When wellness is a dirty word



First came the anthropologist of Arctic poverty who found me on Instagram and confided that she was a Jazzercise fanatic. Then the intellectual historian who eloquently introduced herself as an expert on a similarly Serious Topic but rapidly and with sparkling eyes, before any of our fellow conferees entered the elevator, effused that it was really her Ashtanga yoga practice that sustained her. And the implacable administrator who waited for the meeting room to clear before explaining to me, her gaze softening, the admirable commitment of her Wednesday-night “Zumba ladies,” who traveled from three boroughs to their class in the Bronx.

Ever since I began researching wellness culture in America — and outing myself as a passionate participant — confessions from my academic colleagues have come fast and furious, if in hushed tones. Why all the furtiveness?

“Wellness” is everywhere. The White House is home to both an organic garden and an annual children’s yoga class. “Holistic pedagogy” is a respected instructional approach, and the term “wellness” appears in more than 30,000 titles on Amazon, not to mention labels on products as varied as pet food and probiotics. It’s no longer reserved for Marin County hippies like those whom Dan Rather interviewed in 1979 to explore then-radical concepts like “self-care” and “the mind-body connection.”

Yet with a few notable exceptions (including Lianne McTavish, a medievalist-turned-bikini-competitor, and Carol Horton, a political scientist-cum-yogini), scholars are wary of fessing up to enthusiastic participation in this widespread phenomenon. Why?

If the thinking classes were once skeptical of these wellness pursuits as woo-woo and anti-intellectual, their marginal status during the 1960s and ’70s at least bestowed a measure of countercultural legitimacy. Then, in the 1980s and ’90s, the language of well-being was commercialized by a booming fascination with fitness and an array of products and experiences to satisfy it. Cue Christopher Lasch’s persuasive admonition that affluent America was devolving into a sinkhole of narcissistic navel-gazing (sculpt those abs!).

Now that luxury mind-body spas and juice bars are familiar totems of gentrification, and Fortune 500 corporations roll out “McMindfulness” seminars and on-site wellness centers, engaging in such practices can feel like an endorsement of a superficial, bourgeois mainstream — a mainstream against which many intellectuals define themselves.

My colleagues’ whispered confessions derive from this dissonance, which I, too, have felt deeply. Growing up in the 1980s and ’90s, I was, like many future academics, a verb-conjugating, Ivy League-aspiring “smart girl” operating in a middle-class culture that privileged academic achievement above almost all else — certainly above the sweaty physicality of the gym floor, the ethereal New Age-ism of meditation and yoga, and the anti-intellectual softness of the “self-esteem” movement.

Nevertheless, I found and fell in love with group exercise classes at our suburban community center, a passion which for the next decade of college and grad school was best expressed in the funny-cause-it’s-true joke I often told: “In another life, I’d be an aerobics instructor.” While writing my dissertation, I became certified to teach an innovative mind-body fitness class called intenSati. Soon I bracketed days of writing with teaching at the gym.

I was terrified that my scholarly colleagues would discover me and doubt my intellectual credibility. Not only wasn’t I slaving in the archives 24 hours a day, but I also wasn’t moonlighting at the gym just to supplement a strapped grad-student budget. I felt a sense of fulfillment and purpose from teaching intenSati. The participants enthused that my class emboldened them to leave abusive relationships, to ask for raises, to climb Kilimanjaro. My huge smile while teaching became my “thing”; I couldn’t suppress my joy at the lengths to which students went — some took multiple trains before dawn — to sweat together. I remained “in the closet” through my first year on the faculty, but given that the classrooms where I was contemplating Bourdieu and Beard were mere blocks from the studios where my pedagogy tended toward burpees and back-kicks, and that I was featured on a life-sized poster at a nearby yoga-apparel store, I knew my cover would soon be blown.

These fears notwithstanding, I dug in my sneakered heels. The crackling excitement of my intenSati students’ physical and emotional breakthroughs put my academic teaching into relief. Could I really say my college students left similarly inspired? Where was the visceral joy in a roomful of desks, in students fatigued by the all-consuming credentials chase and hardened by the academic convention of hiding any evidence of vulnerability or wonder? I remembered John Dewey’s observation that classrooms really flourish when the body is integrated into learning rather than treated merely as an unruly entity to be disciplined. I strove to engage my students more fully, connecting their lives to the curriculum, their schooling to society, and their own lived experience to their education.

Soon, tentatively and then proudly, I let my wellness-freak flag fly. Five years later, my research and teaching unapologetically bear its influence.

