The fitness and fat loss industry is famous for trends. From the cabbage soup diet to electric ab belts, a few people have made a lot of money off our desire to be thinner. Fortunately, few of these fads stick around. We realise their claims are bogus, people stop paying for them, and everyone moves on.
Sometimes, trends pass without causing serious harm to people’s health, only affecting their wallets. But other times, ‘the hottest fitness trend this year’ is actually really, really dangerous. I fear that the ‘wellness’ movement falls into the latter category.
Caveat: I’m not talking about the general principle of wellness. Of course, nothing is wrong with ‘being well’. I’m talking about the wellness movement, and its cousins, clean eating and ‘fitspiration‘. Spearheaded by Instagram and blogs, among the movement’s most famous representatives is Gwyneth Paltrow, who launched her blog, goop.com, in 2008.
On the face of it, a movement promoting health must be a good thing. Happiness and health are closely linked, but the direction of the relationship is unclear. But the wellness trend might be doing more harm than good, for young women in particular.
Experts are warning the trend could have disastrous consequences for mental health. Restrictive dieting has for a long time been know to be a precursor to eating disorders. Most extreme is ‘orthorexia nervosa‘, a condition which literally means ‘fixation on righteous eating’. We don’t know how many people present with orthorexia, because it is not recognised as a clinical diagnosis. But health professionals are reporting seeing more people than ever before with the condition. One dietician says she has seen clients as young as twelve. And another estimated that she’s seen 1/3 of the top UK wellness bloggers in her eating disorders clinic.
The bloggers and Instagram stars promote unrealistic and narrow body ideals. They are almost exclusively young, white, tall, able-bodied, and slim. They look very like the super skinny ‘thinspo’ models of the ’90s, but with more muscle. If you don’t look like this, you need to try harder – restrict your diet further, exercise more intensely. But, genetics plays a strong role in whether your abs will be visible, or your thighs will have a gap. It is an impossible ideal for many.
It’s also important to acknowledge who is excluded from this perfect ideal. Women of colour, people with disabilities, and older people are woefully underrepresented. And the ‘clean eating’ lifestyle is prohibitively expensive for people on low incomes. ‘Food deserts’ are areas where access to affordable, healthy food options is restricted or nonexistent, due to the absence of grocery stores within convenient travelling distance. Thought to affect over 2 million people in the US, food deserts are primarily located in communities of colour and low income areas. Wellness moralises lifestyles and choices, telling people who do not meet its narrow ideas about appearance that their bodies are wrong.
Shining a light on the bloggers themselves is revealing. Many claim to be ‘registered nutritionists’, adding credence to their advice on diet. But this is meaningless: you can become a ‘nutritionist’ by taking short, unregulated, online courses. Dietitians are the only nutrition professionals to be regulated by law. Wellness celebrities might actually be releasing false and dangerous information. The Hemsley sisters, for example, write that gluten ‘breaks down the microvilli in your small intestine, eventually letting particles of your food leach into your bloodstream, which is referred to as “leaky gut syndrome”’. But this is only true for people with coeliac disease. For everyone else, carbs are a vital source of energy, and cutting them out can lead to deficiency.
I don’t want only to blame the individual bloggers themselves. The system allows unqualified people to dispense ‘advice’ without monitoring. And, I’ve written before about the size and power of the fat loss industry. As with most trends, a few companies are benefiting hugely from exploiting our vulnerabilities.
One of these is Lululemon, a yoga clothes company catering to people than can afford £80 leggings. Its founder, Chip Wilson, has been marred with controversy for years. In 2013, their yoga pants were wearing thin at the thighs. In response, he said that some women ‘just don’t have the bodies for it’. He’s also claimed it’s too expensive to produce pants larger than a size 12. Employees have exposed Lululemon’s toxic and pressured culture. ‘Educators’ are required to take the company’s empowerment courses, banned from drinking anything apart from water while at work, and encouraged to attend company workout classes. Tragically, a few years ago a Lululemon employee was murdered by one of her co-workers. It’s reported that the attack was sparked when the murderer found out that one of her colleagues had tried to shoplift a pair of leggings. What kind of a company creates an environment where this could happen?
The wellness trend is dangerous. It encourages followers to pursue a ‘perfect’, but unattainable lifestyle. But the only ones who really benefit are companies, selling workout clothes and health foods, feeding our anxieties.