Stories

The sickness in the wellness industry

Being able to enjoy a carefree night out made Gwen Smith realise her anorexia was retreating. But she also began to recognise how the wellness and weight-loss industries make money by promoting continual self-restraint and an unhealthy focus on the body.

By Gwendolyn Smith

  • Essay
Photograph of writer Gwen Smith sat behind a table which is covered in vegetables, holding carrots in one hand and a green health drink in the other. She is looking sceptically at the vegetables.
Gwen Smith, Thomas SG Farnetti. Source: Wellcome Collection. CC BY-NC.

I’m lying in bed one morning during my first term at university. Spreadeagled to my left is a temporary bedfellow: my friend Jess. At some point in the early hours, we’d made it home from a club with pizza in tow. The remnants of two margaritas and a box of cheesy chips litter the carpet. My head is swimming; my stomach is swirling; I long to spend the rest of my days pressing each cheek alternately against a cool stone floor. But despite the booze, the nocturnal carb-loading and the high likelihood of vomit, this is the healthiest I’ve been for months.

Prior to starting my English course, I’d spent months in the clutches of what my parents and teachers were tearily calling an ‘eating disorder’, but what I maintained was merely a ‘healthy-eating regime’. It begun around the Easter of my final year at school and had quickly mutated into something decidedly... unhealthy.

By the time I was sitting my A levels in the summer, I’d taken the hardly brainpower-boosting step of stopping eating altogether. I’d also started running compulsively, as if permanently being pursued by an invisible snarling bear. Surprise, surprise, I dropped five stone. 

I was only allowed to start university because I’d begun getting better as autumn drew in. It wasn’t the physical symptoms that made me finally admit I was ill; I remained studiously unaware that my body had started to resemble the one I’d had before puberty. It was that I no longer had any friends. All right, I had friends – but I didn’t hang out with them any more. They might have offered me a sandwich and then what would I do? When your daily purpose is to shed as many calories as possible, socialising, with its attendant unpredictability around food, tends to lose its allure.

MORE: The physical health impact of loneliness.

That’s why, when I found myself that morning at university, accompanied by not only the remains of no-holds-barred feasting, but also a friend, who – what did I know? – may or may not have had a sandwich on their person, I knew I was starting to recover. Even more importantly, it was the first time I realised that there’s more to good health than being physically healthy.  

Yes, I’d gained enough weight to return to a healthy BMI, but getting thinner is a symptom of an eating disorder, not the cause. My mental health had improved too: I was able to carouse with friends with increasingly fewer thoughts wasted on whether a pear was ‘oversized’.

A narrow definition of health

Wellness might not have been a ‘thing’ when I was a student. But it is now, and in my mind, it is closely linked to that morning. I can trace my current cynicism towards the movement directly back to the heightened understanding of good health that dawned as I – yes, somewhat improbably – lay very still and tried not to be sick. But before we start unpicking exactly why I find wellness so derisible, and quite how my hungover epiphany comes into it, let’s recap on what we’re dealing with.

Wellness is sold as the pursuit of good health. It’s the glowy, overpriced umbrella under which ‘clean eating’ (which advocates eating whole or unprocessed foods) fell. But while clean eating has been largely discredited – with critics accusing it of body fascism and bad science – wellness stealthily endures.

Shiny millennials cart their yoga mats to wellness festivals. London’s Mortimer Street is home to so many health and beauty brands that it has been dubbed a wellness ‘hotbed’. This September, Gwyneth Paltrow treated the capital to a pop-up shop of her wellness mothership – sorry, lifestyle brand – Goop.

Wellness is stupid and infuriating in equal measure – not only because it is anti-science bunkum, as obstetrician and gynaecologist Dr Jen Gunter has rigorously pointed out, but because it is such an audacious misnomer. As a term it suggests the acme of wellbeing, but in reality it promotes a laughably narrow idea of healthiness.

How aspirational lifestyles promote insecurity

To put it another way, its obsession with physical health leaves little room for mental health. After all, no matter how many meditation retreats are peddled in its name, and how frequently it bleeds into the equally perplexing world of self-care, wellness is just dieting with more classism and less cottage cheese.

Just like diet culture, wellness thrives on the notion that people – most commonly women – aren’t good enough as they are. In Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s coruscating New York Times report on the wellness industry, Gwyneth Paltrow blurts out an incredibly telling line, saying it’s essential that Goop “remain aspirational”. That more or less confirms how the movement’s success relies on making people think there’s something wrong with their lives, and then pretending that wellness can help them solve it. (Spoiler: it can’t.)

Being healthy is about making peace with yourself and the world around you.

Equally yuckily, while dieting suggests a temporary period of denial, wellness is a permanent mindset. Its holistic approach to weight loss is deemed so marketable that Weight Watchers is rebranding in its honour. But the flipside is that it involves operating restraint – and therefore thinking about operating restraint – all of the time. Almost makes retro diets involving a one-off week spent munching Ryvita and hummus seem adorably benign, doesn’t it?

Wellness ultimately jars because of the key lesson I learned that university morning: being healthy is about making peace with yourself and the world around you. It’s about feeling happy enough in your own skin to think about things beyond... well, your own skin. In short, precisely the opposite mindset of the insecure one that wellness plays on.

I’m not, of course, arguing that eating pizza made me better. It’s that eating pizza without painstakingly weighing up the decision to do so beforehand made me realise I was better. For the best kept secret to wellness? True wellness sometimes lies in not thinking about wellness at all.

About the author

Photograph of Gwendolyn Smith

Gwendolyn Smith

@Gwendolyn_Smith

Gwendolyn Smith is a freelance culture journalist based in London.