Well out of order
Wellness was barely even a word until it became a global phenomenon. Now, attitudes are changing fast. As Monocle senior correspondent Rob Bound suggests, wellness seems at best irrelevant, at worst offensive
There are certain words and ideas around which it’s wise to place inverted commas. “Rock star” to mean someone decent at their job; “disruptor” for a company willing to provide a service cheaper than its competitors; “hack” for solution. They’re horrible. The quote marks are like warning signs displaying the distance at which it’s safe to stand from these toxic buzzwords. This terminology comes and goes – mere dust motes on the great mantelpiece of language. However, one word that looked as if it would stick like a barnacle to the hull of modern life was “wellness”. Perhaps it will finally have been washed away by the great pandemic tidal wave. Perhaps genuine not-very-wellness will have put paid to the fake, aggrandised sort of wellness forever.
Wellness. Roll it around in your mouth a little. The more you do, the more ridiculous it becomes. Wellness doesn’t really mean anything. It is certainly not the opposite of illness – in fact, the madness that surrounds wellness is almost like an illness of its own. Wellness is really a soft-lit, Instagram-savvy collective noun around which opportunistic brands can gather and align themselves in order to better peddle their “philosophies” (there’s poor old Aristotle, turning in his grave) – and of course, their “products”.
“Wellness practitioners” insist that wellness is not a luxury; it is an essential way of life. In fact, wellness is precisely a luxury: it is expensive and non-essential. In first-world countries, being able to eat, exercise and think in a way that keeps you well is largely achievable for little money, but that’s not what wellness is. Wellness doesn’t want you fit and healthy, it wants you nervous about how to be.
Wellness doesn’t want you fit and healthy, it wants you nervous about how to be
According to the Global Wellness Institute (surely an organisation begging for Louis Theroux’s camera crew), the global wellness industry is worth $4.2 trillion. The largest economic component of this, at a cool $1.1 trillion, is personal care, beauty and anti-ageing. That’ll be because wellness appeals most to attractive, monied celebrities and the people who look up to them. There are 18 members on the institute’s board and advisory panel, and just two describe themselves as doctors. The rest are drawn from industries including real estate, fashion, cosmetics and business coaching. One of them is a practitioner of Transcendental Meditation®. Who knew it was a registered trademark? How very wellness.
The figures for the value of wellness are in dollars, not just because it’s the standard international currency, but also because wellness is mostly an American invention. Of course, there were Ancient Greeks who exercised, Chinese dynasties that used unusual medicines and mittel-Europeans who saw virtue in a plate of pulses, but it’s Americans of the stripe of John Harvey Kellogg from whom we get the wellness of today. Kellogg pioneered a health movement called “biological living”. Cornflakes, his lasting legacy, were just a part of that trend, invented to stop people sinning, because they were dull and grainy in the mouth.
It cries out for distance, because while it’s allegedly about welfare and friendship, it’s actually very unfriendly, almost toxic
Today’s Queen of Wellness is Gwyneth Paltrow. The former actress is the founder of Goop, an online shop and portal into a world of wellness. Goop’s take on wellness is similar to that offered by many an Instagram influencer or YouTube motivator: virtue, healthiness, a dash of oh-you-caught-me-stretching sexiness and a light sprinkling of ersatz feminism.
But what’s it really about? In truth, wellness has forced people to drink the Kool-Aid (disguised, naturally, as green juice) and then charged a pretty penny for the privilege. “Wellness” is the ultimate word that requires inverted commas. It cries out for distance, because while it’s allegedly about welfare and friendship, it’s actually very unfriendly, almost toxic. Wellness devotees would invite you for a run and steam on ahead. If you tripped on a stone, they would help you up only if someone was watching, could lavish them with praise and post it on Insta. Real illness has brought solidarity. Wellness? That fad was mere selfishness. It’s yesterday’s news n