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Does Our Obsession With Wellness Ignore The Fact That Self-Care Is A Privilege?

close up of a blueberry smoothie
flickr/Dale Gillard

Self-care is important. But only the affluent get to access and prioritize it.

2018 was undoubtedly the year of wellness. With #fitspo trending on social media at every turn, Generation Z supposedly drinking less than any age group before them, and trending health fads showing no sign of abating, it’s clear that society’s obsession with how we eat, exercise, and care for our bodies is going nowhere. But although Instagram would have us believing that we’re all ditching vodka sodas and a kebab for kale smoothies, the statistics tell a very different story.

A recent UK study suggests that alcohol related deaths among women are at their highest rate since records began, while an estimated 300,000 deaths in the U.S. per year are currently obesity related. Growing swatches of fitness enthusiasts may be hashtagging their morning yoga session and staking out their nearest #foodporn vegan joint, but it is clear that for all the talk of wellness, we are in a health epidemic that shows little sign of slowing.

For many this paradox may be puzzling. As our society continues to prioritize health and self-care, why are so many falling behind? Exercise and eating well is increasingly accessible, with videos and advice from experienced personal trainers and nutritionists only ever a click away—we no longer need to stake out a small fortune for the service. But although wellness may be trending it remains deeply exclusive, its Lululemon clad roots embedded in the class structures that still dominate modern society.

It is clear that for all the talk of wellness, we are in a health epidemic that shows little sign of slowing. Click To Tweet

An expensive gym membership and a fridge stuffed with hummus may seem second nature for some, but millions of others have grown-up leading a very different lifestyle. For entire communities, gym class may have been more likely to have been the dreaded repetitiveness of weekly laps of the playing field instead of a range of activities with proper coaching and inter-school competition. School lunches may well have been beige in color, and a celebratory meal out was more likely burgers and fries at a local diner than a posh nosh with plenty of protein and greenery arranged elaborately on a child size plate.

As much as we may cringe and delight in equal measure at Overheard in Whole Foods you can bet your bottom dollar that little Tarquin, asking his mom for fettuccine rather than farfalle for his lunch, will grow up knowing his avocado from his artichokes. Our attitudes towards wellness are ingrained in us from a young age and these deeply entrenched outlooks are not easily overturned.

Privilege defines how we approach our health well into adulthood. Although the archetype of the yummy mummy squeezing in a pilates class before picking the kids up from school may be a faintly uncomfortable gender stereotype for some, for others it speaks an untenable truth of inequality. Those who can afford childcare or to give up their jobs to care for their children are more likely to have the time and money to exercise, to prepare nutritious meals, and to educate themselves on health. With unaffordable childcare options comes vast disparities between the haves and have-nots that disproportionately affects women.

The parent working fifty hours a week just to cover nursery costs may have to prioritize their child’s health at the expense of their own. Mothers unable to afford childcare altogether who are forced to give up work may have to prioritize putting food on the table full stop, without having the luxury of ensuring that this covers their kids’ five a day.   

Beyond parenthood, the seeming ignorance of the wellness set can also be infuriating. Influencers sunnily declaring that their home workouts are something “anyone can fit into their day!” are preaching to an extremely privileged subgroup. The fact is that multitudes of women don’t have the time, space, or social environment to roll out a yoga mat in their living room and cram in some burpees.

Likewise, bloggers who blithely assert that anyone can give up gluten ignore that to do so requires access to a half decent selection of gluten-free products at their local store, the time and energy to research alternatives, and the cash to cater for this dietary preference (not to mention no other dietary restrictions that might make going gluten-free even more difficult).

Embracing a plant-based lifestyle in a nutritious manner requires a level of food education that not everyone has been fortunate enough to have, and enough food security for your primary concern to not be that your family is getting enough calories to live, period. Giving up drinking requires being part of a social circle that fits with a booze-free lifestyle. Practicing yoga safely requires a membership fee that not everyone can afford, and is often an environment that alienates anyone who isn’t white and already skinny. “Wellness” is for people who are already doing well.

Statistically the links between social class and health are undeniable and terrifying. Residents of affluent counties in the U.S. can expect to live up to twenty years longer than their poorer counterparts, with variables such as quality of healthcare, smoking, drinking, and physical inactivity cited as major contributory factors to soaring mortality. Fitness bloggers declaring that shaping up and switching their nutrition plan changed their life are perpetuating a message that fundamentally fails to correlate with reality.

It suggests that something as simple as what we put into our bodies defines our quality of life. It fails to account for the numerous other factors—social and economic—that are far more significant determinants of how well we live and which ultimately defines the food and exercise we are able to afford to enjoy.  The conversation around wellness seems to too often sidestep the things that actually make us well—affordable healthcare, access to nutritious food, and available sexual health care amongst many others.

Wellness is for people who are already doing well. Click To Tweet

Suggesting that the wellness culture is the new normal lifestyle places onus on the underprivileged to eat and exercise better. In reality this is far from feasible, a seismic gulf in opportunities, education, and healthcare options holding back thousands of people from emulating a lifestyle we are urged to aspire towards. Can we really preach self-care when, as a society, we are failing to care for the thousands left behind by a flawed and deeply exclusive system?

As the gap between rich and poor becomes ever deeper our conversations around the wellness culture need to be reframed to understand it as a privilege. Instead of declaring that young people are giving up alcohol, signing up to gyms, and embracing clean eating we need to be honest about the specific subset that this lifestyle caters for, and look to who is getting left behind.