Let’s call it how it is: Wellness without a focus on the collective is merely self-optimization (the process of always striving to improve physically, emotionally, and mentally on an individual level). And that won’t make anyone truly well.
The myth behind self-centered wellness
It’s not surprising that the 2021 version of wellness is highly commoditized. Because we live in a capitalistic society in which individuals own and sell property and assets to support their own interests, individualism is prioritized over the collective and every trend is seen by someone as a way to make money. In the case of the $4.5 trillion global wellness industry, once an ingredient or practice (often one that has long been used in another culture) is seen as trendy in the West and potentially beneficial for your health—such as collagen, CBD, or gua sha—it spreads like wildfire. Companies big and small race to profit off of the trend while demand increases, often divorcing it from its original context in the process. (Take the rise of matcha, a ceremonial green tea from Japan that was “discovered” by the wellness set in the early 2010s and now commands a $2.6 billion global market.)
As a result, many vulnerable consumers often feel pressured to find tools to “fix” their health concerns, sinking a lot of money into products and offerings that others profit off of. I should know. I sought out wellness in 2017 after a cancer diagnosis, desperate to find anything to assuage my fear of living with the diagnosis I had just received. Some of these practices and ingredients can be beneficial, as I personally found when I turned to herbalism. But in an effort to create demand and maximize profit, companies often mass-market these tools as solutions to everyone’s problems, forgoing bio-individuality (the idea that each of our bodies and minds are unique) and individualized, professional guidance. Many of these wellness products and experiences are marketed as things to “improve” our own personal circumstances, with very little focus on collective healing and health.
The truth is that it shouldn’t fall on us alone to solve all of our individual problems, even though commoditized wellness may make you feel that’s the case. A person’s health and well-being is greatly affected by things outside of their control, such as their income and access to housing, food, and health care. But the myth of American capitalism—which tells us that anyone can be successful if they work hard enough, that you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps to get by—makes it easy (and sellable) to believe that our health is entirely in our own control.
The myth of American capitalism—which tells us that anyone can be successful if they work hard enough, that you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps to get by—makes it easy (and sellable) to believe that our health is entirely in our own control.
The concept of wellness being solely about the individual is, therefore, disingenuous, and completely disregards the systemic oppression that impacts people’s health (particularly that of Black, Indigenous, and people of color), as well as the reality that not all individuals have the same access to resources, wealth, and power. The idea that people who experience illness or have disabilities should be able to “fix” these things if only they could find the right products or practices—and that the inability to do so is a personal failing—is also incredibly ableist. And it has opened the doors for corporations to sell us “solutions" that promise to help us have more energy, reduce our stress, be better parents, or solve other situations that are often more complex than what you can get from buying a book, workshop, or product.
“The impact of systemic violence is overwhelming on our bodies and spirits and yet it gets framed as if it’s an individual issue to solve,” says Jennifer Patterson, a sliding-scale healing arts practitioner and author of The Power of Breathwork: Simple Practices to Promote Wellbeing. It doesn’t help that those who profit off of consumers feeling that way are often those who historically have access to wealth and resources. While healing may occur on an individual basis, we will remain unwell unless we work to abolish the systemic issues that continue to harm us.
I’ve been fed up with the product-based, individual-focused form of wellness for some time now. As an herbalist, I am excited to see more and more folks learning about herbal medicine and using it to feel better. But I am also trepidatious about how it’s playing out. As the wellness industry (and adjacent industries) commoditized herbs, infusing medicinal mushrooms into everything from cereal to trail mix to seltzer, I’m concerned the consumer is paying extra for a product that may not actually help them. Are we straying too far from what it truly means to be well, fixating on small Band-Aid solutions instead of breaking down systems that keep people unwell in the first place?
The promise of collective wellness
Alternatively, I believe true wellness includes both taking care of ourselves and others. That might include self-care baths and healthy smoothies, but it also involves advocating for other people, practicing collective care and mutual aid, or even shoveling your neighbor’s walk after a snow storm.
