Burning sage, cleansing your energy with crystals, and meditation retreats; all are examples of the so-called movement of wellness culture. With the start of the pandemic and the closing of gyms, wellness and diet culture experienced intense growth. In September 2021, the wellness industry was worth about 4.5 trillion dollars, making it clear that it is a huge industry. According to the concept of wellness culture, we all can and should make healthy choices and it is our own responsibility to stay healthy. In the eyes of the community, it truly is this simple. Influencers on social media promote things such as superfoods, mindfulness, detox diets, and even learning how to read tarot cards to predict your own future.
This article will look at how wellness culture is represented online and in popular culture by analyzing the origins of wellness culture and what it stands for, how wellness gurus on Instagram and Tiktok contribute to the spread of this community, and how wellness culture is critiqued online.
The Origins of Wellness Culture
While wellness culture experienced intense growth since the start of the pandemic, it is not a new phenomenon. The word ‘wellness’ already originated in the 1950s by Halbert L. Dunn, who can be seen as the father of the movement (The New York Times Magazine, 2010). According to Dunn, there was a difference between good health, which is objective and dictated by modern medicine, and wellness. Wellness, to him, is subjective and an active, ongoing pursuit. He defined high-level wellness as: “an integrated method of functioning, which is oriented toward maximizing the potential of which the individual is capable.”
Wellness culture has gone mainstream and in the present day, it can be characterized by things such as juice bars, detox diets, meditation retreats, mindfulness, yoga, and tarot cards. The main idea of wellness culture is that we as individuals control our own health outcomes. It places the praise, but also the blame, on individuals striving for health, or for not being able to attain it (sydthedietitian, 2020). Wellness culture thus suggests that it is your fault if you are unhealthy since everyone has the power to make healthy choices every day. Wellness also encourages people to look inwards by finding spiritual fulfillment and a sense of purpose. This can be done through mindfulness, gratitude, or clean eating (McBain, 2020).
The main idea of wellness culture is that we as individuals control our own health outcomes. It places the praise, but also the blame, on individuals striving for health, or for not being able to attain it
In the late-nineteenth century, there already was another blossoming form of wellness culture in Europe. This went by the name of ‘life reform’ (Blei, 2017). Life reform consisted of a network of groups and organizations whose members experimented with things such as vegetarianism, open-air exercise, and raw food diets. They made good health become synonymous with beauty and self-fulfillment, making people grow more body-conscious and insecure about their physical appearance.
Life reform originated as a result of urbanization. A group of Europeans thought the urban, industrial society was damaging to their bodies and souls (Blei, 2017). They felt disconnected from nature and thought modern medicine was not helping the issues of people. People had holistic needs that medicine could not fulfill. In this period of time, anti-vaccination activists also became active.
Nevertheless, the community of life reform grew and gained many supporters, especially within prosperous communities of Europeans. Life reform gave them a sense of agency in their own future. For the people who had resources, their bodies became a source of autonomy and self-determination (Blei, 2017).
Taking into consideration that wellness culture has corresponding ideas with life reform, it is not that crazy that it experienced such growth with the start of the pandemic, and even before that. Because of globalization and digitalization, people nowadays have higher connectivity than ever. They constantly are in contact with each other through social media and have become disconnected from the real world. Not surprising that people are looking for an escape through wellness culture.
#Wellness on Tiktok and Instagram
Social media platforms have helped the circulation of the ideas of wellness culture tremendously. When searching the hashtag 'wellness' on Instagram, more than 54 million posts show up. While most members of the community do not call wellness culture by its name when posting online, they post pictures and videos about wellness-related topics. Content about wellness often talks about food and natural diets, but also about meditation retreats, crystals, and sage to cleanse your energy, yoga, and self-help books. However, what all these things have in common is that they all are meant to encourage you to better yourself.
A perfect example of wellness culture with a focus on food is this Tiktok by Jen Jones. Jen Jones describes herself as a 'plant-based queen' who owns her own coffee-based skin care. The sound she used was used more than 1800 times by other users. One of the people who used it in her own Tiktok is Shayna Terese Taylor, who has 871.000 followers on the platform and describes herself as a holistic chef. They both put several food trends that are popular in wellness culture on display: intermittent fasting, strict veganism, juicing, and sugar-free baking (Siegel, 2021).
Crystals are another popular thing within the wellness community. It is believed that crystals can bring specific energies into your life if you carry these with you. For example, rose quartz is supposed to restore harmony and trust in all different kinds of relationships. It is a crystal that is about love, meaning it is not only about relationships with others, but also about your relationship with yourself. Rose quartz encourages love, trust, respect, and worth within one’s self (Rekstis, 2019). Before using the crystals, however, you should cleanse them. They could have unwanted energies on them and to make sure nothing bad happens to you, they thus should be cleansed. This Tiktok explains ways to cleanse your crystals.
