Wellness, Better Health and Me

Rosie explores our complicated collective relationship with being ‘healthy’

Wellness is now a widely adopted idea, lifestyle and consumer product. We’ve bought into it whole-heartedly, from the food stores of northern London to the boutique clinics of Devon and Cornwall. The industry boasted $4.5 trillion of sales worldwide in 2018 and has spawned a new catalogue of must-have products from sleep trackers and hackers to yoga mats, diet pills and age-defying juices.

Now, wellness has permeated its way into Britain’s public and political discussions surrounding health and the two – good health and wellness – are often and very casually conflated. Boris and his sugar-coated Better Health campaign capitalises on this: it borrows and brands evolving perceptions of being well or unwell to push blame on individuals and side-step government responsibility. And yet still, wellness – as an idea and industry – is rarely unpicked or understood in the context of what we defined as being healthy and who is accountable for it.

Wellness has permeated its way into Britain’s public and political discussions surrounding health and the two – good health and wellness – are often and very casually conflated.

Wellness is defined by the ​World Health Organisation (WHO)​ as ‘a state of complete physical, mental, and social wellbeing.’ Websites such as ​GlobalWellnessDay​ and GuidingWellness,​ citing the WHO’s definition, describe wellness as a journey the individual takes to achieve a lifestyle that is healthier in a tangible and intangible sense. This means being active and energetic as well as taking moments for yourself to be peaceful, calm and whole.

I find this definition to be somewhat oxymoronic, projecting a state of being that is both individualistic and unattainable.

Of course, as a consumer of wellness products and rhetorics myself, I appreciate the value of what the wellness project does and is. Good health necessitates looking after the physical, mental and social aspects of ourselves and our lives. This holistic approach has many advantages: it reduces the risk of illness as well as helping to minimise stress and build contentment. According to the ​National Centre for Complementary and Integrative Health​, ‘people who use complementary approaches for wellness tend to have better overall health.’ Of course they would say this, but existing data and research backs up their claims.

Nevertheless, the ​WHO’​s definition and modern practices of wellness are plagued with contradictions and subjectivities that can be damaging if exploited. How can one person, at any one moment, be completely complete or wholly whole? What does that even mean and who defines it? What do ​I​ need to do to attain this and what ​I​ am not doing right?

How can one person, at any one moment, be completely complete or wholly whole? What does that even mean and who defines it? What do ​I​ need to do to attain this and what ​I​ am not doing right?

56% of people, as stated in a study published in 2018, claim they have excellent or very good health. Yet, in the same study, 80% believe the market is filled with contradictory ideas of what healthy foods are. In sum, people label themselves as being ‘healthy’ with diverging interpretations of what this entails. For the wellness industry, this ambiguity is extremely profitable.

(Un)well,​ a new Netflix documentary puts these self-definitions on full display to publicise the losses, theft and gains of the wellness industry. The six part series covers a variety of characters as they explore different wellness practices such as using essential oils and experiencing tantric sex. Some individuals find peace and solace, others are left with rashes and empty bank accounts. The series showcases the extremes of the industry. However, what does resonate with the wider audience is the diverging narratives of good health and wellbeing constructed by individuals to remedy obstacles and hardships in their lives. Critically, it lays bare a central message: your health is your business.

People label themselves as being ‘healthy’ with diverging interpretations of what this entails. For the wellness industry, this ambiguity is extremely profitable.

This, I believe, is what beats at the heart of wellness: individualism. We all have our own journeys and therefore, health has become a unique destination for each one of us. People are obsessed with their own utopias of contentedness, rather than focusing on a collective mission of care, restoration and sacrifice.

This is what the government is championing in order to address health concerns in the age of Covid-19 – ambiguity and individual responsibility.

Burgeoning individualism, of course, is not new. Following Thatcher and the upsurge of neoliberalism in the 1980s, the importance of owning ​your​ own home, protecting ​your​ family and ​your​ income became paramount. The individual was put at the forefront of policy and progress. The post-war community-orientated chutzpah was replaced with nuclear families, preserving the home and fending for oneself. Today, the mantra of outsourcing and individuality when it comes to good health is in full force amidst the global pandemic and the age of wellness.

People are obsessed with their own utopias of contentedness, rather than focusing on a collective mission of care, restoration and sacrifice.

Boris, when hopping on his bike and splatting up more McDonald’s-yellow posters for his Better Health campaign, is telling us to save the NHS by trimming our waistlines and making better, healthier choices. This message echoes the idea of health being an individual’s journey, to those who want it and can afford it. With the exception of some low-impact legislation, such as a ban on advertising unhealthy food before 9 pm, the crux of the Better Health campaign is placed on the public. The government’s website contains no policy changes, movements or communities to join. Instead, it is up to oneself to change ​your routine and kick start ​your​ health.

The government’s website contains no policy changes, movements or communities to join. Instead, it is up to oneself to change ​your routine and kick start ​your​ health.

What we continue to lack is a universal and democratic understanding of what we mean by being well and wellbeing, and then the infrastructure and resources to support this. The WHO’s attempt to provide a definition reveals the cracks and inconsistencies at the centre of wellness; that businesses, and now the government is exploiting. Wellness is fundamentally a concept, not a campaign or cure for society’s current ills. Hear that Boris?

We need policies and a public discourse that treats health as the objective of the population at large, exercised by the individual. The Better Health campaign, adopting the guises of wellness to shun government responsibility, can ultimately do a lot better. Diverging, ambiguous and contradictory interpretations of health cannot remedy the structural problems facing society including access to care, food and education.

What do you think about what ‘health’ is? How do you define it? Let us know in the comments.

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