Slowly, scholars are beginning to pay attention to wellness — though mostly to trash it. Two recent books, William Davies’s The Happiness Industry (Verso, 2015) and André Spicer and Carl Cederström’s The Wellness Syndrome (Polity, 2015), as well as Mark Greif’s 2004 n+1 essay, “Against Exercise,” typify this trend. They generally agree that the pursuit of well-being defines our age — The Wellness Syndrome talks about the devolution of Max Weber’s “Protestant work ethic” into a “workout ethic” — but also signals troubling tendencies toward social atomization, anti-intellectualism, narcissism, and a creeping technocratic neoliberalism.

Even biting critiques are welcome correctives to a deafening silence about wellness among humanists and social scientists. Scholars of the ’70s, for example, frequently relegate jogging and yoga to the status of frivolous fascinations like pet rocks and mood rings. Psychologists and public-health experts generate the empirical basis for the countless “Research shows … ” claims to sell cleansers or coaching programs, but don’t usually interrogate the philosophical or epistemological implications of the larger wellness project.

This critical silence is exacerbated by a popular discourse that is exceptionally unreflective. Practice gratitude, but never cease striving for more. Love your body as it is, but tend to it like a temple requiring vigilant beautification. Embrace the glorious fact that your life is in your hands, but also accept that your misfortune is your fault. Such Pinterest platitudes and talk-show directives deserve scrutiny rather than obeisance.

Greif, an associate professor of literary studies at the New School, offers the most concrete argument, training his sharp sights on the dehumanizing experience of the modern fitness clubs that have been a fixture of upper-middle-class life since at least the ’80s. Gyms make inescapable the industrial clock once reserved for the factory floor. The “only truly essential pieces of equipment in modern exercise are numbers,” he writes of the dystonic tableau of LED displays counting calories, heart rate, and miles. Remarkably, Greif wrote of this orgy of exhibitionism and measurement before the invention of the Fitbit and Facebook.

Davies, Cederström, and Spicer vent similar disgust, but they venture more-sweeping critiques of government and business in the United States and Britain. These interlocking institutions constitute a “happiness industry,” spreading a “wellness syndrome” that fetishizes fulfillment and well-being. The responsibility for attaining this elusive state, however, is foisted on individuals. Forsaking social goods like job security and universal health care for perks like wellness seminars and life coaching, both the state and private industry extract maximum labor while directing the blame for any failures back on citizens and employees, respectively, for failing to think positively enough. The birth of the 21st-century citizen inculcated to value productivity as the path to personal fulfillment, and unqualified gratitude as the most evolved emotional expression, is, in the eyes of those authors, a tragedy.

The quantification of everyday life far beyond Greif’s nightmarish gym is crucial to this narrative. The brave new world promised by champions of the “quantified self” movement, or of the “smart” technologies so pervasive they no longer need boosters, is actually a realm of surveillance that no biorhythm can escape. But numerical measurement alone, as Davies points out, doesn’t explain our current moment. Frederick Winslow Taylor, the industrial scientist largely credited with both increasing Western productivity and Americans’ obsession with it, assumed an alienated experience of labor. How could it be otherwise?

Davies turns to the Australian polymath Elton Mayo, who in the 1920s argued that the key to unlocking productivity was actually to increase employee happiness. This Harvard Business School professor of “dubious scholarly provenance,” Davies writes, is actually the father of modern corporate culture, in which sunny-sounding initiatives actually harness employees’ “holistic” identities for the benefit of the company. (Cederström and Spicer show how one cadre of hard-driving bankers discovered an ability to go harder at the office when they listened to their bodies and practiced meditation and healthful eating rather than the usual mix of caffeine and amphetamines.)

That the bottom line can drive the pursuit of well-being is a central argument of The Wellness Syndrome. Wellness pros — if not all enthusiasts — are cons. Life coaches, the insidious foot soldiers of the movement, lack expertise and perhaps even the emotional bona fides to peddle happiness. The book also takes issue with campus “wellness contracts.” Ostensibly benign goals such as “contribute positively to the community,” “maintain an alcohol- and drug-free lifestyle,” and cultivate a “holistic approach to living” incite curiously intense contempt from the authors.

Permeating all three works is a criticism of modern wellness as both marker and maker of elite status in an unjust society. Pop culture provides plenty of bourgeois caricatures to bolster the point: the cosseted and cultish Spirit Cycle (based on the $35-per-class SoulCycle) in TV’s The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt; President Obama’s cringe-worthy 2007 “arugula moment,” in which he attempted to bond with rural Iowa voters over the travails of buying gourmet lettuce at the quintessentially coastal Whole Foods; or basically anything Gwyneth Paltrow does, including her earnest if oblivious attempt to survive on food stamps, which involved spending a substantial portion of her $29 weekly allocation on limes.

