How “wellness” became the privilege of the wealthy

The sunlight glints off the glass exterior of the brand-new athletic complex as I drive past on my way to the co-working space where I spend my days. I can glimpse state-of-the-art equipment through the expansive windows and perfectly coiffed gym-goers fueled by their $15 juices. For a moment, I’m tempted to turn into the parking lot and enter this temple of wellness. Then my bank account balance flashes in my mind, and I drive on.

Scenes like this play out across Australia and America countless times every day. We’re surrounded by a culture that equates wellness with wealth, but true health remains out of reach for many. As a society, we’ve turned “wellness” into a commodity — complete with status symbols, exclusivity, and privilege. The very word conjures up images of celebrity-approved diets, $200 yoga pants, and mindfulness retreats in Byron Bay. For those with means, the pursuit of wellness can become an obsession. For everyone else, it’s an impossible dream that we’re violently shamed for not living up to.

How did we get to this point? When did wellness become so inaccessible to the average person? To find the answer, we have to look back at the evolution of the wellness industry itself.

The rise of wellness

The modern wellness movement traces its origins to the 19th century when health resorts first gained popularity. Immersing yourself in nature, mineral baths, and clean air was viewed as a tonic to the stresses of city living. These resorts catered to the upper class, who could afford the time and expense required, but they planted the seeds of today’s $4.5 trillion global wellness market.

Things accelerated in the 1970s with the emergence of the first health food stores, yoga studios, and recreational running. Practices once seen as fringe suddenly entered the mainstream. Jogging, vegetarianism, meditation — these were radical departures from the typical suburban/cosmopolitan lifestyle. But they took hold, fueled by a desire for greater meaning, connection, and vitality and by the growing influence of mass media that proselytized in favor of an ideal lifestyle in Western countries where an economic boom felt like it would last forever and the only remaining frontier was getting thin, staying thin, and being beautiful.

During the 1980s, the fitness craze took off, influenced by Jane Fonda’s aerobics videos and the first health club chains. With rising incomes and more discretionary time, yuppies embraced wellness as the hot new trend. Then the 1990s brought even more expansion, with Pilates, juice bars, and destination spas gaining devotees.

Wellness was thoroughly commercialized by the early 2000s. What began as a grassroots movement had spawned into a multi-billion dollar industry awash in branded apparel, celebrity endorsements, and services catering to the wealthy. Wellness was associated with luxury, not access.

This was the start of the great divide — wellness became a status symbol, valued for its exclusivity. For those with lower incomes, the costs were increasingly prohibitive. And the emphasis moved away from lifestyle changes to quick fixes, magic bullets, and purchasing power. Wellness became commodified and sold to the highest bidder.

The new aspiration

Walk into any upscale gym or Whole Foods today, open up Instagram or TikTok, and it’s easy to see how much wellness has morphed into a marker of privilege. Who can afford a $300 infrared sauna session or a $600 Vitamix? But these are the products promoted as essential tools on the path to health.

Wellness influencers peddle customized meal plans, Peloton bikes, and wearable tech. Their immaculate kitchens are stocked with the priciest supplements and ingredients. Their self-care routines revolve around $400 facials, and therapy appointments run you $500 per hour if you can even get on their waitlist.

This aspirational wellness lifestyle elevated in magazines and social media feeds is out of reach for most people. And it promotes the mindset that true wellness requires not just hard work but opening your wallet wide.

Many have internalized the consumerist message that wellness necessitates buying the right things. The result is often stress, self-judgment, and financial strain as people chase an impossible ideal. Wellness has become the gleaming city on a hill that only a select few can enter.

Left behind

Meanwhile, vast swathes of the population are excluded entirely, priced out of the wellness game. Those struggling to pay for food, housing, healthcare, and other basics can hardly afford $25 spin classes. This creates an illusion that the affluent are the picture of health while the economically disadvantaged languish in sickness.

In reality, lower-income Americans and Australians suffer the most from conditions like obesity and diabetes. But they lack access to healthy food options, safe public parks, affordable gyms, and preventative medical care. The barriers to wellness for marginalized groups are immense, which only compounds poor health outcomes.

