A criticism of The Wellness Syndrome

“You are not a better person because you run triathlons, and your neighbour’s problems will not go away if they eat more quinoa. Stop fixing yourself so much you forget about the sickness in the world”.

What a load of bullshit.

I was shocked to read The Times on the 22nd of January and see a feature about The Wellness Syndrome by Carl Cedeström and André Spicer under the headline “Are you a better person because you think your body is a temple?”. The article went on to detail the nature of The Wellness Syndrome, alongside a handy checklist detailing the ten signs that you’re a wellness narcissist.

For those who did not see this allow me to explain. The premise of this book is that self-belief as a result of a healthy lifestyle is not only false, but also counter productive to a good society. Indeed, by publically admitting that you enjoy being healthy you’re automatically judging anyone who isn’t and are in fact encouraging a laissez-faire society that ignores the world’s problems. Enjoying a healthy lifestyle must be a shameful and dirty secret because don’t you know there are bigger problems in the world!? Not to mention that “when healthy becomes an ideology, the failure to conform becomes a stigma”.

The hypocrisy of saying this whilst bashing a cultural type because it’s not the one that you like goes without saying. However, in the interest of fairness, if the writers are going to get on a soapbox then allow me to lay down my yoga mat and say my piece.

I want to address this wellness culture that they speak about, because you can’t deny that healthy living has entered the mainstream from specialist magazines, to gymwear as fashion and every sandwich shop boasting a healthy or superfood option. Does the wellness culture that they speak of exist? Yes. Is this a bad thing? No.

The writers talk of the changing tides of culture, referring to City bankers in the 80s doing cocaine instead of hammer curls. This ‘ideology’ has not always existed, and, to be perfectly frank, is a far better ideology than one where drug taking and unhealthy living rules the day. Surely they can’t think it’s worse for their to be a stigma attached to not wanting to exercise as opposed to not wanting to do drugs.

Whilst this wellness culture may exist in the world that they see, there are still plenty of areas in society where to stand up and be counted as a fitness freak puts you on the outside. One such is called university. Choosing to not drink to excess or eat takeaway food on a regular basis has led to many people feeling excluded or lonely as a result. When I conducted research on social behaviour and healthy living for my masters dissertation a number of respondents claimed that they did not feel able to share healthy living in a social way for fear of being judged as vain. Going against the cultural norm due to your beliefs regardless of what it is, is a brave thing to do. Taking an interest in yourself when society is telling you that you are vain is brave. Choosing to be unhealthy in defiance of green juice selfies is not.

Whilst I could write upon this for a while I’m going to conclude by breaking down the opening quote.

“You’re not a better person for doing a triathlon”. Not true. I am currently training for my first ever marathon and to be blunt, I think this has made me a better person. Not better than other people but a better version of myself. Doing a marathon has given me a structured and positive outlet for the overwhelming grief that occurs when a friend passes away.   I am not running a marathon out of some pseudo masochistic vanity – training is hard work – but through the desire to be someone who sets herself goals and achieves them. Wanting to be fit and healthy is not a sign of vanity but of self respect.  That doesn’t mean you don’t respect yourself if you’re unhealthy, but it definitely doesn’t make you a narcissist for choosing a salad when your friends have pizza.

“Your neighbour’s problems will not go away if they eat more quinoa”. No they probably won’t, but by choosing to invest in  and take care of themselves this elusive neighbour may feel more empowered to address their problems. They may develop a self-respect by acknowledging themselves as someone who is worth a good and healthy life.

“ Stop fixing yourself so much you forget about the sickness in the world”. This is the one that I really take issue with. Thank god the writers have told me I can go out and fix the world. Do you want to cure the Northern hemisphere and I’ll take the Southern? With news reports that grow more inhumane with every day that passes how can anyone forget the sickness in the world? Can I wave a magic wand and heal the world’s sickness? No. Can I do so by being unhealthy? Absolutely not. Is having faith in myself as an individual a step towards being a positive influence on any little thing in the world? YES. It may not be changing the world, but by raising money for a charity I am doing what it is within my current power to do.

I feel nothing but inspired by people who take on physical challenges for the good of a cause other than themselves, and I would challenge the writers to go to the finish line of a charity run and tell the participants that they are not a better person for what they have just done and they should dwell on what there is left to be done. I challenge them to shout “wellness narcissist” at those fundraising for charity by physically pushing their bodies.

I am proud of being healthy, I’m more proud of being healthy because I choose to be, and, what’s more, should the tides change and culture of wellness narcissism disappears, I shall continue to be healthy. As the authors say you can’t change the world by making bread or going for a run, but by empowering individuals to personal responsibility you’re a lot closer to creating a world where people wish for change rather than lament for the lack of it. An interest in health can only be seen as vanity by those whose vanity has been wounded.

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