Greif evokes Tom Wolfe’s wealthy “social X-ray” — the quintessentially vapid gym bunny avidly pursuing her own corporeal erasure by getting thin — hardly wishing the masses had the dubious privilege of joining her narcissistic mission. The Wellness Syndrome wryly jokes that “much of the population has an acute shortage of organic smoothies, diet apps, and yoga instructors,” surely not extending the reach of those techniques for achieving and measuring bodily, emotional, and moral fitness. The popular Daniel Plan, a Bible-based diet-and-exercise collaboration among people including the megachurch pastor Rick Warren and the physician Mark Hyman, particularly arouses Spicer and Cederström’s skepticism, for its fusing of physical and spiritual health for the masses.

Intellectually, the arguments of wellness skeptics excite because they question our most dearly held assumptions: What do you mean, healthy isn’t superior? How can a focus on wellness suggest social malaise? But on the ground, they are less satisfying.

Last year, at a Colorado retreat, surrounded by wellness professionals, I heard Hyman describe the results of the Daniel Plan. Watching his grainy photos of smiling churchgoers forgoing their ice-cream socials for power walks and pickup games and reporting yes, weight loss, but also increased vitality in relationships with their families and communities, it’s difficult to see the plan primarily as manipulative or damaging. Employers’ distribution of free Fitbits certainly raises questions about corporate surveillance, but what of the enthusiasm of employees able to access a pricey technology? Given the preponderance of health problems in lower-income communities, isn’t this disdain for wellness in itself a privileged perspective?

That privilege, which permeates these works, is symptomatic of the same internalized intellectual elitism that caused my academic colleagues to whisper about their clandestine corporeal lives.

If the pursuit of personal health and happiness is suspicious, a tool of big business and government, what constitutes the good life? Rejecting the fitness-industrial complex, Greif clearly thinks — a position that curiously aligns him with some of the most passionate proponents of exercise: back-to-the-land joggers, vegan yogis, and Crossfitters, who likewise bristle at the big-box, machine-driven exhibitionist culture he eviscerates. Greif very likely wouldn’t prefer those pastimes — as they are, after all, exercise — but it’s hard to know what he’d celebrate instead; the title of his forthcoming collection of essays, Against Everything, doesn’t provide much insight.

Laxatives, cigarettes, and hard liquor are preferable to green juice, quinoa, and probiotics, argue Cederström and Spicer, rhapsodizing about the days when Sartre and his coterie had “more important things to contemplate than their personal wellness.” Real community apparently existed in these substance-addled conversations among (male) midcentury philosophers at the École Normale Supérieure. While society once broadly revered intellectuals, politicians, and priests, today “celebrity chefs and nutritionists” occupy that vaunted place — the product, The Wellness Syndrome argues, of our misguided dedication to “positive thinking.” The tragic result of this supposed crisis is, again, not so obvious. Is it so terrible that as a job candidate, you are generally expected to “package yourself as a healthy, upbeat, and positive talent in waiting”? Would we advise job aspirants to appear sickly, depressive, and creatively blocked?

Davies, a senior lecturer in politics at Goldsmiths, University of London, acknowledges that the shared enthusiasm for happiness and well-being among citizens, corporations, and the state generates a “glimmer” of social progress, even if it is usually perverted by the pursuit of profit. Concrete examples abound, though absent is the Canadian behemoth Lululemon Athletica Inc., which is built on the feel-good promise to nurture greatness and celebrate well-being but now is just as closely associated with misogyny.

The glimmer that Davies identifies is encouraging, and one could imagine wellness proponents like Congressman Tim Ryan, who dreams of a “mindful America,” or the self-help guru (and onetime congressional aspirant) Marianne Williamson, who proposes a “politics of love.” But that sense of possibility is lost in the rest of Davies’s treatise, which conjures a neoliberal threat so overwhelming that science, civic virtue, and the self are powerless to resist.

That sense of human irrelevance binds the arguments of these works together but also points to their unraveling. Given the democratic sensibility of their class critique, they ironically convey a shared disregard for human agency. Pointing out the capitalist co-optation of wellness is astute, but that should be a point of departure rather than a conclusion. Capitalism structures people’s choices, but we do have choices.

Why have upwardly mobile young women gone from shelling out for high heels and fancy drinks to spending lavishly on yoga retreats and stretchy pants? Why has “natural living” gained such traction in an otherwise technocratic age? Even if a corporate-bureaucratic superstructure deploys these practices to extract obedient labor, isn’t it possible that people embrace them to “optimize” their familial and inner lives rather than to unwittingly serve corporate masters?

Restoring human agency to those whose voices are marginalized in society and scholarship — writing from the bottom up — was a guiding purpose of a generation of late-20th-century academics who pioneered the radical epistemological frameworks that Greif, Cederström, Spicer, and Davies employ. Yet in their narratives, humans are either hapless victims or depersonalized villains. Patronizing and uncharitable at times, these academics fundamentally misunderstand the experience many have of exercise: Gyms thrive because of their social function, notable in an era of declining civic engagement (but rising gym membership). This doesn’t apply just to the country-club set, either; one innovative ethnography explored how working-class Latina women in Los Angeles use Zumba as a vehicle for freedom of physical and emotional expression. Many of my interviews and countless locker-room conversations uphold this observation. Acknowledging the lived experience of wellness culture would greatly strengthen academic explorations of this phenomenon.

