The Dark Side of "Wellness"

By Rosie Barton, LMSW

These days the buzz word on the street, in advertisements, blogs, and seemingly every app on our phone is the term "wellness." We’re constantly inundated with messages about whole foods, eating clean, cleanses, and organic beauty products. Although wellness is touted as the answer to all of our mental and physical woes, at its core it’s just another damaging manifestation of the diet and fitness industry. 

The diet industry is insidious — it sneakily inserts itself into our lives in the form of smoothie bowls on Instagram, athleisure designed to take you from that thirty-five dollar spin class straight to brunch, and bloggers advocating for everything from carb-free diets to activated charcoal. We’re told that if we simply strive enough and have the right products, we too can achieve total mind and body wellness. 

Beneath the glamour and purity of these manufactured social media posts is the dark side of obsession, guilt, shame, and deprivation. The more we attribute our moral “goodness” to what we put into our bodies, the more we’re primed to feel inadequate when we can’t live up to those impossibly high standards. The wellness industry wants you to believe that wellness is indeed a state at which you can arrive. You can (you should! You must!) “live your truth,” and “be your best self.” 

These messages inflict tremendous damage because they make us feel as if we aren’t already good enough just as we are. We’re left striving and exhausted, more preoccupied with ridding our body of toxins than getting curious about how we actually feel. The more we seek balance from something external to ourselves, the more elusive it becomes. When we rely on bone broth or juice cleanses to make us feel wholesome, inevitably we will be left with a persistent sense of emptiness or lack. 

People may come to therapy holding the belief that they somehow don’t measure up to others. It seems as if everyone else has figured out this whole happiness and self-love thing, and they’re the only ones left depressed and inadequate. Wellness no longer feels so "well" to a fitness instructor who believes she’s a fraud because her clients look up to her as the epitome of health, meanwhile she’s unable to eat a piece of pizza with her friends. Wellness is draining to the man who spends hours each evening cooking chicken breasts and portioning out baby carrots into ziploc bags to ensure he has enough food for his paleo diet at work. It’s even worse when he feels crushed by guilt and shame for “cheating” with a piece of cake at a party. Pursuing wellness is often disguised as self-improvement, but when that’s combined with traits such as perfectionism and low self-esteem, the spiral into self-loathing can be swift. 

What the wellness industry fails to acknowledge is the degree of suffering inherent in living a life in which your self-concept is defined by a diet, fitness regimen, or the financial means to buy expensive supplements and beauty products. The wellness industry is booming because it’s designed to make us believe that the right products, classes, and superfoods will finally help us arrive at our best selves. It’s time to push back against these messages and recognize the wellness industry for what it is — another way that men and women are urged to participate in rampant consumerism in order to rectify their perceived shortcomings. This isn’t self-improvement or self-care—and it certainly isn’t wellness either. 

Rosie Barton is a therapist at Cobb Psychotherapy LCSW. If you would like support in exploring and managing emotions, visit cobbpsychotherapy.com to learn more about how therapy can help.