“When we support our individual healing, we are managing our own energy so that it influences the collective's in a positive way. Similarly, when we support collective healing, we heal ourselves because we are part of the very collective we are healing,” explains Lenéa Sims, spiritual guide and founder of Inner Play and Outer Work. These synergies allow us to take care of ourselves while simultaneously taking care of others, as my friend alluded to in that voice message last year. My body’s well-being allows me to protect others who do not hold the same privileges as I do.
“I believe a great deal of our strength is built upon our knowledge of living holistically. Through the use of our traditional foods, rituals, ceremonies, and knowing ourselves more deeply, we create balance in the body, mind, heart, and spirit,” shares Felicia Cocotzin Ruiz, curandera, Indigenous foods activist, natural foods chef, and author of the upcoming book Earth Medicines. “Putting community knowledge into practice not only supports our individual wellness, but it gives us the ability to live in harmony within our community, hence, making it stronger collectively.”
It’s important to feel good, healthy, strong, and full of energy, as many of the wellness brands and influencers will tell you. But then what? How are you using the privilege of having energy, feeling good, and beyond to benefit others?
Wellness is balancing self care and self-optimization with “but then what?” It’s important to feel good, healthy, strong, and full of energy, as many of the wellness brands and influencers will tell you. But then what? How are you using the privilege of having energy, feeling good, and beyond to benefit others? “I don’t want to be the ‘enlightened’ being alone on the top of a mountain, transcending, or turning away from the suffering that exists in our world,” Patterson says. While it’s all well and good to put herbs in your smoothies and analyze what kind of oils your food is cooked in, it shouldn’t come at the expense of spending equal time, if not more, advocating for those in your community. “I wish I saw people making an effort of practicing mutual aid like they practice yoga—on a regular basis and with the desire to make a change,” says Sims.
Recognizing that true wellness focuses on collective healing and community care is not an idea I invented, nor is it new. We’ve seen a focus on the collective throughout time, with healers often being the center of the community to provide support and services to those in need, such as midwives overseeing a community’s births. But in recent times, it seems that the “wellness” we see on Instagram, in magazines, and our online shopping carts are centered on the individual.
I’ve experienced the power of collective care firsthand. As a Jew, community has always been a significant aspect of my support system. In Judaism, for example, when someone dies, the family members “sit shiva” for seven days. Community members come to the home of the family who lost a loved one to keep them company, grieve with them, share stories, deliver food, and hold space for the bereaved. Shiva, to me, is a great example of true community care—at a time when we are well, we can support those who are suffering. And when we are suffering, we seek support from others.
Creating wellness for all
I believe we need to have more spaces and conversations that recognize personal and communal care as integrated entities. Fed up with the self-optimization rhetoric I was seeing on Instagram and the shelves of the health food store, and wanting to focus on community as a driver of wellness and care, I launched IMBY, a virtual community center for people who care about co-creating a more just and equitable future. In just a few short months of the center’s existence, I’ve seen how powerful it is when individuals join forces and take care of each other, whether we are supporting each other through a tough day, learning from a speaker dedicated to liberation, or sharing resources on being anti-capitalist businesses.
It’s not just my business, either. Wellness and collective-care virtual organizations are thriving, especially to cope with the loneliness of living through a global pandemic. Organizations like Ethel’s Club, a collective for women of color, and Rec Center, a virtual recreation center focusing on play and radical rest for creatives, alongside others, focus on creating for their patrons a balance of community, collective care, equity, and wellness. After all, they say “it takes a village,” not “it takes an adaptogen-infused seltzer.”
So if you love wellness (I do, too!), while you drink your optimized smoothie, consider that beverage the fuel that will help you advocate for those in your community who don’t have access to food or shelter, hold brands and politicians accountable, protect the environment, advocate for Black and Indigenous lives, stop Asian hate, and support LGBTQIA+ well-being. Otherwise, stop calling it wellness.
“I believe it's a valiant and valid effort to want to become a better person, but the question must be asked: Why are we working to be better?” Sims says. “If your answer doesn't include wanting to leave the world a better place, you will always feel unfulfilled.”
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