Although the wellness industry is good at pitching its goods year round, this is the time of year where it becomes most obvious. The entire belief of a “new year, new you” seems to put the diet and fitness industry into overdrive. My Facebook ads have switched noticeably to Weight Watchers (which I’ve used before and have nothing against, but it’s also feeding some false narratives and can be unhealthy). On the television ads changed from holiday giving with ribbons and bows and snowflakes to Peleton and nutritional supplements and protien chips. Except, to start with, wellness doesn’t just happen one time a year. It’s a daily and sometimes hourly chain of conscious decisions and dealing with the dynamic variations of the human body. For those of us who are chronically ill or neurodivergent, it may also mean navigating a brain and body which seems set on not complying to those neurotypical and able-bodied wellness boxes, and we have to deal with our reactions and emotions around that, too.
But to me, the wellness industry is broken in one, fundamental way. The wellness industry as it’s sold in the western world, but especially in America, believes that a lack of able-bodied and neurotypical mental functioning is a personal failing. We see this in the conversation around COVID and especially Long Covid. It’s seen every time someone tells a chronic illness patient (especially those of us with chronic pain) to move more or to eat more fresh fruits and veggies, as if those things are lying around free for the taking and didn’t require financial expenditures, not to mention the executive functioning and energy to prepare and process them.
America’s belief in rugged individualism, which goes all the way back to the Puritans. Though it’s evident throughout much of Puritan thought and society (and something I immediately recognized during several of my religious studies courses at college), it’s probably best symbolized by Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne presents individualism as something both positive and negative, and uses it to help develop the meaning that connection to society and what society values affects the outcome of individualism. Without getting too scholarly and into the weeds of discussion here, You can help but think of neurodivergent and/or chronically ill people having a scarlet D on their chests.
D stands for “different” here. And whether it’s through masking as many neurodivergent individuals do to try and fit into society and especially the workplace, or internalized ableism and hiding (masking) our condition for chronically ill/disabled people where possible, the rugged individualism shines through as saying “see, I fit in. I’m just like you.” For those who cannot or will not mask or hide their condition, then the D becomes even more pronounced because the able-bodied and neurotypical society thinks that they’re “not trying hard enough.” And therein lies the heart of the matter: In believing this, the wellness industry is fundamentally and profoundly broken–not just for neurodivergent and chronically ill individuals, though that’s where my interest lies, but also for everyone.
So long as the wellness industry, and I’m including all the yoga teachers out there who preach a “cure” for chronic pain or mental health conditions like depression or anxiety, they are selling this false narrative. They’re selling their students short. They’re pushing a broken system onto a society, which face it, is hurting and in dire need of someone to call out the systemic and socioeconomic issues which harm our wellness.
I say this not to take responsibility away from people, but rather to encourage us to think about what we can control and what we can’t. Until the wellness industry as a whole understands that their one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for many people, it’s going to continue to fail everyone.