Healthy, Wealthy … Unwise?

What's the meaning, and the cost, of wellness? And who can afford it? Clem Bastow reflects on infra-red saunas, whey isolate and crystal-infused bee-pollen sprinkles.

Illustration by Jon Tjhia

Illustration: Jon Tjhia

To look around my room, you could be forgiven for mistaking me for a ‘wellness’ nut: plenty of crystals, lavender bags under my pillows, drinking water in sturdy glass bottles, a yoga bolster and various spiky and lumpy massage implements.

Take a look in my kitchen cupboard, and you may well hit the panic button: hemp seeds, chia, whey isolate, amaranth, dates, coconut oil.

You’d hit the panic button, that is, unless you pushed aside the hemp seeds (why are you snooping around my house, anyway?) to discover my impressive stockpile of Pizza Shapes. When it comes to wellness, I could be generously described as a skeptic, more accurately as a cynic.

I eat ‘superfoods’ because I like the taste of them, more often than not, but I certainly don’t think that sprinkling a tablespoon of hemp in my protein shake is going to turn me into Chris Hemsworth or magic away my sore hip flexors. And yet, even the most cynical may find themselves drawn to the wonders of wellness, because in 2017, it’s everywhere.

Bookstores are lousy with smoothie cookbooks (surely a contradiction in terms), wellness guides and various 30-day ‘plans’ that promise to do everything from curing gut ailments to, effectively, turning you into Superman.

Take a look in my kitchen cupboard, and you may well hit the panic button: hemp seeds, chia, whey isolate, amaranth, dates, coconut oil.

Wellness is one of those cultural phenomena that we all recognise but find hard to pin down: it’s something about eating superfoods, right? Or is it more to do with yoga and infra-red saunas? No, it’s about meditating with jade eggs in your vagina. No, no, wait … it’s smoothies!

In truth, it’s all of the above, with a heavy emphasis on ‘healing’ – whether it’s Sarah Wilson’s I Quit Sugar diet and its accompanying claims about healing her autoimmune issues, Pete ‘activated almonds’ Evans’s concerns about fluoride in the water, or most spuriously, Belle Gibson’s fraudulent claims that wellness could help treat or cure cancer.

So where did wellness come from, and how did it come to this?

Like high-waisted hotpants and Boz Scaggs albums, wellness is a particularly 1970s notion that has somehow wormed its way back into the collective unconscious. Wellness centres flourished in Northern California in the mid-1970s, decried by many as just another Me-Generation frippery, like key parties and credit cards. The Wellness Resource Centre opened by Doctor John Travis in Mill Valley in 1975 promoted self-directed, preventative approaches to individual wellbeing as an alternative to the illness-oriented focus of traditional medicine.

The popularity of the concept makes sense in the cultural climate of California. It's a place that has, for a long time, been geared towards both healthiness and alternative lifestyles. Wellness also can be understood more broadly as an American phenomenon, having taken hold in a country where healthcare is expensive or, for many, non-existent.

Wellness also can be understood more broadly as an American phenomenon, having taken hold in a country where healthcare is expensive or, for many, non-existent.

In Australia, on the other hand, the enthusiastic response to the concept is puzzling. We have a public health system that is robust enough that most people aren’t driven to oil-pulling (swishing melted coconut oil around the teeth and gums for ten straight minutes) instead of visiting a dentist. 

Instead, perhaps, it’s helpful to view wellness through a prism of class. Preparing nutrient-dense wholefood meals sends subtle signals about one’s social standing, in the same way that taking a selfie in Aspen might. Most people can’t afford it – in time or in cash. There is something aspirational about wellness, especially when it’s touted by those who live the glamorous life: Gwyneth Paltrow, Cameron Diaz, Miranda Kerr.  

There are less subtle class judgments in the tendency of wellness gurus to demonise ‘bad’ foods and ‘lifestyle choices’. Pity the mother who gives her children a Happy Meal rather than whipping up trays of gluten-free, sugar-free, coconut-oil-dense granola bars. I have even witnessed wellness acolytes trying to demonise frozen vegetables. (For the record, while frozen veggies may end up texturally compromised, they are often higher in antioxidants than vegetables cooked from a fresh state, and are comparable in terms of fibre and nutrient content.)

