Novelist Jessica Knoll argues that we should "Smash the Wellness Industry." Has our toxic dieting culture co-opted wellness? Is it possible to be happy AND healthy?
Writer Jessica Knoll recently published an op-ed in the New York Times titled “Smash the Wellness Industry.” in which she suggests that our pursuit of “wellness” is actually undermining both our health and our happiness—especially that of women.
In her piece, Knoll recounts her recovery from what she describes as a “poisonous relationship between a body I was indoctrinated to hate and food I had been taught to fear.” Like many successful young women, Knoll got sucked into a toxic culture of extreme dietary restriction, excessive exercise, and various other rituals of purification and penance all packaged in the guise of “wellness.”
Dieting has become something of a dirty word lately, and rightfully so: it clearly doesn’t work. But the most toxic aspects of dieting culture—the pursuit of an unrealistic body ideal at the expense of your physical comfort and emotional well-being—haven’t gone away. According to Knoll, dieting has simply been rebranded as wellness, and under cover of this benign new label, is continuing to perpetrate the same fraud. We now have a generation of wellness influencers selling detoxes, cleanses, and elimination diets as a way of looking and feeling your best.
Dieting has become something of a dirty word lately, and rightfully so: it clearly doesn’t work.
In her pursuit of wellness (or, more accurately, thinness), Knoll found herself alternating between bouts of “clean eating” and violent bingeing. That’s not wellness. That’s not looking or feeling your best. Fortunately, Knoll finally found relief from this unhealthy cycle working with a dietitian who specializes in intuitive eating, a process she describes in more detail in her article.
Jessica Knoll makes some important points in her article. But there are a couple of things I’d like to respond to.
One is the idea that men are largely immune to this unwholesome influence. She describes having lunch with some highly accomplished and successful women who spent the first part of their meeting bashing their bodies and comparing their respective diet rules. Knoll fantasizes that the men at the next table were unburdened by these concerns, digging into their food and engaged in more interesting—or, at least, less self-loathing—conversations.
However, I think she may underestimate the number of men who are similarly consumed by the pursuit of an unrealistic body image. It looks a little different, but the pseudo-wellness culture has gone after men just as hard. He may be chugging protein shakes instead of celery juice, popping testosterone-boosters instead of fat-burning supplements, and obsessing over whether his calves are too thin instead of whether his thighs are too fat, but he has fallen into the same trap.
It looks a little different, but the pseudo-wellness culture has gone after men just as hard.
Knoll also points out that the “wellness industry” attracts a lot of women who don’t actually need to lose weight in order to be healthy. What they really need to lose is their disordered body image and fear of food. And thankfully, it sounds like Knoll is well on her way.
But let’s not forget that the majority of American adults are not at a healthy weight. And they are just as susceptible to the false promises of the pseudo-wellness industry and just as poorly served by the extreme and unwholesome regimens that promise to deliver fast weight loss.
Finally, Knoll says that she’ll probably never love her body. I think what she really means is that she’ll never love the way her body looks. I think that’s an important difference. But my advice to her is, “never say never.” As she continues to get even more distance from the toxic culture she describes in her article, she may find that her idea of what a loveable body looks like continues to evolve.
I’m glad Knoll wrote this piece. Unhealthy influences cloaked in the garb of wellness deserve to be called out for what they are. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. There is also an authentic wellness movement that is gaining traction; one that offers a more balanced and realistic view of what health and wellness look like. Despite the overlap in terminology, it’s not too hard to distinguish them.
Unhealthy influences cloaked in the garb of wellness deserve to be called out for what they are. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Steer clear of regimens that are restrictive, extreme, isolating, difficult, or dogmatic. Look for approaches that are flexible, inclusive, and sustainable. Your goal is not to have a perfect life, body, or diet. As my friend Dr. Yoni Freedhoff likes to say, your goal should be to live the healthiest life you can enjoy living.
To that end, I believe that your "ideal weight" is much more than a number on a scale or on a BMI chart. Yes, of course, you want to be healthy. But you also want to feel happy with the way your body looks, feels, and functions. And you need to be comfortable and content in the lifestyle it takes to sustain that body.
See also: Happy Weight vs. Healthy Weight
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