I take the title of this entry from “Fitness Junkie“, the latest in the genre of “parody light” fiction that has been cropping up lately. “Fitness Junkie” itself is an entertaining read, referencing and mocking the “wellness culture” of the major cities. New York is the seeming epicenter of this right now, cranking out mini-chains and mega-chains of wellness “solutions”: cycling studios, meditation studios, juice bars. “Fitness Junkie” skewers a lot of these trends with experiential accuracy, from Whole Foods to SoulCycle, even touching on the sober early morning rave trend.
I recognized and identified with far too many of the trends mocked in the book. Perhaps this is because I have been on what is now termed the “wellness” bandwagon since I was nineteen, back when it was called what it really is: weight loss. Back then, it was step classes and Fat Flush; twenty years later, it’s high end spin classes and soup diets. It all adds up to much the same end result of cardio and reduced calories. The only difference is now the concept of “wellness” is meant to be better for a woman’s health, by adding a layer of so-called self-care into the facade.
It’s a fucking joke. Call the trend what it is. This isn’t wellness, it’s just feeding women’s insecurity about their weight while telling us that we are taking care of ourselves doing it. The wellness trend tells women that they can’t lose weight through cardio and diet alone, but have to invest more money, attention and resources into being “well” to make the cardio and diet work. As a positive, the concept of “wellness” does include a certain mental and holistic health component, while taking some focus off meaningless scale numbers. Still, it seems that “wellness” is now capitalizing now not only off women’s desperation to be thin, but now taking advantage of an overall insecurity that something is missing from their lives.
It’s very likely something is missing from an American woman’s life. We live in completely unnatural environments. We are not connected to a particular source of spirituality as we become a more secular culture. We often eat low quality food that is packaged and sold to us. We buy a lot of quick-fix items – fast fashion, beauty products. All of this is draining our batteries every single day. So when the wellness trend comes through offering something that will make us feel better and make us thinner, we’re willing to jump on it and open our wallets.
This is how something like goop gets big..and believable. This is how Well and Good and Wanderlust and all the other wellness “brands” have become profitable. This is how Lululemon and yoga have become ubiquitous. We’ve combined the ongoing obsession with a woman’s weight with a promise of “feeling better” and created an entirely new monster. An entirely new expensive monster.
I’m not immune to this, obviously. I spent this morning in Manhattan, first at Flywheel for a spin class, then at MNDFL for a meditation class. Flywheel is one of the new high end spinning chains that leverages perceived value to charge $30 for a class. (I had a code for a free class) Shoes, water and towels and help to set up the bikes are all provided. The locker rooms have Bliss products in the showers, and a lounge area with post-workout fruit for snacks. The bikes are all new and shiny and equipped with screens that show the exact torque and speed. This allows for a gamified, competitive experience, as riders work to have the highest overall energy output for the class. As a competitive person, the leaderboard aspect drives me to work harder. It’s the overall high end experience where the perceived value comes in though, a combination of little things like shoes and water, and big things like new high-tech bikes. It’s that kind of experience that is the hallmark of the new fitness boutiques, no matter what the workout. It makes the participant feel a little bit like she is being treated well and taken care of, a tiny boost to her day.
I went from Flywheel to MNDFL, on the opposite side of the activity spectrum. Instead of a high intensity, competitive cardio class, MNDFL is meditation that can be signed up for online like a fitness class. It’s held in a lovely space in the West Village, where everything is thoughtfully, tastefully decorated, from the bamboo bookshelves to the gray couches to the living wall (above) It’s peaceful and welcoming and serene. Much like a high-end fitness studio, participants are welcomed, given water and/or tea, and ushered into a room with high quality equipment – in this case, custom meditation mats and hassocks instead of fancy bikes. The sessions are 30 to 45 minutes long, and loosely focus on a specific aspect of mindfulness: emotions, energy, “lovingkindness”. It’s a luxe setting, especially for meditation, which isn’t an activity I usually associate with material things, but gives MNDFL that boutique experience feel. And it’s easily accessible: the teachers take the spiritual or religious specifics out of their teachings and just teach the practical aspects of meditation.
Both Flywheel and MNDFL are excellent representations of the wellness trend: they provide an experience, a functional physical or mental workout, and are priced in such a way that the perceived value is high enough to make them profitable. At the end of each class, the respective instructors told the room that the class we just did was a form of self care, and emphasized that we should all be proud of ourselves for coming out on a Sunday morning when we could be doing other, less challenging things. Each class ended in an emphasis that participants should “feel good” about what they did. That’s what the wellness trend also suggests, that “feeling good” is worth the price tag. It tries to tell us that losing weight is secondary to that self-care and positivity…and then it has to call wait, no, come back! You will still lose weight!
But for all this feel-good and positivity, none of the wellness classes really teach a way to connect with the activity so that the participants can develop and build the skill outside of that setting. Each requires me to come into their studio to “feel good” In a way, MNDFL is to religious based meditation what Flywheel is to actual bike riding: it is an easily done practice, but doesn’t create a complete vision or genuine connection to the activity. MNDFL isn’t actual spirituality, but it works to calm the brain. Flywheel isn’t actual biking, but it works to burn the calories. They are what they are.
I’m not immune to the wellness trend, but I am cognizant of it. I went into Flywheel today because I wanted to physically train to ride faster on a rainy day. I went into MNDFL because it helps me with my own meditation practice to do it in a guided fashion in class once in a while. And I do look at the calorie count on my bike and think, wow, I burned 800 calories, that’s almost a quarter pound of fat! Then I remember: I train for strength and ability, not to lose weight.
And that’s what’s wrong with the wellness trend. The wellness trend doesn’t teach us to train. It teaches us to go into a class and buy a temporary wellness fix, with a false goal of feeling better and a real goal of being skinnier. It’s addictive and completely justifiable as “taking care of oneself”. It doesn’t teach us to care for ourselves as much as it teaches us to rely on instructors to tell us how to perform self-care. It’s addictive because it makes us feel better on multiple levels, like we’re getting skinnier and we’re being nice to ourselves. It makes us dependent on these high priced activities to achieve an exercise high or a meditation calm. The wellness trend makes us junkies.