My generation is obsessed with the wellness cult — but all that striving to be your best self can be dangerous

My generation is obsessed with the wellness cult — but all that striving to be your best self can be dangerous

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I spent much of my 20s learning to accept that I will never be well after being diagnosed with a terminal illness – Crohn’s disease – two weeks after my 19th birthday. And while “healthy” has never been a priority for me (I’ve never set foot in a gym and find it impossible to eat 10 servings of fruit and veg a day), my ambivalence about “wellness” grew as I settled with grappled with being permanently unwell. It also made me an anomaly among my peers.

Unable to move, I watched from my bed as my generation became obsessed with being their best self. We are completely intrigued by the idea that wellness is the key to a successful life; that our relationships, careers, friendships, and mental health will all suffer if we don’t strive to be “good” above all else.

We seem to have come to the collective assumption that if you don’t actively prevent disease, you are an irresponsible nihilist. It is no longer enough to simply treat disease as it comes – we must actively combat it at all times. Where wellness was once a niche lifestyle offered by Hollywood stars like Gwyneth Paltrow and Kourtney Kardashian, it’s become commonplace to partake in practices that many would once have scoffed at: juice cleanses, vitamin drops, and sunrise yoga sessions have replaced visits to the hair stylist and a simple lipstick.

Furthermore, finding health advice on social media is just as common as it is in influencers’ fashion trends or political pundits’ hot takes. We are challenged to consider our health and well-being as a determining factor in every decision we make, and we are constantly looking for ways to improve our existence by optimizing our inner being. In the 21st century, wellness has replaced religion as the moral guide by which we live our lives. We no longer avoid sinning for fear of being shut out of heaven; Instead, we avoid unhealthy behavior for fear it will make us sick.

Millennials drink less alcohol than the generation before them, while Gen Z drink 20% less than Millennials and 87% of them exercise more than three times a week. Smoking isn’t cool anymore, recreational drug use is for losers and being “healthy” is the most impressive thing you can do for yourself. It is implied that the key to a happy life is being healthy – and that happiness is impossible without good health.

On the surface, it’s hard to find fault with the way health has transformed from a purely medical concern to an all-encompassing way of life. Understanding how your body works and what it needs is certainly not a bad thing. But shifting health concerns and responsibilities to individuals rather than pushing for improved state legislation creates more problems than it solves. Especially when absolute health is an unattainable goal for many of us. Until there is a cure for Crohn’s disease, I will always be viewed as inferior to those who can devote their lives to the wellness fashion that is trending this week.

In the 1980s, political economist Robert Crawford theorized that a then-new trend of prioritizing individual health had become popular in response to disappointment at the lack of positive change in the politically charged 1960s and 1970s. As traditional activism seems to have stagnated and our governments, then as now, have failed us, many seem to have turned inward again – and to find the world immobile around them.

Chronic diseases aside, only a tiny fraction of society can afford to devote their income to wellness treatments, the effectiveness of which is often unproven. Pseudoscientific treatments, diet plans, and dietary supplements can also help leak false information into social media feeds under the guise of health advice. But ultimately, as long as we treat our health as an individual emergency, we are letting elected health officials off the hook. As we devour the latest superfood, the NHS is being strained beyond its means. Our infatuation with wellness continues to set a dangerous precedent that as long as we take care of ourselves, we shouldn’t need it at all.

Ione Gamble is the author of Poor Little Sick Girls: A Love Letter to Unacceptable Women

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