A plus size woman sit on the ground holding a blue exercise mat, resting during her workout

    In the middle of my High School experience, I quit dancing at my Dance Studio. Dancing was my main form of exercise. I was incredibly dedicated and felt proud of my physical health. After giving it up, I thought it was important to maintain my fitness independently and as a result, I became immersed in Wellness Culture. I started jogging, going to cycling classes, obsessing over veganism, watching hours of health guru YouTubers, wearing face masks, drinking detox tea, and, of course, staring at myself in the mirror hoping to see a difference. This took up the majority of my life, and I was not alone. My friends were doing the same things, which made this behavior feel completely ordinary. Was I pretty and good enough to receive the praise and acceptance I had always desired? Was I completing all the necessary tasks and habits to be the best I could be?

    My obsession with wellness eventually led me to study Nutrition in college. Even after my studies, I still struggled to understand the fine line between practicing healthy habits for the prevention of disease, and habits that became an obsession and ultimately disordered. Encouragement to participate in Wellness Culture is encompassing us through ads for medications and diets, exercise classes, supplements, juice bars, and much more. It is challenging to trust what to believe in and follow. It is also difficult to face ourselves and realize that we do not need to change or follow strict rules to be worthy of love and approval. Through this blog post, you will better understand what Wellness Culture is and how this massive industry can be a harmful aggravator for disordered eating and physical activity.

 

What is Wellness Culture?

    Before the boom of the Wellness Industry, good health was defined as a lack of disease or illness, which is measurable. A person either has a disease/illness or does not. The initiation of the Wellness Industry made the concept of good health nonmeasurable. Becoming healthy in wellness culture is unachievable due to the countless determining factors of this new form of “good” health, which goes beyond the absence of disease and illness. This new form of “good” health is also exclusive to affluent members of society because it is time-consuming and expensive. People are paying for products, specific foods, workout classes, etc. All these expenses and habits add up and are never-ending. For instance, you eat gluten-free which helps your bloating, but your hair is frizzy, and you need to buy certain hair products and supplements to improve this frizzy hair. Once you improve the frizzy hair, you realize you’re suffering from brain fog. You improve this by starting a habit of taking cold showers in the morning and taking more vitamins. As this improves, you discover another issue to be solved. The strive for perfection and comfort in a naturally imperfect and uncomfortable world will never end, no matter how much you nitpick your life. The Wellness Industry profits by rewarding certain body types and characteristics with praise for willpower and glorified moral goodness. Health gurus and influencers create brands with free advice for the general public based on their own personal experience rather than scientific data, research, and education. Health is individualistic, and focusing all your attention on this easily accessible information is potentially very dangerous, both physically and emotionally.

 

Wellness Culture’s Effect on Eating Disorders

    Something I found fascinating in my research was that Wellness Culture is just Diet Culture in disguise. Diets are commonly thought of as damaging nowadays. They often lead to body dissatisfaction, increased weight gain following the diet, and disordered eating. Wellness is known to focus more on general, holistic health rather than body weight and shape. This provides people the excuse to obsess about health, diet, and exercise because it is difficult to scrutinize the importance of valuing health. Individuals wrapped up in Wellness Culture may have similar motives and goals to those immersed in diet culture, which is often to look and feel different. Wellness Culture is convincing us that this is possible if you invest enough effort, time, and money. The industry is also convincing us that achieving these “wellness” goals will lead to happiness and praise. It is not uncommon to become obsessed with this control and desire to change, which may lead to various forms of eating disorders. People wrapped up in Wellness Culture may quickly find themselves, inadvertently, suffering from Orthorexia, which is when an individual has an undue focus on “clean” eating leading to restrictive behavior. Orthorexia and other forms of eating disorders can be overlooked due to the prevalence of Wellness Culture, leading individuals to suffer in silence and not receive the specialized treatment they need. I believe the pressure of this industry is harmful to people’s freedom and enjoyment of eating and living in general.