The narrative of wellness over the past 40 years is as much about the activism of the disenfranchised as about the forward march of narcissism and neoliberalism. Wellness first gained currency among those alienated from mainstream medicine. Ailing citizens rejected arrogant Western physicians who couldn’t cure their illnesses but also turned up their noses at Eastern techniques of “self care.” Feminists established women’s wellness centers in protest of the mostly male doctors who pathologized childbirth and breastfeeding, as the women’s-studies professor Jennifer Nelson has explored. Enraged by the grotesque mistreatment of black bodies by white “experts,” the Black Panthers created clinics to care for African-Americans “body and soul,” at times donning the symbolic white coat and at others shedding it for its traumatic associations, as the sociologist Alondra Nelson has written. These origins matter.

Fitness culture’s similarly unexpected beginnings are also worth recovering. Long discouraged from strenuous exercise because of concerns about its ruinous effects on reproductive potential and delicacy of character, women successfully fought for recognition as athletes as early as the 19th century. Title IX, the 1972 legislation that helped equalize funding for sports teams across gender, is this movement’s most famous victory. The efforts to legitimize physical activity for women more generally are less glorious — midcentury slenderizing spas were attached to beauty parlors and dedicated more to fighting fat than promoting feminism. Yet a powerful and expansive recreational women’s-fitness culture germinated there, later creating its own spaces in church basements and off-hours community centers rather than primarily seeking access to established realms like collegiate varsity teams.

Though best remembered for laughable leotards and leg warmers, the 1980s craze for group fitness was a turning point. Exercise studios were a “sweaty, funky, third space,” the fitness pioneer Molly Fox remembers, populated mostly by women and gay men who “needed somewhere to go” and who created a subculture in places like Fox’s “kind of gritty, funky downtown studio where a mix of lifestyles just came together.” More rarefied establishments, such as the Lotte Berk brownstone in New York, where men were forbidden entry for more than a decade, until the early 1980s, also created opportunities to explore a more muscular and embodied femininity than widely accepted. One Lotte Berk employee recalled a client marveling at the sight of sweat beading on her body. Fox, who studied under Jane Fonda in her San Francisco studio, reminisced that Fonda’s most powerful legacy was making it acceptable — even empowering — for women to exercise in public.

This history challenges the disparagement heaped on wellness and fitness “lifestyles” as evidence of a superficial society in decline. Even as Greif rightly calls out narcissism, Davies raises crucial doubts about the neutrality of tracking, and Cederström and Spicer explode our reflexive what-could-be-wrong-with-wellness impulse, all three works overlook the auspicious origins of this movement, not to mention its emancipatory potential. These works offer no sense of how people might — or already — embrace wellness to make their lives more meaningful.

Personal experience, every scholar knows, is the most problematic lens through which to draw conclusions. Yet it is also the best place to originate our questions. These four authors, however, who argue that wellness culture is pervasive, seem to reside proudly outside it. Clinical and detached, their tone describes a universe of unenlightened pawns uncritically sweating and meditating their autonomy away. No small part of this disdain is reserved for the women overrepresented in the wellness world, be they “women just past the college years” (Greif’s “shock troops of modern exercise”) or Cederström and Spicer’s “unhappy housewife” reading Deepak Chopra. Echoing the cultural products that sensationalize the habits of consumption of affluent women, from the Real Housewives franchise to the pop memoir Primates of Park Avenue, these works are surprisingly insensitive on gender, given their sharpness on class. The gym is a site only to starve oneself into invisibility, perhaps while gaining some male attention along the way. Wellness is but a shiny brand, never dignified as a form of feminist resistance.

To those of us who engage in the apparently (but not necessarily) incommensurate pursuits of scholarly inquiry and well-being, these works are a call to action to clarify, and at times to cautiously celebrate, how a set of once-marginal activities has converged into a multibillion-dollar industry that unites countercultural yogis with Ayn Rand-loving businessmen, back-to-the-land organic farmers with conservative celebrants of the family meal, and feminist advocates of self-care with Lycra-clad spin instructors.

At best, these works represent a crucial beginning in charting the diverse and fascinating tributaries of Western wellness culture, in part to show that such pursuits can be liberating even as they are an expression of late-stage capitalism. The contribution we stand to make is intellectual, articulating a new realm in the study of modern politics, culture, and society. But it is also potentially inspirational, standing to make unnecessary the kind of “double life” I once felt compelled to lead, and to which many female academics confess.

Author Bio: Natalia Mehlman Petrzela is an assistant professor of history at the New School, in New York, and the author of Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture (Oxford, 2015).