individualism, distrust of Western medicine and a commitment to self-optimisation". In practice, this hyperfocus on the self results in messaging that subtly promises to eliminate insecurities without challenging their basis, enabling fatphobia and exacting beauty standards. It also centres all power to do away with struggle and disease on your own willpower, disregarding the wealth of external and biological factors that are crucial in determining people’s health. This has led historically to a disregard for and misinformation about neurodiversity, chronic illness and disability, and can come with devastating social consequences, seen most acutely in the connection between wellness communities and COVID vaccine conspiracy theories.
This belief in the wellness of you as an individual above all else is how the wellness movement ends up liberally borrowing from other cultures with little regard for its impact on those cultures, and disengaging from others on a local and global level.
This is all exacerbated by the fact that 'wellness' is a $1.5 trillion industry. Although many of the pursuits at the heart of the wellness industry – flexibility and fitness, meditation, self-care – can be individually beneficial, they are now part of a wider complex that is selling you solutions to your problems, both real and imagined. After all, why would you buy the solution unless you’d already bought into the idea you have a problem? As Dr Curran says: "It's a circular argument of an industry that needs to continue to grow on the back of people's discontent."
The wellness industry offers certainty in an uncertain world. But in focusing so wholly on the self it can distort our perceptions and become a doorway to harmful behaviours. The solution is twofold: first, a radical acceptance of the self through wholehearted embracing of the self and, second, looking beyond the self.
This can look like a return to Audre Lorde’s definition of self-care as arming yourself for a fight. Or more broadly, improving your own life becomes part of improving the lives of others. This takes many forms and is different for everyone. Perhaps it is using meditation to manage your anxiety so you can better engage in your local community; maybe it's disengaging from fatphobic views on bodies and health and advocating for better access to healthcare; maybe it's running a free yoga class for your neighbours.
After the last two years, during which we’ve been so disconnected and fragmented, perhaps we can learn to ride the tides of life by engaging directly with it instead of perfecting ourselves for its performance. Doing so won't erase the perfectionist streak that wellness culture encourages in us from all sides but it can help to erode it, enabling the balance and acceptance that wellness falsely promised us.