The Wellness Buzz

Standing in the snow, with a dazzlingly blue lake behind them, six people begin to do a breathing exercise before submerging themselves in an ice bath… all to relieve stress and promote wellness. These shivering participants are featured in an episode of Netflix’s the goop lab, in which Gwenyth Paltrow and her staff try an array of tactics (including vampire facials, orgasms and energy fields) that seek to promote wellness. 

Goop, as a brand, has become the by-word for laughably, ridiculously expensive solutions to problems you didn’t know existed (hello, jade vagina egg). Even so, some techniques, like the Wim Hof breathing method featured in Episode 2, are rooted in a history of alternative medicines that were always designed to catch the eye of wealthy consumers. 

As Daniela Blei outlines in her article ‘The False Promise of Wellness Culture’, you might have been as likely to find a European aristocrat trying breathing methods like Hof’s as much as an Instagram influencer today. So has the pursuit of self-fulfilment and wellness always been tied into consumer cultures?

Hot springs at Aachen, Germany, 1682 

Defining Wellness

In 1950, Halbert L. Dunn gave a series of talks on ‘high level wellness’ – a topic he devoted his life to. These talks gave the Western ‘wellness industry’ as we know it today a shape, an ethos and a goal that views health beyond the absence of illness. For Dunn, a healthy life is described as the “...times when you are fairly alive with the glow of good health-with wellness. Alive clear to the tips of your fingers. You have energy to burn. You tingle with vitality. At times like these, the world is a glorious place!”

Sounds fun. One major point that Dunn noted was that healthcare professionals he came into contact with were more focused on curative approaches than preventative ones. Where medicine might attempt to be objective, for Dunn the subjective nature of wellness allowed for a fluid, personal approach. 

By the 1970s, Dunn’s ideas had birthed a new movement typified by a new ‘Wellness Resource Centre’ opened by John Travis in California. Once again, the centre was embraced by those looking for ways to improve their relationship with the self. It was also scorned by others who saw it as a continuation of hedonistic hippy culture. In Retreat: How the Counterculture Invented Wellness (2020) journalist Matthew Ingram explores the roots of this hippy culture, connecting the pursuit of wellness with both psychedelics and psychoanalysis. The postwar search for the self was driven by a deep need to go ‘deep inside’ and to figure out how the individual operated. 

The individualistic approach that the pursuit of wellness can take is both a positive (each person exists within their own definition of what ‘wellness’ looks like for them) and a negative (we are encouraged to view our ‘wellness’ as an individualised, potentially selfish and expensive pursuit). Which is where communal self care might come in…

Radical acts of self care 

Wellness is sometimes conflated with self care, which itself has also become a bit of a buzz word despite its long political history. A quote from Audre Lorde’s A Burst of Light (1988) is often quoted in response to the commodification of self care. Lorde writes: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence… It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare”. 

Self care is a tool and, as blogger Sarah Taylor explains, Lorde was talking about a way of retaining strength and power in the face of oppression. Using self care as a solution to individual consumer needs is an ironic twist of fate. Self care has always been about community building as feminist movements and Civil Rights activists (especially the Black Panthers) began to provide healthcare and education outreach. 

Bringing community into the pursuit of ‘self care’ is an important way to break from the connotations of individualism. The individual cares for the self in order to replenish the community. Writing for Vice, Angie Jaime draws on her indigenous culture to try and remember that “my sense of self has always been, and needs to remain, plural”. That the pursuit of self care and wellness does not happen in a vacuum – our relationships and interactions form an important part of looking after the self. 

Progress not perfection

Image: Camille Brodard

Ultimately, for Dunn, “wellness is a direction in progress”, something that must be maintained and worked on within the parameters of an individual’s life, routine and capacity. In that sense, going on a retreat or purchasing your favourite bubble bath is just one part of a larger routine that can be part of a holistic, conscious approach to wellness. 

Planning a self care routine or coping strategies can be a great way to stay aware of your mental health. Maggy Van Eijk, author of Remember This When You're Sad (2018), advocates for keeping lists that remind you what keeps you happy and centred so you can refer to them when you need a boost. Wellness is a journey – not an end goal. There will be slip ups, sadness and selfishness on the way.

Although wellness has become a booming industry it also taps into something inherently human – in the ‘life reform’ movements of the 19th centuries to counterculture LSD retreats and modern Goop solutions – there is a desire to find and nurture something deep in ourselves. And in turning to models of community offered by Audre Lorde we can find an antidote to pursuing that desire alone.