 

Solutions to Wellness Culture

    In my synthesis of the wellness culture literature, I explored resources that help reject and prevent the obsession with wellness culture and the development of eating disorders. This includes the practices of radical self-acceptance, Health at Every Size®, and Intuitive Eating®.

    Isa Acebal writes that radical self-acceptance is defined as “the practice of fully embracing our true nature, loving the entirety of our human experience, imperfections and all.” As the Wellness Industry pushes us to feel we are not good enough just as we are, it is critical to realize that this striving for perfection is never-ending. It is robbing us of our lives, freedom, and joy. At some point, we must throw in the towel and accept that WE ARE ENOUGH! I must admit that this is easier said than done, and I believe it is worth researching and exploring the concept of radical self-acceptance. This may spark curiosity and lead to questioning habits, reality, and thought patterns. Acebal encourages individuals to accept reality as it is and not run away from the more uncomfortable emotions of anger, loneliness, boredom, and anxiety that everyone experiences. Even societally decided “positive” habits, like exercise and working hard, can be detrimental. The Health at Every Size® approach arose from “discussions among healthcare workers, consumers, and activists who reject both the use of weight, size, or BMI as proxies for health and the myth that weight is a choice.” The Association For Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH) explains Health at Every Size® in more detail on its website and provides a list of principles explaining their beliefs. Health at Every Size® is redirecting attention to general health-promoting behaviors without the consideration of weight and weight loss. Larger bodies have continuously been discriminated against in healthcare, causing people to feel shame and fear when visiting their doctor. Health at Every Size promotes access to quality healthcare for everyone.

    Intuitive Eating® is a “non-dieting approach to changing your eating habits.” It is focused on “tapping into your body’s natural ability to tell when it’s hungry or satisfied.” Intuitive Eating® provides principles to form a beneficial relationship with food and exercise. Tribole and Resch are against diet culture, using food for a desired emotional fulfillment or escape, and restrictive eating. My favorite principle is “Honor Your Health-Gentle Nutrition”, which motivates less rigidity with eating. This principle inspires people to strive for health over time, however you define it, and radically accept that every single meal does not have to be the most nutrient-dense, nourishing food choice. It reminds people to give themselves grace and enjoy food and eating.

    Following my research on Wellness Culture and its impact on the development of eating disorders, I discovered my obsession with how I am feeling at each moment of the day. I was drinking a coffee one afternoon and noticed I became nervous about falling asleep that night. Instead of living in the moment and enjoying my lovely cup of coffee, I was shaming myself for not following my perfect health habits and, guess what? I fell asleep perfectly fine. This is just one example of trying to control my comfort with the habits I decide to partake in. Through a lot of effort, I am now more actively aware of these thoughts and able to release the pressure I put on myself to do it “just right.”

    In David Foster Wallace’s speech called “This is Water” he states, “Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure, and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you.” As the Wellness Industry profits off our desire for self-improvement, they are becoming incredibly rich because we will never feel beautiful enough. Wallace encourages people to find what they worship apart from wealth, beauty, or intelligence because these are limitless in the ways in which people will never be satisfied. So, what do you worship? What fulfills you? What brings meaning to your life? I hope that, with this information, you can be more aware and critical of the Wellness Industry. I believe it is important to be mindful of our food and exercise rules or habits to see where our intentions and motivations lie. For more information about wellness culture and helpful tools for recovering from an obsession with wellness culture, please visit the resources below. If you feel you need professional guidance, do not hesitate to contact The Hull Institute and Hull House Real Recovery for specialized treatment.

 

By Charlotte Becker, Volunteer

 

About the Author

Charlotte Becker, Volunteer

Charlotte Becker studied Applied Nutrition at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. She is passionate about the culinary arts, nutrition, and mental health. Charlotte is fascinated by behavioral change due to overcoming life challenges and understanding the possibility of improvement. She works as a cook on the Central Coast of California and spends her free time walking on the beach, reading, practicing yoga, jogging, and climbing at her local rock gym. Charlotte is volunteering with The Hull Institute to explore and research eating disorders.