Meditation retreats in warm countries also seem to be a popular thing in wellness culture. Holistic female influencers post about female retreats where they dance, read self-help books, and mostly spend time by themselves to heal their psyche. On retreats, it is important that you are closed off from the real world so you can solely focus on yourself and the other women who are on the retreat, however, these influencers tend to promote it a lot when they are on retreats. Wendy van der Zijden, @holisticdoula.nl on Instagram, is one of these women who do so. She also started organizing her own retreats and an example of an Instagram post promoting her own retreat can be seen below.
Gwyneth Paltrow and her lifestyle brand Goop are incredibly important to the wellness industry. Paltrow founded the brand in 2008. Goop started out as a weekly newsletter intended for family and friends. Paltrow herself describes the brand as “a global brand that’s recognized for starting important conversations and pushing issues and ideas into the mainstream”. Goop nowadays has its own branded lines of clothing, skincare, vitamins and supplements, and body products. On its website and Instagram, Goop focuses on content related to wellness, food, style, work, and travel. In 2021, the brand released its own Netflix series called 'The Goop Lab with Gwyneth Paltrow'. In this show, Paltrow and Goop employees try unconventional healing methods. Many people look at Gwyneth Paltrow as one of the founders of wellness culture, though she has been critiqued for this many times.
Critique of Wellness Culture
While wellness culture has created its own niche on social media, it is important to consider the points of critique people have and the unintended consequences that come with wellness culture. When searching ‘#wellnessculture’ on Instagram or Tiktok, you quickly come across content that critiques it instead of content that encourages it. This hashtag thus is mainly used by people who are against wellness culture, and not by the people who have the ascribed identity of a wellness guru. An example of such critique is the Instagram post that can be seen below.
An important point of critique is the fact that not everyone has equal access to goods that people associate with good health, like fresh food and working out in the gym (McBain,2020). Because fresh and healthy foods can be expensive, it is unfair to say that everyone is able to make healthy choices every day. Not everyone has the choice to buy superfoods or vegan products, simply because some people do not have the money for it. These products are mainly for privileged people, meaning that ‘choosing to be healthy’ only is an option for the privileged.
Besides influencers encouraging healthy eating, they also encourage things such as intermittent fasting or water fasting. These actually are strict diets but are promoted as healthy ways to look at food. Wellness culture thus is often seen as diet culture in disguise. According to Wendy Sterling, a sports dietician, these are elements of wellness culture that are responsible for the high rates of disordered eating in teenagers and adults (Siegel, 2021). This is an unintended consequence that should not be overlooked and should be seriously considered when watching wellness content that focuses on food.
Another point of critique is that many elements of wellness culture can be seen as pseudoscience and that it thus promotes pseudoscientific theories while undermining science at the same time. For example, many followers of wellness culture believe that food is all you need to heal from sickness and that you should not use nor trust modern medicine. Furthermore, it cannot be proven that, for instance, tarot cards really tell the truth. The predictions often are too general to say something meaningful about someone, just like astrology which is also a famous pseudoscience. When looking critically at the popularity of tarot cards within wellness culture, it is actually quite ironic how popular they are. Wellness culture in general thinks people themselves are responsible for their well-being and health, but they also just believe everything tarot cards say to be true, meaning it is faith that is responsible for your future.
Many followers of wellness culture believe that food is all you need to heal from sickness and that you should not use nor trust modern medicine
Wellness culture tends to encourage perfectionism, which is a dangerous thing when it comes to your body and mind. Because wellness culture promises you that practicing things such as mindfulness and yoga will make you happy and help you to navigate stress with ease, it can be damaging when you do not live up to these expectations (O’Sullivan, 2021). Wellness culture encourages an ideal self that can be reached through staying determined to meet your goals. Of course, it can be good to set goals when they are set with flexibility and realistic expectations, but wellness culture makes you set unrealistic goals. If you look at it in depth, it is not realistic that you are going to achieve your ‘best self’ solely through your actions and practicing wellness. Whenever you do not reach your goals and your dissatisfaction with your body does not go away, the blame, however, is never put on the things that were meant to help you. As a result, you put the blame on yourself and you might develop new insecurities. However, it can go as far as developing anxiety, eating disorders, or OCD (O’Sullivan, 2021).
