Is ‘Wholeness’ A Worthier Ambition Than ‘Wellness’?

Is ‘Wholeness’ A Worthier Ambition Than ‘Wellness’?

Once upon a time, women were the epicentre of healthcare and spiritual wellbeing. We were the midwives, the herbalists, the crones and the life-giving, life-sustaining natural caretakers of human health. And we had permission to use that power. Masculinity was to conquer and femininity was to claim. Whilst men battled with nature - hunting and farming - women harnessed earth’s most natural sources to sustain, heal and nurture us. It was only a matter of time until they started burning us.

The witch trials killed many women but they also killed the magic. Much of our old innate knowledge of the world, I suspect, was lost or forgotten in the years that followed. Not only this but, in being told we could not be trusted, we relinquished our power. Over time, remedies made by pestles and mortar became recipes in modern healthcare and rituals that built connection and restored mental resilience were dismissed as - if not witchcraft - then woo-woo.

Now we live longer. Fatal illness and infant mortality are rare and we have incredible health services and highly skilled healthcare practitioners. And yet, at some point in the 2000s, many of us began to look around and see that humankind was having an obesity problem. We looked out towards the looming mental health crisis and became sceptics of what seemed to be an overly medicated Western world.

Perhaps we grew tired of magazine articles that one week told us drinking was causing cancer and the next told us red wine was an iron-boosting necessity. Maybe we got fed up with fad diets and books by men - many of whom didn’t seem to even have much of a biology background anyway - telling us what we could and couldn’t eat to achieve ‘our’ ideal figure. It’s possible we’d had enough of self-help books because the help still wasn’t coming from the ‘self.’ And so we discovered - or rediscovered - wellness.

Wellness was about reclaiming ownership of our own health and happiness. It wasn’t just for women and it wasn’t dismissive of Western medicine. It was steeped in the idea that we know what we need and we have the power to provide. It was a fairytale.

And yet, the narrative is changing. Less than a decade since we mainstreamed wellness we’re seeing villains in the story and the magic seems to be slipping away all over again. So what happened to wellness? And is it time to turn the page on wellness and commence a new chapter of wholeness?

Let’s take a look at what happened, and what might happen next…

When Wellness Was Good.

Wellness in its purest form is a holistic approach to optimising physical, mental and emotional health. It aims to make us feel better on a day-to-day basis and give us the best chance of thriving in what can be an overwhelming modern world. Wellness has never claimed to be an alternative medicine but rather promotes a balanced lifestyle that prioritises nutrition, exercise, stress management and emotional wellbeing.

Influenced by cultures and traditions from both ancient and modern times and many corners of the globe, wellness may incorporate yoga, meditation, reiki, forest bathing, the tapping method, etc. Therapy might also be considered a wellness endeavour as can social connection and spending time in nature. Diet often plays a big part and tends to lean towards steering away from fad dieting and instead embracing whole foods, incorporating more plant-based meals and cooking meals that nurture body and soul. Although more spiritual-based practices, such as yoga, tend to be associated with wellness, any form of exercise may be considered an act of wellness, from running to boxing and cross fit to pilates. The focus is more on using movement to enhance wellbeing rather than trying to achieve a high level of fitness or reshape the body.

Once upon a time, wellness felt both ancient and authentic. Inspired by a basic sense of servitude to body and mind that awoke us to the power we have over our health and feeling of fulfilment, the wellness movement gave permission for us to take time for ourselves. In a technology-fuelled, loud, stress-inducing world focused on productivity and achievement, the idea of incorporating a few simple practices or rituals to take care of our physical and mental wellness felt revolutionary. I never felt that wellness was a trend, but a reminder to put on our own oxygen masks before tending to other matters of survival. And, it was personal too.

There were no rules - no dos or don’ts. Wellness was pitched as a journey that would look different from person to person. We were empowered to lay a foundation of our choosing - derived somewhat from try- and-see methods and sometimes also from a deeper knowing - to create our own bespoke system for holistic health that could strengthen physical and emotional resilience.

And it was beautiful - simplistic, accessible and empowering.

For a while.

When Wellness Got Toxic.

As with so many wonderful, pure, well-meaning ideas, wellness morphed over time. A very brief amount of time to be honest but, as we’ve pointed out, it’s a fast-moving world we’re living in. First, the world wellness started to be used by the very voices early wellness adopters had rallied against - the advertisers, the hardcore fitness influencers, the beauty industry, the diet industry and the luxury experience industry. This did several things. Firstly, slotting in the word ‘wellness’ gave the perception of natural, holistic wellbeing practices, which many of these were not. Secondly, it made it aspirational rather than achievable because wellness became convoluted again with impossible ideals and perfectionist goals. Inevitably, this made the idea of wellness expensive.

It’s actually not. That’s important to point out. Because you don’t need to fly to a luxury retreat every season to find yourself. You don't need ‘healthy’ meals delivered to your doorstep, or expensive memberships to gyms that have rebranded themselves as ‘wellness’ centres. The point of wellness was that it was accessible. Even in terms of time. Because there were no rules that dictated how much time you needed to carve out to take care of yourself - only what you could and what was going to be of most use.