In 2013, David H Freeman wrote a compelling feature for the Atlantic that has been my key political text on food ever since:

The most obvious problem with the 'let them eat kale' philosophy of affluent wholesome-food advocates involves the price and availability of wholesome food. Even if Whole Foods, Real Food Daily, or the Farmhouse weren’t three bus rides away for the working poor, and even if three ounces of Vegan Cheesy Salad Booster, a Sea Cake appetiser, and the vegetarian quiche weren’t laden with fat and problem carbs, few among them would be likely to shell out $5.99, $9.95, or $16, respectively, for those pricey treats.

The irony, then, is that a movement that sprang up in part as an alternative to a malfunctioning healthcare system – staying well in order to avoid expensive hospital or specialist care – is just another exorbitant expense.

Illustration by Jon Tjhia

Illustration: Jon Tjhia

Wellness is also a coded form of weight management.

For those who have recovered from eating disorders, or just disordered eating habits, the world of wellness is fraught with danger. Any restrictive eating plan (read: diet) or miracle vitamin or powder (read: weight-loss supplement) can quickly descend into the worst excesses of self-punishment. As someone whose most deranged weight loss came at a time of outwardly great ‘health and wellness’, I’m acutely aware of this.

And as someone who has been ‘strength-training’ (a wellness-esque euphemism for ‘lifting lots of heavy shit up and putting it down again’) for more than a year now, I have relished the relative lack of wellness-type nonsense in the ‘gains’ community. This is, in part, because much strength training literature is geared towards men – who are apparently undeterred by straight-shooting advice.

The irony is that a movement that sprang up in part as an alternative to a malfunctioning healthcare system ... is just another exorbitant expense.

Men are also, to generalise, more likely to want to get bigger. (Though there are impressive strides being made by strength influencer women like Casey Johnston, whose Ask A Swole Woman column is a beacon of hope in a sea of ‘toning’ advice for women.) The emphasis in strength-training is on eating enough to grow muscle, preferably from ‘whole’ foods but not to a neurotic extent. The idea of ‘flexible dieting’ (sometimes referred to as ‘if it fits your macros’) allows for dinners out and occasional couch-potato pizza explosions.

I am, then, concerned by the gradual bleed of wellness lingo into strength training. Fitness influencer Kayla Itsines – whose ‘Bikini Body Guide’ workouts and ‘lifestyle plan’ (read: fad diet) have turned millions of women into svelte clones – has announced her intention to create a strength regime. No doubt it will be heavy on ‘toning’ and ‘lengthening’ with no emphasis on ‘bulking’. Can’t we just eat our meatloaf and do our deadlifts in peace?

I try to keep my own exposure to Wellness Content to a minimum because I know the kind of thing that sets off my more disordered eating habits. Like a sleeper agent whose killing powers are activated by certain code phrases, a switch is flipped in my brain whenever I hear ‘bikini body’, ‘detox’ or ‘green smoothie’ and it’s a short jump from there to hours of gruelling cardio and an off-kilter sense of self-image.

It’s prudent to approach wellness with caution. Take what you like, and make it part of a normal lifestyle. Know that crystal meditation can be very relaxing, but probably can’t cure cancer. Enjoy that green smoothie if you like the taste, not because it will detox your body.

And the next time a celebrity sings the praises of a three-figure juice cleanse or crystal-infused bee-pollen sprinkle, check their post for the telltale #ad hashtag – because hell, I’d tell you that eating bark straight off the tree was a cure for autoimmune disease if someone paid me thousands of dollars to do it.

Portrait of Clem Bastow

Clem Bastow is an award-winning journalist, cultural critic and cake-baker. Her work appears regularly in the Saturday PaperAge and Guardian, and she co-presents Superfluity on 3RRR. In 2017 she co-presented the ABC First Run professional wrestling podcast Behind The Belt.

Having completed the traditional 'two year stint writing at Starbucks' in Los Angeles in 2013, Clem is currently working on bringing her first film, Farewell Tour, to the screen. When she's not fighting crime by night, Clem works as a tutor in screenwriting at the University of Melbourne.

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