Wellness. In 2018, it’s at once omnipresent and misunderstood—a buzzword from campus health centers to high-end real estate to pet food to preschool marketing. In a culture otherwise riven by stark divides of ideology and sensibility, wellness enjoys weirdly wide appeal. Who doesn’t aspire to “more than the absence of sickness,” as it’s commonly described, even if particular wellness totems, from organic kale to healing crystals, can seem annoyingly bourgeois or suspiciously woo-woo? Notably, the otherwise polar opposite online worlds of the upscale “curated” lifestyle (e.g., Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop) or right-wing conspiracy theory (e.g., Alex Jones’s Infowars) peddle surprisingly similar wellness products.
The few holdouts that most strenuously resist wellness are disproportionately concentrated among social critics and my fellow academics. In growing chorus, they smartly if at times snarkily point out limits of a vision that emphasizes individual wellbeing over collective action and they snub science. They also illuminate inequality, noting that processed food is cheaper than the greenmarket, making time to hit the gym is harder when you work an unpredictable shift job, and a sage-scented home is indulgent if not outright luxurious.
However valid these critiques may appear to be, they have mostly forestalled an exploration of the specific spaces in which wellness culture originated. Postwar California, ever the American frontier, was hugely important. There emerged a wellness culture defined by the at-times contradictory liberation, celebration, and beautification of the body: At countercultural retreats in places like Big Sur’s Esalen, the feminist self-care clinics increasingly dotting university campuses and ethnic neighborhoods, and Southern California’s multiplying gyms. From countercultural yogis to Bay Area love-your-body feminists and San Diego Jazzercisers, wellness has become so ubiquitous by uniting an unlikely range of players in the embrace of once-marginal mind-body holism and self-care as the basis of the good life.