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Here's the Problem With Wellness Culture: It's Selling a Lie

It seems odd that in my first post for a blog ostensibly about wellness, I (a former wellness coach) would choose to tell you that the concept of wellness is a total lie, but here we are.


Given that as a starting point, it seems a logical next step to add a caveat: that the wellness industry doesn't intend to be harmful. But frankly, I don't even think that's true. In fact, by using its powerful megaphone to uphold outdated, rigid, one-size-fits-all (literally) standards of health and beauty, the wellness industry is not only actively and knowingly harming its devotees, but further other-ing and disadvantaging already marginalized groups. And by failing to acknowledge systemic inequities and the roles they play in mental and physical health, the wellness industry is gaslighting and victim-blaming, hard-selling its customers on the biggest and most damaging lie of all:


That you, and only you, are the problem.


Wellness experts sell expensive solutions to "issues" like average-sized bodies, imperfect skin, and unpleasant emotions. Eliminate these issues, they say, and you'll feel better. Great news! Your wellness is completely within your control!


But here's the real problem with wellness culture. There are a handful of hard truths the wellness industry doesn’t want you to know:


  1. You can’t breathe or cleanse your way out of an inherently harmful, unfair system. Failure to see and/or name the system’s flaws will not make you well and will harm others forced to operate within the same system.

  2. Buying into rigid beauty and health standards rooted in white supremacy and ableism is not, in fact, healthy. Relentless pursuit of these goals breaks our spirits and actively harms others by reinforcing the goals as worthy of pursuit.

  3. No amount of striving toward physical perfection will bring you the safety you seek. We cannot find safety within unsafe, harmful systems.

We find ourselves living in an era of unprecedented burnout. When we ask the experts, we're told that the burnout epidemic is simply a product of unchecked work stress.


But here’s what I think is happening.


I think more of us than ever have begun to see the flaws in the systems in which we live and work.


The pandemic—an experience unlike anything we'd lived through before—revealed ways in which those systems could change in order to reduce inequity, better support our families, and improve our quality of life. We began to wonder why those changes had never been possible before and why they couldn't be permanent.


As we adjusted to our new normal, in the summer of 2020, as we mourned precious Black lives lost to police brutality, more of us than ever began to wake up to the reality that life in these United States—frightening as it felt already—was infinitely more terrifying for our BIPOC neighbors. More of us (looking at you, fellow white folks) began acknowledging our privilege, exploring our own roles in oppressing others, and realizing how deeply entrenched systemic racism is in the American way of life.


We looked hard at our systems—from our families of origin to our neighborhoods to our workplaces to capitalism broadly—and we didn't much like what we saw.


But fast forward to 2023, and as though the last three years didn’t happen, our systems have returned to homeostasis. The organizations we work for are back to doing what they do best: wringing more work out of us for less money and respect. Cutting our jobs to preserve profits. Demanding our compliance with outdated ways of working simply because they can.


Our elected representatives are back to doing nothing of substance to make the country safer, kinder, or more supportive for anyone other than white men. They're back to sending thoughts and prayers while failing to keep our children alive. Back to shifting to the center and "civility" while marginalized groups face ever-increasing violence and disenfranchisement.


We suddenly understand what our role is—to be exploited and to exploit others within a system designed to benefit only a very few—and it is depressing as hell.


Does that happen to resonate?


If so, then you may also agree that the solution to the systemic problem of burnout simply can't be an individual one. And that, while step counters and yoga and eight glasses of water might give you a mood boost and lower your cholesterol, and therapy designed to challenge your "maladaptive thoughts" might temporarily make it easier to navigate a crushing work environment, none of the solutions that currently fall under the "wellness" umbrella are going to make a damn bit of difference over the long term. Weight comes back, anxiety re-emerges, we eventually realize we're just gaslighting ourselves, and the harmful, rigged systems in which we live and work just keep on harming. Wellness eludes us.


It is for all of these reasons that I propose abandoning wellness culture and moving toward a culture of wellbeing.


Here's the difference:


Where wellness is (aggressively) individual, wellbeing is collective. We become well by creating systems in which all are well. That means eliminating inequities across all wellbeing domains: mental, physical, social, financial, spiritual, environmental, and vocational.


Changing your mind about wellness is a big ask, I know, and to be honest, I'm not sure what it looks like in daily practice. But my gut says that getting real about barriers to individual and societal wellbeing is a critical first step.


I propose this as a plan:


  1. Learn about systems of oppression. Read, watch, discuss, absorb. Own your privilege, if you have it, and your contributions to the oppression of others. This work is complementary to self-compassion work, not antithetical.

  2. Open your eyes to the realities of the systems in which you live and work. In short, get woke and stay woke. If you can’t see something clearly, you can’t make an informed decision about your role within it.

  3. Choose what you will and won’t tolerate - both for yourself and others (ideally it’s the same answer).

  4. Make change. In your heart, in your home, and in your community. The more privilege you were born with, the more meaningful change you are capable of making.

  5. Bolster your strength. Good trouble requires fortitude. We have to sleep. We have to nourish the bodies we inhabit. We have to find community and nurture it. We have to release ourselves from harmful narratives and build resilience through intentional practices that calm and fortify both our bodies and minds.


Wellness culture won't make us well.


Working together to build a culture of collective wellbeing just might.


Need some support defining wellbeing for yourself? A 30-minute free consultation is a great way to explore some ideas and see if I might be the right coach for you.


 


Photo of Kelly Judd, life coach for women, a white woman with dark hair and large tortoiseshell glasses, slightly smiling at the camera

Hi, I'm Kelly. 👋 I help you make hard decisions and do hard things. Like you, I spent decades putting others' needs before my own. After almost 20 years of leadership roles and a lifetime’s worth of plot twists in my personal life, I made the empowering decision to seek greater meaning and purpose in my work, helping others to reconnect with their authentic selves and discover the joy, peace, and clarity that comes with finally identifying and prioritizing your own needs.


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