Artwork: New You, Elish Kathleen, 2021
Come January, most of us seek routine, exercise, and detox to refresh us after the excess of the Christmas period. We are all familiar with the narratives of new year, new you: whether that be practicing a new hobby, losing weight, or cutting out a bad habit, we are told that new years represent fresh starts. Both the diet and wellness industry monetarise these desires. Following an increase in body-positivity movements and a loss of faith in fad diets, cultural perceptions surrounding weight-loss rhetoric has changed dramatically over recent years. Fashion magazines and media outlets have adapted their use of language surrounding dieting and losing weight in response. The diet industry has declined but not completely disappeared. Our culture’s persistent preoccupation with slimness and its association with ‘good health’ pervades. The ever-growing ‘wellness’ industry is worth $2.8 trillion globally and it is predicted that by 2022, British consumers will spend £487 annually on ‘wellness’. It could be argued that much of diet culture’s fitness obsession has now been subsumed into the broader health and wellness industry. Diet culture is covertly disguised under the cloak of ‘wellness’ to entice a new, more politically conscious audience. No longer is the focus on losing weight, but on ‘health’. The vague markers of which are ultimately still equated with slimness.
But why do we seek out these forms of self-improvement? Marxist thought argues that workers are deprived of the things they need by the structure of capitalism. Capitalism repackages these things, such as leisure and sustenance, and sells them back to the masses through marketing and advertisement. In this way, capitalism exploits peoples’ desires and wants, as well as needs, and markets them as ‘necessary’. Here we can recognise the paradox. It can be seen when companies escalate the necessities such as ‘food’ and ‘leisure time’ paired with ‘unnecessary’ capitalist ideals such as the desire to lose weight or to ‘rid’ the body and mind of its anxieties (the very anxieties that the capitalist system intensifies). These pressures culminate in the wellness trend which surges during January. It further exemplifies the fact that they operate through taking advantage of people’s desperate need to enact lifestyle changes for which the new year provides an excuse.
However, in 2021, whilst we are still in the midst of a global pandemic, many feel fed up with this tired narrative. Why should we berate ourselves for gaining weight? Or, not exercising enough? We’ve been through a terrible year; we should give ourselves some allowances. The fact that we have survived this strange and difficult year is reason enough to celebrate.
Something about the schtick of ‘new year, new me’ feels particularly irritating this year. Facts aside (time is a merely a concept, the Gregorian calendar doesn’t really exist, etcetera) some have realised that this idea can often function as a means of making us feel bad about ourselves, our bodies, and our lives. Corporations profit off our shame as a result. This is something we definitely don’t need during the age of Corona, when we feel bad enough. While some (realistic) resolutions can be an encouraging way of disciplining ourselves to make positive changes, the anxiety that can come with failing to uphold yourself to, perhaps, unrealistically high standards can do more harm than good. This is plain to see in 2021, when most of us are lethargic from the huge amount of change going on already and we’ve realised that the world won’t stop suddenly spinning if we don’t lose a stone or learn a new language. The world, it seems, has started falling apart already – without our help.
New years, though, do offer us the alluring possibility of change. Maybe this year, I’ll be better. Maybe this year, I’ll be happier. Maybe, if I’m skinny, I’ll never be sad again. Such resolutions hold a magical quality. The promise that through one ‘simple’ act, we can find inner happiness is tantalising. This mysticism surrounding the ritual is the very quality that the wellness industry capitalises on.
The idea that we can access the happiness we’ve previously been unable to find is always appealing. In an interview with Vogue, psychotherapist Katherine Schafler explained: “People make new year’s resolutions because they’re in pain. The pain might not be acute or felt in a conscious, daily way, but on some level people know that their current habits are denying them the quality of life they deserve”. But, despite some letting go of such expectations this year, this desire for happiness could feel urgent for others. Even though setting goals in what is forecast to be another hard year may be counterproductive and hard to stick to, the global, political and personal turmoil people are experiencing could lead to an increase in clinging to resolutions as a form of hope and change.
