Words by Annabel Bai Jackson.
When I was a college student, there would be a five-day period each term labeled “wellness week.” The student committee would organize tai chi classes, advertise 6 a.m. group runs and give out “smoothie shots” in the cafeteria. I petted alpacas, I attended relaxation webinars, I even had a session of craniosacral therapy, in which I was informed that my body, impassively sprawled across the massage table, had “a good energy.” In these moments, the sensation of well-being—wrapped up in the languages of both discipline and recuperation—was seductive. A future fanned out before me: exercise at sunrise, probiotics at noon, meditation at night.
Like most people, I didn’t have the discipline to turn these tasters into an actual routine. But for some, the belief in regimen as the path to renewal can become an obsession. As the wellness industry booms, and the aesthetic demands placed upon our bodies become borderline impossible to achieve, healthy habits such as exercising regularly and eating a balanced diet can turn into fixations. Disorders like orthorexia (the obsession with eating “pure” foods) and exercise dependency are increasingly recognized among mental health professionals.1 These conditions have yet to appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), America’s handbook of classified mental health disorders, but first-person testimony reveals the true anguish of obsession. Search through online forums and you’ll find stories of individuals guilt-ridden for missing a gym class, or self-proclaimed “skincare addicts” on Reddit asking, “Is there any benefit to sunlight?” Overwhelmed by the ever more granular, ever more exacting subtleties of health and self-care, the drive to be well can produce its own distinctive form of unwellness.
“Wellness is always in the present tense.
But how far can we maximize—and what
kind of ideal do we want to become?”
The irony of this trajectory is striking but perhaps it was always inevitable. Well-being—the general state of happiness and good health—often gets subsumed into the image-conscious, commercially driven notion of wellness. Deriving from physician Halbert L. Dunn’s 1961 book, High Level Wellness, the concept rejects the neutral state of “unsickness” as a health ideal. Instead, according to Dunn, we should be in positive, active pursuit of elevation through continuous acts of “maximizing the potential of which the individual is capable.”2 Wellness is always in the present tense. “Maximizing is a dynamic word, a becoming word,” Dunn writes. But how far can we maximize—and what kind of ideal do we want to become?
“Wellness is often associated with an element of evangelism,” says Renee McGregor, sports dietician and author of Orthorexia: When Healthy Eating Goes Bad. In her book, McGregor points out the Greek origins of the word—ortho coming from the prefix meaning “correct”—and notes the loss of objectivity entailed in the disorder: “Reducing saturated fat can easily, over time, become eliminating all fat . . . increasing vegetables can become eating only vegetables.” The book covers cases such as that of Jordan Younger, the gluten-free, sugar-free, oil-free, grain-free, legume-free, plant-based raw vegan whose wholesome blog posts veiled dangerously disordered eating. After her hair fell out, her periods stopped and her skin took on an orange tinge from overconsumption of sweet potatoes, Younger pivoted to raising awareness of the danger of extreme diets.3 Many of her stories center on the impact of social media, which often features wellness’s powerful visual shorthand—rainbow-flecked poke bowls and yoga poses at sunset—in a way that’s influential and irresistible.
McGregor also writes about a teenage girl she treated, whose recovery from a sugar-free, soy-free and low-fat vegan diet stalled because she “chose to believe what she was reading on the Internet.” It’s through social media that the internet replicates wellness’s anxiety of becoming. You don’t see influencers execute a task just once: You witness them perform it over and over again, reminding us that it’s a lifestyle, rather than just a product, that we’re buying into.
“It’s very common to be obsessed
with the body, as if it’s this thing we can
manipulate and decorate.”
Not everyone with an Instagram account who wants to improve their well-being falls into the trap of wellness obsession. The risk of doing so is partly down to personality type. “Most people who develop a dangerous relationship with food and exercise tend to be type A,” McGregor writes—that is, high achievers who often have a greater propensity for stress. “If you put this person in the right psycho-social space, [one] that is a competitive environment with societal ideals, this creates the perfect storm to allow for dysfunctional behaviors to develop.” People with exercise dependency, for instance, might spend three to four hours each day in the gym on their workouts—an act that fosters an often illusory sense of control over everyday life.4 “It’s never about food, body, or exercise,” McGregor says. “This is just the means by which the individual is trying to void the discomfort around low self-worth.”
Why the body, in particular, falls prey to these feelings comes down to its plasticity. “It’s very common in our culture to be obsessed with the body, as if it’s this thing we can manipulate and decorate,” Peach Friedman, yoga instructor and author of Diary of an Exercise Addict, tells me.5 Some students in Friedman’s yoga classes zone in on the physical discipline of the practice, asking her which poses will help them lose weight or tone up. This fixation on regulating their bodies is part of “a very long checklist: you need to get eight to nine hours of sleep at night, you need to wake up early with the sun, you need to have your lemon water, you need to do your yoga.” If they can achieve this, the belief system goes, “then they will be better—then they will be more worthwhile.”
How can we develop a positive relationship with our bodies, then, that doesn’t rely on the false positivity of “resetting,” “glowing” and “enhancing”? We can separate well-being from the hyper-discipline of wellness, first by recognizing just how much of life’s texture is lost to its obsessions. The purgative, controlling language of toxic wellness—shred, tone, purify, cleanse—is anathema to the occasional excess, risk and pleasure that often lead to a more holistically positive life experience. Friedman, who had a diagnosed eating disorder alongside her exercise addiction, says, “I did not have a lot of access to pleasure—whether it be the pleasure of eating, sex or anything sensual,” at the height of her illness. “We want life to have richness, but we limit that when we over-control our experience. And we really lose wellness.”
Psychologists have drawn similar conclusions. In 2003, Professor Robert J. Vallerand made the distinction between “harmonious passion” and “obsessive passion.” Harmonious passion occurs when an individual chooses to engage in an activity, freely and autonomously, and in doing so experiences an authentic positive effect. Obsessive passion, by contrast, claims the individual as its own: They feel an overwhelming, internalized pressure to engage, perceiving their identity to be at stake in the activity. Those with an obsessive passion for sports are, unsurprisingly, at a higher risk of exercise dependency, with obsessive passion classfied as a “strong indicator” for possible addiction.
It’s easy to see that obsessive passion play out in the excesses of the wellness movement. As the academics Carl Cederström and André Spicer write in The Wellness Syndrome, the “ideology” of mainstream wellness requires the individual to be “potent, strong-willed and relentlessly striving to improve herself”: eternally captain of ship, master of fate.6 Even for those of us who don’t develop dangerous fixations, this ideology is exhausting and unsustainable. Turning to harmonious passion in the pursuit of well-being entails a different set of values: choice, freedom and finding one’s own path to contentment. Harmonious passion requires the acceptance of contingency—breaking down the equivalence between discipline and value, identity and activity.
It also means finding the courage to reject the now ubiquitous wellness idiom. “To step away and say, ‘I’m going to set my own standards for well-being,’ is very counterculture,” says Friedman.