Lastly, it is important to have a look at why so many people critique Gwyneth Paltrow’s approach to wellness. Paltrow brought several products onto the market with her company Goop that should cure diseases, but do not have scientific backgrounds, meaning she also promotes pseudoscientific things with commercial interests. An example of this is an “earthing kit” that could be purchased for $200. This kit claims that “earthing” – the act of walking on grass with bare feet – can cure depression and insomnia (Lofts, 2020). Furthermore, Paltrow encouraged “vaginal steaming”. She claims this dangerous activity is a way to balance female hormone levels and cleanse the uterus.
Looking at my Mood Ring
Wellness culture also is critiqued in popular music. An example of this is New Zealand singer-songwriter Lorde, famous for her songs ‘Royals’ and ‘Green Light’, who sings about wellness culture in a song called ‘Mood Ring’, taken from her third and most recent album 'Solar Power' (2021).
Lorde caught inspiration for writing about this topic after a deep dive into the ‘60s era of Flower Child culture. She realized there are many similarities between trends from that time and trends from now: “Things like eating a macrobiotic vegan diet or burning sage, keeping crystals, reading tarot cards or your horoscope. These were all things that they were dabbling in back then, and that me and my girlfriends are dabbling in today”.
In an interview on the song, Lorde revealed that the song and its accompanying music video actually take on a satirical perspective on wellness culture and the wellness industry (Wang, 2021). In the music video, Lorde’s character seems to be at a wellness retreat with other women where they burn sage, dance, read books, and pass around plants; all of which are examples of the stereotypical image of present-day wellness culture.
Not only can Lorde’s satirical view be seen in the music video of Mood Ring, but it is also audible in the lyrics. In the first verse, she sings: “Can’t seem to fix my mood / Today, it’s as dark as my roots / If I ever let them grow out”. These lyrics immediately make clear that the persona in the song is not feeling great and wants to fix it with wellness. Lorde also differentiates herself from this persona by talking about growing out your roots. In an interview with Genius (2021) she talks about this: “That’s a non-natural blonde, obviously not me, but I wanted to sort of differentiate [this persona] from me…”.
Moving on to the pre-chorus, she starts giving examples of what wellness culture means to the song’s persona. Examples of lyrics that point to wellness culture in the pre-chorus are “Ladies, begin your sun salutations / Transcendental in your meditations” and “You can burn sage and I’ll cleanse the crystals”.
In the interview with Genius (2021), Lorde also talks about why she chose a mood ring to illustrate the idea of wellness culture. She acknowledges we all know that a mood ring is not real, but that we all need to ascribe meaning to certain things because we need to do so to feel well. Lorde felt a mood ring was representative of this because “certain elements of wellness culture are like that. Things like reading your star sign, or tarot”.
Wellness Culture or Sickness Culture..?
Having looked at the origins of wellness culture, how it is represented online, and how it is critiqued online and in music, it is possible to say that it is an intense and quickly growing online community with quite some unintended consequences. However, it is also one which has to deal with many counter voices.
While it may seem like a positive movement, wellness culture has many similarities with diet culture, making it a toxic phenomenon to many. It has become a much too commercialized community that appears to care about people’s health, but actually promotes things that can be seen as pseudoscientific with the main purpose of making money. Wellness culture thus encourages people to distrust science and medicine. While doing this, it is actually keeping people unhealthy and undoing anything about the movement that could be seen as positive. Furthermore, it communicates to people that they are responsible for their own health since everyone has the responsibility to make healthy choices. However, it forgets to consider that not everyone has equal access to these resources. Wellness culture makes people strive to become their ideal selves, but this is a difficult thing to achieve by just using the resources of wellness culture. This might result in eating disorders or other mental health issues.
Luckily, it has come to the point where many people on social media speak up about the toxicity of wellness culture and acknowledge that burning sage, reading tarot cards, or practicing yoga will not fix all of your problems.
Blei, D. (2019, 6 September). The False Promises of Wellness Culture. JSTOR Daily.
Genius. (2021, 23 August). Lorde “Mood Ring” Official Lyrics & Meaning | Verified [Video]. YouTube.
Lofts, J. (2020, 11 November). Are wellness gurus driving a rise in pseudoscience? SRG.
McBain, S. (2021, 15 June). The dark side of the wellness industry. New Statesman.
O’Sullivan, S., & Chiwariro, P. B. T. (2023, 11 January). Wellness Culture Won’t Save Us. It’s Only Making Us More Sick. Refinery29.
Rekstis, E. (2022, 21 January). Healing Crystals 101: Everything You Need to Know. Healthline.
Siegel, S. (2021, 27 November). A ‘wellness culture’ that robs us of food freedom. The Daily Californian.
sydthedietitian. (2020, 9 November). Instagram.
Wang, S. (2021, 17 August). Lorde’s “Mood Ring” Lyrics Meaning, Explained. Nylon.
Zimmer, B. (2010, 16 April). Wellness. The New York Times.