There are few on-ramps to wellness for these communities, where fast food is plentiful but fresh produce scarce. Can you imagine prioritizing organic kale while working multiple jobs to keep the lights on? The privileges inherent in the wellness narrative are glaring.

And the movement fails to recognize that health encompasses more than individual choices. Wellness cannot be achieved without addressing societal factors like discrimination, education gaps, environmental injustice, racism, genetic dispositions to body weight and the debilitating stress of poverty.

The tech “wellness” mirage

We can’t discuss the inaccessibility of today’s wellness culture without examining the role of technology companies. Wellness startups and social media apps have significantly contributed to the high cost and exclusivity surrounding health.

Take the explosion of fitness and meditation apps. Monthly subscriptions for these virtual services can exceed the budget of low-income Americans. But they’re touted as essential by tech founders aiming to cash in on the wellness craze.

Under the guise of democratization, these companies actually drive the perception that costly tools are required to reach health goals. This dynamic has played out across everything from smartwatches to high-tech home gym equipment. The irony is that simply walking outside is free and yields excellent mental and physical benefits.

Meanwhile, social media showcases unattainable wellness imagery tied closely to commerce. Influencers flaunt their sculpted physiques attained through pricey personal trainers and diet fads. Accounts blend health misinformation with strategic product placement.

The effect, especially on young people, can be lower self-esteem and distorted wellness views. Once again, financial privilege grants access to an elite standard.

Big technology has perpetuated the toxic narratives around wellness being the domain of the wealthy. But some companies are starting to acknowledge their responsibility to make health more inclusive. This will require prioritizing access over profits — a true reckoning of ethics over economics. Silicon Valley’s thirst for wealth accumulation should not govern a realm as precious as wellness. There is an opportunity for progress if tech leaders open their eyes to the damage done.

Redefining wellness

If wellness remains narrowly defined as something we purchase, the inequity will only grow. It’s time to rethink the notion that wellness equals wealth.

True wellness springs from connection, compassion, rest, and resilience. It’s found through affordable nutrition, accessible healthcare, economic empowerment, and embracing our shared humanity. It’s experienced when all people have the opportunity to make choices that allow them to thrive, not just survive.

How do we go about expanding access to wellness and dismantling barriers? For starters, we can bring healthy food into underserved areas through food stamps, grocery stores, food cooperatives, community gardens, and outreach programs.

Proactive medical care and mental health support focused on the individual, the intersectional, and helping people become better for who and where they are can become available via community clinics, meditation groups, crisis hotlines, and outreach workers.

Public spaces and programming can foster physical activity, stress reduction, and social connection in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Advocating for policies that alleviate poverty, discrimination, and lack of opportunity is critical. Through mentorship programs, community members can share nutrition, fitness, parenting, and more knowledge.

And we can promote sustainable wellness strategies focused on lifestyle rather than purchasing products or losing weight. An essential shift has to take place to separate “wellness” from “weight” and recognize that our personal aesthetics are a shitty metric for health.

Healing the divide

The wellness divide cuts deeply, but there are rays of hope. Recognition is growing that true health means increasing access for underserved groups, not chasing unattainable standards.

Forward-thinking businesses are finding ways to make fitness and nutrition affordable and welcoming to diverse populations. Non-profits expand community gardens and mind/body programs for at-risk youth and families. Yoga instructors bring their classes to hospitals, schools, workplaces, and areas in need.

And mindset shifts are happening too. People are rejecting the consumerist wellness culture in favor of sustaining practices like meditation, communing with nature, and prioritizing sleep. Many are choosing compassion for themselves and others over competition.

Momentum is building towards a more inclusive health landscape. But we still have far to go to bring wellness back to its roots — helping people thrive through the connection of body, mind, and spirit.

True wellness cannot be a gleaming city on a hill, reachable by only a select homogeneous few with means. It must transform into that welcoming meadow where all are nourished. Only then can we achieve the sense of collective health and humanity we so desperately need.

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