Every morning, as soon as Vanessa Ortali wakes up, she makes a worksheet. First, she lists her intentions, visualizing how she wants to feel that day: “Do I want to feel confident? Do I want to feel at peace? Do I want to feel celebratory?” Then she lists 10 gratitudes and recites them out loud. She might be grateful for her fluffy grey cat, Penelope, for providing snuggles and unconditional love. Or for her career. Or for her future, whatever that might be. Ortali, a 30-year-old Torontonian with pink cheeks and Neve Campbell bone structure, is the founder of A Man’s Pursuit, a company that helps guys orchestrate elaborate marriage proposals. In her spare time, she records motivational YouTube videos from her bed—a white cotton puff covered in a mountain of pillows, including one that reads “Good Morning, Gorgeous.” After her gratitudes, Ortali activates her Saje Natural Wellness nebulizer, an LED-lit contraption that uses ultrasonic waves to convert aromatherapy oil into rejuvenating mist—a citrus-scented oil to endow her with energy in the morning and a calming lavender to chill out at night. As the scent clouds the room, she’ll meditate for half an hour, using YouTube videos from the mindfulness expert Joe Dispenza. She does this up to three times a day, often with incense and sage smudging.
Search the hashtags #detox, #fitspo and #wellnesswednesday on Instagram and you’ll discover that Ortali is in virtuous company. My cohort of 20- and 30-something women has splintered into two camps: the beer-guzzling J. Laws who brag about pizza consumption and Netflix slothery; and the Shailenes, the blissed-out babes who rhapsodize about their juice cleanses and drop $100 on organic rose essential oils. The J. Laws are relatable, the Shailenes aspirational—proponents of the hazy holistic goal of “wellness.” This kumbaya-sounding catch-all doesn’t just refer to the absence of illness, as it once did. Now it’s a full-blown lifestyle that marries fitness, diet and psychotherapy, with a bit of pop Buddhism thrown in for good measure.
Wellness came into popularity in 1975, during the height of West Coast guruism, when a doctor named John W. Travis opened the first Wellness Resource Center in Mill Valley, Calif., offering holistic health consultations. His philosophy, which has flourished over four decades, is focused on the idea of integration: wellness is as much about psychological and emotional strength as it is about the physical. Women have been pursuing it since Travis opened up shop, but it’s only in the past few years that the trend has filtered down to millennials. The fact is, wellness is expensive—until now, middle-aged, moneyed Gwyneths seemed to be its base demographic. They still are, but they’ve been joined by an even more gung-ho cohort of Generation Y women, who elevate their HIIT instructors to rock-star status, who Instagram their charcoal lemonade and who have pivoted from ironic skepticism to earnest gusto. Many are spending thousands of dollars per year on their regimens.
According to most acolytes, wellness is a route to happiness. But the trend is powered by some erroneous assumptions: the idea that natural products are superior to synthetic ones, that eastern philosophies trump corrupt western ones and that authenticity is the key to happiness (in this context, wellness usually means toxin-free everything and communion with nature). There’s also the pursuit of aesthetic perfection—$35 spin classes and $13 beet smoothies are essentially just tools to indulge our obsession with tight bods. And then there’s the notion of ethical supremacy. Carl Cederström, a professor at Stockholm University, and André Spicer, a prof at the City University in London, deconstruct our modern wellness obsession in their 2015 book, The Wellness Syndrome. They argue that it’s rooted in something they call biomorality: the idea that people who are happy and healthy are morally superior, versus the Dorito-dusted masses, who are slovenly and sinful. By that definition, a woman who buys expensive green beauty products and practises hatha yoga thrice weekly thinks of herself as purer—physically, morally, spiritually—than the woman who spends her calories and money on $14 cocktails and UberEats.
And wellness sells. Endless expensive services and products are cashing in on the market. In 2013, the global wellness consumer industry was worth about $3.4 trillion—that’s more than three times the value of the pharmaceutical industry and includes subsets like nutrition, alternative medicine, beauty products, and spas. (Organic beauty is one of the fastest-growing sectors in the beauty industry: its global market value is expected to double from $7.6 billion in 2012 to $13.2 billion in 2018.) Global wellness tourism—an umbrella term for yoga getaways, silent retreats and the like—is valued at $500 billion alone.
From coast to coast, enterprising gurus are opening boutique gyms and organic beauty and wellness shops. The aforementioned, obscenely popular Saje peddles nebulizers, essential oils, candles and aromatherapy jewellery, along with courses on homeopathic medicine. The company opened its first outpost in 1992 in Lonsdale Quay, B.C.; within the past decade, it has grown to include 42 locations across Canada. It’s no surprise that a breezy West Coaster would splurge on essential oils, but when a Torontonian does it, that’s true saturation. There are also dozens of new athleisure boutiques so you can wear your commitment to living well. And you’ll need those super-luxe workout clothes for your super-luxe gym. In the wellness world, fitness is no longer just a morning run. There are now scores of pay-as-you-go fitness studios—from dance cardio to CrossFit to boot camp—with classes ringing in at $25 or more a pop. Attend three a week, and you’re spending more than $3,600 a year on exercise alone.
