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All is not well with wellness

On the prospect of transformative wellbeing, the corporate-backed gurus who live off it have given it an elitist spin

By Rabeea Saleem |
Design: Mohsin Alam
PUBLISHED October 03, 2021

Clean eating and superfoods, nutraceuticals, smoothie bowls featuring avocado and kale, supplements, organic skincare routines and self-care spa treatments, boutique gyms, Zen gardens, CBD, crystals, beatific smiles of perfectly toned people practicing yoga and other holistic self-care routines. This is the world of wellness.

The Global Wellness Institute (GWI) describes wellness as “the active pursuit of activities, choices and lifestyles that lead to a state of holistic health.” The key phrase here is “active pursuit.”

The health and wellness market size worldwide was estimated at over 4.4 trillion US dollars in 2019, a figure which is set to increase to over six trillion US dollars by 2025.The Global Wellness Institute (GWI) report finds that the global mental wellness economy is worth $120.8 billion, based on consumer spend in four markets: senses, spaces and sleep ($49.5 billion), brain-boosting nutraceuticals & botanicals ($34.8 billion), self-improvement ($33.6 billion), and meditation and mindfulness ($2.9 billion).

According to Forbes, the wellness industry acted as a stopgap to the deficiencies of a broken healthcare system worldwide, exacerbated by the surge in demand post pandemic, which made people turn to alternative treatments like yoga or acupuncture. Built on the prospect of transformative well being and becoming an active agent of our holistic wellbeing, the wellness industry quickly went awry after corporate-backed “wellness gurus” gave it an exclusionary, elitist spin.

Earlier this year, Wellness-Centered Cruises were announced with “its mind, body and spirit offerings” with Gywneth Paltrow as the wellness adviser. The wellness industry has long been criticised as exploitative and centered around wealthy, white experiences. Celebrities turned entrepreneurs like Gwyneth Paltrow were at the forefront of this rebranding. Her lifestyle and wellness brand GOOP is considered the epitome of commercial, white washed wellness and has been accused of deceptive marketing by using fringe remedies and misleading statements about nutritional supplements or medical devices. Veganism and clean eating are hallmarks of this wellness trend which the problem begins when they perpetuate eating disorders and body image issues. The modern wellness drive has become a modern cult by peddling pseudoscience and repackaging ancient alternative medicines and practices into an unorthodox, aspirational lifestyle they can generate revenue from.

The catalysts for this movement have been the celebrities and social media influencers who endorse such trends. Since celebrities have become the gold standards of not only new fashion trends, looks and lifestyles but also health and wellness, one never knows whether a certain trend is popular due to its effectiveness or due to the star power of the celebrity backing it.

The wellness industry is now dominated by rich,white women peddling various diets and nutrition plans. This industry flourishes on the promise of a lavish, serene life selling the promise of an “insta-worthy”, impeccable lifestyle.

In the 2015 book The Wellness Syndrome, the authors Carl Cederström & André Spicer argue that the modern concept of wellness hinges upon obsessively tracking our wellness, while continuously finding new avenues of self-enhancement,which leaves us little room to just live. Today, wellness is not just a state of mind or lifestyle but also requires abiding by the pop culture norms like following the trending clean food diet or getting the latest pricey Peloton bikes.

The big loophole in this wellness ideology is its inherent privilege. The Wellness Syndrome pertinently asks that, “Where does our preoccupation with our own wellness leave the rest of the population, who have an acute shortage of organic smoothies, diet apps and yoga instructors?”


Detractors of this movement highlight the issue of misappropriation as well since many western wellness companies have borrowed crystal or ancient rituals, cashing in on their exotic appeal, from indigenious cultures without respecting its roots and by abandoning the whole system that came with it.

The industry suffered a setback during the pandemic but is now all set to rebound dramatically, especially since the prolonged lockdown and pandemic situation has taken a huge toll on people’s physical,mental and emotional wellbeing.

The reasons for the increase in demand of the wellness industry can be broadly divided into two reasons. Accessibility to information regarding healthcare and wellness due to digital and social media have increased people’s awareness regarding their well being. According to McKinsey & Company, consumers broadly define wellness as a multidimensional model consisting of improving health, fitness, nutrition, appearance, sleep and mindfulness. Interestingly, COVID-19 has caused each of these dimensions to digress. This has led to an escalation of health, fitness and wellness apps focused on meditation, stress management and sleep hygiene during the pandemic including Fiit, Strava, Calorie counter, Calm and Headspace.

Recently two popular TV shows attempt to dismantle the cult of wellness. In fall TV specially, the flavor of the season is horror at wellness retreats. Nine Perfect Strangers, a Hulu series which is based on a novel by the same name which reunites the Liane Moriarty and Nicole Kidman duo of Big Little Lies. The series follows an assortment of nine characters who escape their troubles by booking themselves a spot at a swank Californian wellness resort called Tranquillium owned by a mysterious Russian wellness guru Masha, played by Kidman. They soon realize that they are getting more than they bargained for when they find out that they are being used as guinea pigs for a microdosing experiment and their fruity beverages have not only been secretly spiked but tailored to their individual metabolic profiles. While the premise is intriguing, the execution leaves much to be desired and the story is hampered by Kidman’s half-committed accent and outlandish accent besides too many backstories.

The HBO production The White Lotus revolves around a motley crew of affluent Americans arriving at a plush resort in Hawaii and the sly hotel manager who understand the need to pander to their egos and treat them each as “special chosen baby child”. This show takes a far more sinister, mordantly humorous approach to the self-involved elite’s pursuit of wellness. It features more three-dimensional characters, each representing a particular vice, and a better executed storyline than Nine Perfect Strangers. The White Lotus is a heady mix of dark comedy and thrilling drama featuring guests that are blissfully unaware of their own privilege.

Both shows satirises the over indulgent lives of affluent white people and their obsession with their wellness, even if it is at the expense of exploitation of those less fortunate than them, with varying degrees of success.

Both these shows succeed in portraying the consumer wellness craze which makes it exclusionary and elitist by putting a fancy price tag on health. The takeaway message is simple: wellness is a commodity a privileged few can afford.


(Rabeea Saleem is a clinical associate psychologist and freelance journalist. She can be reached at rabeea.saleem21@gmail.com)