There is a downside to the industries which propagate the ideal of self-improvement and sell a dream of hope, health and healthiness. The wellness industry, for example, is like any other in that it relies on consumerism – although, the appeal of ‘wellness’ is that it seems very far away from the society in which we live. ‘Wellness’ is particularly marketed as an escape from ‘Western’ culture. The appeal is strengthened by notions of ‘sacredness’, which have become more powerful for those living in capitalist societies as organised religion has dwindled. Similarly, our ties to new year’s traditions have drawn parallels with that of religious ritual emphasising the magical quality that the opportunity of the new year brings and our desire to access such magic.
Setting realistic intentions for the year can be conducive for self-development, rather than drawing resolutions from negative thoughts regarding the self. Although, this idea that there could be a quick fix to our problems and to our physical and mental health issues holds incredible power. Through promising health, both the diet and wellness industry tap into our deepest fears. We want to be healthy and successful. By placing a binary between clean and unclean, good and bad, antidote and poison, wellness positions itself as a salvation for the modern world, delivering us a path to personal enlightenment.
Wellness offers us the compelling chance to strip our lives of the clutter and return to an ancient and cleaner way of living; however, the results of this rhetoric can be more worrying than they seem on the surface. Many of us, now well aware of harmful diet culture, are being reeled in under a disingenuous guise of ‘healthy eating’ within wellness trends. We know that being slim does not equate to being healthy, yet slimness is what we strive for and it is what is being pushed towards us. Ironically, this preoccupation with ‘good health’ and the policing of our bodies, can lead to feelings of inadequacy, whilst actually legitimising a wholly unhealthy relationship with food, our bodies and our mental wellbeing. What is supposed to be a helpful, supportive way of seeking mind/body balance instead becomes a product of the capitalist system, goading us to be resilient in the face of the very adversity caused by capitalism and, profit off our insecurities. Some of us fall under the spell of a remedy which turns out to be toxic.
Wellness as an industry does not focus on how to improve people’s lives with tangible solutions such as free and well-resourced healthcare and welfare systems to support them, better housing, working conditions, and living wages. Instead, it enforces the idea that lives can be saved through less concrete and more individualistic approaches such as clean eating and expensive holistic therapies. These are costly lifestyle choices, and those with insufficient incomes who try to embrace them overwhelmingly have to abandon them because they cannot continue to afford them. Such ‘lifestyle solutions’ often fail and when they do, the individual is denigrated as at fault. While some methods, such as meditation, can be helpful for personal reflection, they cannot directly improve someone’s economic or social position – which are often the root causes of a variety of mental and physical health issues. The focus, and responsibility, remains on the individual to change themselves rather than on society acting for the well-being of all.
The idea of a cure can be alluring, if not completely unrealistic. Logically, people know this, but the desperation to feel better overcomes logic. Sourcing private psychiatric help is expensive and the waiting-lists on the NHS are long, so what do those who are struggling with their mental health do?
There is already a mental health crisis underway in the UK. Over the past year, one in five adults are likely to have experienced symptoms of depression, a rate which has doubled since before the pandemic. The mental health charity Mind reported that more people have been experiencing mental health issues during the pandemic than ever recorded, explaining that there has been a huge increase in both emergency referrals for crisis care and phone calls to helplines. This increase comes after many years of criticism of governments for inadequately funding mental health services within the NHS. Now, with mass levels of mental health issues due to the pandemic, there is a worry that the NHS (despite its best efforts) will not be able to provide the care and support that each person deserves. It is understandable, then, why alternative forms of ‘treatment’ can be so appealing.
The idea of ‘self-care’ has been commodified as a form of ‘therapy’. Many companies co-opt it for marketing purposes and it has become synonymous with a quick mental health fix. In an interview with Vice, Paul Appelbaum, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and the past president of the American Psychiatric Association, stated that: “Self-care is fine for people who are experiencing some degree of mild stress, or simply are looking to it as a way of improving their satisfaction with life but for people who are actually experiencing symptoms of a mental disorder for which effective treatments are available, to ask, expect, or encourage them to take care of themselves in that circumstance is to shift the burden of the condition from the system that should be addressing it to the individual”.
The term ‘self-care’ was originally popularised by activists. Audre Lorde stated: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare”. Unfortunately, self-care has moved away from a political and radical act created and utilised by Black, LGBTQ+ and feminist activists, such as Lorde. Instead, it is now something used frequently online by rich, white influencers, and big corporations to sell products. As something that started as a necessary reaction to the way capitalist, racist, homophobic and patriarchal structures actively hurt marginalised groups, it has become instead a marketing ploy, implemented in lieu of real structural change. Co-author of The Wellness Syndrome, Andre Spicer warns, “this once radical idea is being stripped of its politics to make it more palatable to a mass market”. He emphasises that what was supposed to be a call for ‘collective survival’ is now just another form of individualism. Individualism being the ideology which permeates the wellness industry.