Ortali subscribes to every facet of the wellness lifestyle with an inexhaustible zeal that activates my wariest skepticism. Her obsession started 11 years ago, when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and the family was seeking alternative pain-relief methods. Now she sees a reiki therapist and a homeopath, who prescribes eucalyptus and chakra therapy to ward off illness. She works with two life coaches—one for emotional therapy and one for goal setting—and does yoga and strength training. Once or twice a year, she’ll splurge on an out-of-town retreat devoted to wellness or yoga or leadership. Every beauty product in her vanity comes from Arbonne, a vegan and botanical line that she also sells. Some mornings, she gets up early to attend a clean exercise rave: a Glow Stick-lit dance party where the organizers swap out Grey Goose for wheatgrass. She doesn’t consume gluten or dairy, and all of her groceries are organic and local. Ortali estimates that she spends around $3,600 or so annually on all of this stuff—and to her, it’s entirely worth it. “Wellness connects my head, my heart and my body. It brings me closer to who I am and who I want to be.” When I ask her who that is, she responds, “My authentic self.”
Esther Lee, a 29-year-old who works in marketing, explains that work burnout may have driven her own desire for Zen. “I don’t know if it’s because of my age or my previous job, but my life was really mentally and physically challenging for awhile. My wellness practices gave me the ability to take time for myself and let things go.” Lee combines cardio workouts with regular hot yoga and occasional cold-pressed-juice cleanses, spending about $1,300 a year solely on fitness. Unprompted, she also rhapsodizes about the glory of Saje products, including one of its facial mists, a blend of peppermint, lemon, rosemary and basil that purports to boost energy; its rose moisturizing toner; and its aromatherapy nebulizer (nearly everyone I spoke to for this piece owns one of these—it is practically a wellness membership requirement). “It’s like sprinkles on top of my workout,” she gushes.
Sprinkles notwithstanding, many of the women I interviewed for this story maintained that wellness is a legit way of warding off illness, obesity and the effects of aging. They talked about self-care, the idea of regularly tending to your physical and emotional health—and investing in it. “I believe in living as pure and clean as possible, which often means buying more expensive products,” says Lauren Ribeiro, a 25-year-old lifestyle blogger from Toronto, who estimates she spends around $500 a month on juices, superfoods, essential oils and healing crystals (stones like quartz, jade and amethyst, which allegedly create a healing energy grid when you place them near your chakra points). “I cut out alcohol. It was wasted money,” she explains. “But I don’t mind paying $20 for a superfood or something that will do something for my body.”
It can be hard to separate the benefits from the bullshit, however. Jen Spinner is a 37-year-old art director and designer from Toronto who opted into the wellness industrial complex about 10 years ago, when she spent six weeks doing karma yoga at the Yasodhara Ashram in Kootenay, B.C., exchanging community work for classes and lodging. “I deal with depression, but when I started practising yoga, it was the first time I realized I could feel better; I could take care of myself,” she explains. The meditation helped with her anxiety and depression, but once Spinner got home, she went wild for wellness. She did cleanses and detoxifying yoga (poses that purportedly stimulate the lymphatic and digestive systems to rid your body of toxins). She went sugar-, allergen- and dairy-free, and developed an unhealthy preoccupation with health. “I was doing it the way other people drink—so I didn’t have to feel my feelings.” Nowadays, she still does yoga a few times a week and meditates to help alleviate her depression, but she has quit the fad diets and cleanses. “Wellness doesn’t mean taking X supplements that so-and-so sells me,” she says. “It’s about being in touch with my emotions. My meditation courses have helped me with that. I can be angry; I can be overwhelmed; I can shut down. When that happens, I know how to make myself aware that it’s happening—and I know it will pass.”
As the so-called ethical imperative has been amplified in the era of social media, it has also become a performative pursuit: you have to prove your zeal by Instagramming shots of açai bowls made with $600 blenders. But Spinner’s comments reminded me that the wellness industry is still rooted in, well, wellness. Strip away the packaging and you’ll find research indicating that aromatherapy can help elevate your mood, that kale smoothies can be part of a healthy diet, that yoga and meditation alleviate stress and anxiety, and that crystals…are pretty. Whether it’s the placebo effect or not, acolytes insist that their practices make them happier and stronger, and maybe that’s enough. And treating yourself to small luxuries can still be private, personal and, yes, even healing. Last month, during a particularly stressful week at work, I dropped $70 on a nebulizer—it looks like a tessellated urn for cremains—plus about $30 on essential oils. I went home, misted up some jasmine, listened to true crime podcasts and doodled in my marine-themed adult colouring book while the floral haze engaged my senses and cleared my mind. The next day, I couldn’t help but tell people how great it felt.
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