Wellness started out as a lifestyle concept whereby a single mother could do 20 minutes of yoga in their living room before bed and feel good. Now, it has become a source of shame if that same single mother cannot get herself to a £20 per class hatha yoga session four evenings a week. For her, she is now more stressed than ever. The idea was that a young man having to commute daily and work long hours in a stressful job might listen to a 10-minute meditation on the train instead of going to the pub in the evening to manage his overwhelm. Now, he looks at advertisements for wellness and feels an added pressure because every man on the poster for some ‘miracle’ vitamin that promotes wellbeing not only appears successful but is also impossibly ripped.

As soon as wellness became recognised as something that could be monetised the industry lept on the movement. The tragedy is they know they sell more by making us feel shame than by making us feel well.

And that’s when wellness got toxic.

That’s when we started to compete with one another over whose wellness rituals were better - more modern -  more steeped in ancient wisdom - less known (and therefore ‘cooler’) - less attainable (and thereby more desirable).

This year, I’ve seen a lot of adverts for a new piece of technology that can tell people more about their bodily responses to food and make suggestions accordingly. It’s not cheap - obviously. It’s slotted itself under the wellness banner and it is, apparently, revolutionary, Hey, maybe it is. Maybe it’s going to help people eat better and understand their internal make-up in a way that could allow them to thrive like never before. And yet…

Didn’t we decide to reconnect with our bodies and minds ourselves to discover the best lifestyles that would keep us healthy? And now that’s not a thing anymore? I can’t be trusted to listen to my own body - I have to let Zoe tell me what to eat and when. And who the f*** is Zoe because I tell you what she isn’t - she isn’t really a person and she certainly isn’t me. That doesn’t mean ‘she’ doesn’t know her shit but why is this needed at all? Can we not be the custodians of our own bodies?

Wellness, when it became an industry as opposed to a concept, did a complete 360. When you see the word wellness used nowadays it mostly refers to surrendering our autonomy and giving ourselves over to profit-making organisations that wish to be the dictators of how we care for ourselves. This is not a return to holistic wellness. This is a revisit to toxic pursuits of impossible ideals that mostly lead to us feeling less worthy and being less empowered. Yet, now more personally responsible for our wellness than ever before.


When We Started Wanting Wholeness.

So, now that wellness has been so corrupted and the concept so eroded, do we surrender or do we seek something else? Wholeness may well be the word of 2024. It is being used by those who were former crusaders of the wellness movement before the toxicity crept in and it’s being used by modern philosophers (AKA podcasters/authors), such as Elise Loehnen and Krista Tippett, as well as artists, including Alanis Morissette.

Wholeness is still a journey and it’s still centred around achieving a state of wellbeing. It prioritises health, connection and also integrity. Essentially, wholeness is the idea of returning to humanity through a process of emptying ourselves of trauma, stress and toxic influences and embracing imperfections. Surrendering to the unpredictability of life and moving through with grace and calm, having made a dedication towards wholeness. Like wellness, there is a strong pull towards spirituality, listening to the inner voice and connecting with ourselves and with the world around us (especially the green parts). There is significantly less focus on physical wellbeing but more so on emotional and mental balance.

Generally, there is far less guidance on how to achieve wholeness. Certainly, an objective is to embrace and bring together the different parts of ourselves and that which we do not let others see and strive to exist as our most authentic selves.

All in all, it’s a bit odd that we need another ‘movement’ to live in a way that seems so natural and obvious but, because there are so many outside influences set on stirring up inner anxiety, self-doubt and other emotions that we may choose to repress, there’s little wonder we need a way to get back to basics. Wholeness seems to me a worthy aspiration, but will it stay that way? 

When We Wondered ‘What Fresh Hell Is This?’

Wholeness is going to ‘trend’. But trending doesn’t always happen because something is destined to be a fad or to become industry-led. Sometimes, ideas trend because they promote discussions that more people want to join. 

The ways in which we navigate busy and often overwhelming lives is certainly a discussion worth having. And yet, the louder the discussion gets around wellbeing, wholeness, or whatever we’re calling it next, the more difficult it becomes to hear our inner voice. You know - the one we’re supposed to be taking guidance from on this journey to health and happiness. It’s important though, given what has happened to other well-intended wellbeing movements, that we scrutinise and understand the core principles of these lifestyle concepts.

When I think about whether wholeness is the way forward, there’s one thing I’m sure of and that’s that wholeness would not have worked in the 90s - we weren’t ‘nice’ enough. In fact, as much as I loved growing up in the Spice Girls, New Labour, Kappa trousers and crop top era, it was a pretty toxic time. When ‘banter’ disguised bullying and celebrities were ritually humiliated on television every weekend. There was a price for fame, a price for being female in a ‘lads’ world and, though there was less social media then, may I remind you of trends such as ‘heroin chic’? With hedonism the goal of the decade, there was less focus on well-being and more focus on getting well-wasted. So it was only natural that we’d have a need to course-correct.

Listen my lovelies, I’m no cynic. Generally, I’m a bright-side kind of girl who embraces any natural way for us to feel better, live better and build better relationships - with each other and ourselves. Only, in my experience, everything that comes along promising to pave a pathway to this inevitably gets toxified and we get looped back around to struggling with unrealistic expectations and made to feel like failures because every time we get close to the bar the bar gets raised. I suppose, if this has happened with wellness and this happens with wholeness, then it won’t have worked to begin with.

If wholeness is about building resilience and integrity then we need to be able to recognise and dismiss the toxic messages and promises of short-cuts that may creep into the movement. Most importantly, whether it be wellness or wholeness we are in pursuit of, we need to accept there is no happy ending. Good health, balance and wellbeing is a life-long endeavour to live better, not a happily ever after. 

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