Self-care is meant to be an act of resistance and communal solidarity, yet it has been subverted and utilised as a tool for companies to make money. As Shayla Love wrote in her 2018 article, ‘The Dark Truths Behind Our Obsession With Self-Care’, “if we had access to the systemic care we need, we wouldn’t need to lose #selfcare. But perhaps a yoga class could go back to just being a yoga class, rather than needing to be defined as something more”.
The popularity of wellness companies selling expensive products targeting a wealthy, white audience trickles down into the trends and products of less high-end companies and retailers. Thus, the pressure is put on the working-class to achieve what the rich have – clear skin, perfect bodies, a higher plane of consciousness – but, on a lesser budget. When in need, people search for these alternatives, looking for help wherever they can find it. Unable to reach out for a healthcare system that has been consistently stripped of its resources, the wellness-industrial-complex is there for you, glimmering with the possibility of health, happiness, and wealth.
There are obviously benefits to new year self-improvement, and not every advertised effort is trying to profit off people’s insecurities. There are positive health changes that the new year can inspire such as ‘Dry January’. The thinking behind the concept is that after the constant binge drinking of December, we are all ready to give our bodies a bit of well-needed time off – and, besides, January is a pretty dead month anyway. Dry January originated as a way of doing your body a favour, whilst, for some it was also a means of raising money for a chosen charity through sponsorship. Functioning as a nationally-recognised effort to go sober, it can bring about feelings of solidarity. This is an especially important step for those who have tried to go sober before but have faced the hassle of numerous questions, or other forms of social pressure pushing them to start drinking again. 2021, in theory, is the perfect year to complete the challenge of 30 sober days – after all, it’s not like we can be tempted by the warmth of our local pub. The charity Alcohol Change UK has stated that a record number of people in Britain are intending to take part in Dry January. Its polling showed that more than 6.5 million adults aim to go sober for the month, which is up from 3.9 million last year. The new year can bring about a fresh chance to reassess one’s relationship to bad habits and re-establish a healthy relationship with body and mind.
Encouragement surrounding health and routine are not dangerous in themselves, however, unfortunately when corporations jump on the band-wagon and realise that people are searching for hope, happiness and better well-being, these ideas can be twisted into worrying trends. This is not to say that we shouldn’t try and grow. But, we shouldn’t be disappointed if we try and fail with the superficial side of self-improvement. It is better to be kind to yourself and find peace with yourself. Rather than feel guilt and shame over your body, your mind, your lifestyle choices, be empathetic with yourself.
While forms of wellness can offer solace for some, for others it can become toxic. Only you know what’s best for your body and your mind. Enact self-care in its truest form: love yourself, even, and especially, when the world tells you not to. Reach out and form bonds of solidarity with those you know are struggling too. The wellness of all individuals, irrespective of their income, can only be achieved through a radical approach to communal well-being informed by a supportive state. Thankfully, major reform has recently been announced to the Mental Health Act (13/01/2021). These plan to: ‘empower individuals to have control over their treatment’ and ‘deliver parity between mental and physical health services and put patients’ views at the centre of their care’. Pertinently, the reforms are intended to ‘tackle mental health inequalities including disproportionate detention of people from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities, the use of the act to detain people with learning disabilities and autism, and improve care for patients within the criminal justice system’. These steps will hopefully improve the quality of life of those struggling with their mental health and reduce discriminatory treatment of those within marginalised communities through offering much-needed autonomy and choice for patients.
Structural change is needed to support individual development. We cannot change who we are overnight. New year’s resolutions are not the magic fix we want them to be. The past year has illuminated a host of problems and caused trauma for many – but we cannot simply wish away this fact. If anything, the pandemic has brought to the fore the importance of community and the value of the NHS – in itself, set up in a spirit of social solidarity. In order to develop, we must first accept ourselves without shame and self-punishment, but with love and empathy and, ultimately, recognise our commonality with others.