Capitalism has co-opted wellness
What do you think of when you hear the word wellness? Matcha? Yoga? A thin, blonde, glowing woman who may or may not be named Gwyneth? What is this special magic that allows the Western economic machine to take a concept such as wellness, or simply, the state of being in good health, and load the word with product images and a sense of aspiration?
Turning health, or the striving towards health, into wealth is not a new game. We’ve been sold diets, pharmaceuticals, curative experiences, and constitution enhancing talismans in this modern way since the industrial revolution. What I think is new is the distillation of the many moving parts that comprise “health” into one all-encompassing, loaded term and image.
Wellness. The state of being in good health. On the one hand, most of us would probably agree on what it takes to be in a state of good health. Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, drinking plenty of water, sleeping enough, and exercising enough tend to top the list. On the other, Americans are spending billions of dollars a year on health and fitness expenses, a price tag that does not take into account medical spending and health insurance. That spending suggests to me that despite what we think we know about health we’re still desperately searching for another cure. Why? Advertising. Particularly the new kind of advertising social media platforms like Instagram can provide in the form of aspirational concepts based on relatively simple and attainable things. It is no longer enough to sell one thing. We are being sold lifestyles and the possibility of a new physical state of being, and if you want to get that life, you have to buy many things.
This new brand of wellness economics begs the question, “Who gets to be well?” Wellness bloggers and fitness models have done much of the heavy lifting for advertisers by turning their lives into interactive billboards, and if you dive into their world the question gets answered for you pretty quickly. Wellness means white, it means you have a certain body type, and it means you have enough money to spend to be well in a way that others would aspire to. For something as personal and individual as health, there’s an oddly homogeneous feeling to the many images that sell us wellness, and it’s the same sickly feeling of sameness that the consumerist drive tends to cloak everything in. I’m thinking of fast fashion, chain restaurants, certain pop music, and popular television as accessible examples. Advertising is at it’s most effective when it can boil a concept down into a word and have you do the heavy lifting of deciding what that word wants you to buy.
What do we want to buy to be well? Just about anything if it’s presented effectively, but what seems to be particularly effective is the selling of simulacrums of Eastern practices. From India we’ve packaged spices like turmeric as super food miracle cures, charging a premium stateside while exploiting the farmers that grow them to increase profit. Yoga as a Western practice is ubiquitous, and has been whitewashed so thoroughly as to become something that deserves a name of its own. Buddhism has been mined to sell us meditation apps, prayer beads, Buddha statuary, and misunderstood mantras. Green things from the East are easy sells; healthy living symbols like jade rollers and eggs, green tea and matcha, and seaweeds. Do these things contribute to health and true wellness? Maybe, but selling them in this out of context way contributes to a form of consumerist colonialism. The wellness industry is turning entire parts of the world into a brand for Westerners to consume.
The fact that wellness as a product is such an easy sell draws attention to a broken health care system. When preventative care isn’t emphasized or provided something is needed to fill its place. A for-profit medical industry is not interested in keeping people well or preventing them from getting sick. Capitalism does not care about people. It cares about money. In a world where access to healthy food, clean water, and clean air is not guaranteed, the possibility of someday buying enough to be healthy is the comfort offered.