The coronavirus turned the world inside out. Essential workers continued to report to duty, often at great personal risk. The rest of the United States was stuck indoors, with only the internet to occupy them—if they were lucky and 80 percent of their time wasn’t taken up with regaining employment or worrying about the next month’s rent.
Confinement has been a challenge for everyone. But where World War II demanded that those on the home front ration for the greater good, the coronavirus has asked that we isolate, swapping community for mail-order consumption. In many ways, Americans have never been more prepared for this particular kind of crisis.
Thanks to more than a decade of “wellness” culture—a lifestyle aimed at optimizing the body and mind, a global industry worth $4.2 trillion, a miasma seeping from every Instagram page and Sephora shop—millions of Americans are fluent in the language of self-maintenance and versed in the virtues of the interior world. In lieu of a functioning health care system for all, individuals with cash to burn have long since stocked up on jade eggs and facial rollers. Faced with a burning world, we’ve created comforting regimens out of face creams and moisturizing serums. As trash has accumulated on land and in oceans, some throw out belongings in a new spirit of minimalism. With each new crisis, consumers have proven that, at its core, wellness culture offers an individualistic, capitalism-approved response to insecurity in one’s surroundings.
When the coronavirus struck, those who could afford it quickly doubled down on self-care and self-isolation. In March, as stay-at-home orders spread across the country, streaming increased 85 percent, driven in part by boredom and in part by the entitlement to excess at the core of commodified wellness, which tells us that whatever feels good is good. But more active forms of self-care have driven consumer spending, too. The “sourdough class”—remote workers with the time, space, and resources to take up bread baking as a quarantine hobby—rose on Twitter. Kettlebells, newly prized for their compactness in the era of isolation exercise, quickly sold out. So too did the Nintendo Switch, as gaming consoles became the last portals to another world. And for those actually exposed to the virus, elite lifestyle blogs promised improbable cures: Wellness influencer Cristina Cuomo, sister-in-law of the New York governor, detailed her own coronavirus recovery “protocol,” which included bleach baths and kidney-cleansing asparagus.
Quarantining itself was clearly prudent; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has made clear the only way to suppress the spread of the coronavirus is for individuals to retreat into their inner worlds. But the lived experience of the pandemic has clarified some long-running tensions: not just our systemic racism, fragmented, for-profit health care system, and unchecked wealth inequality, but also the limits of personal maintenance as a response to a collective crisis. While some degree of individual responsibility and care is essential in order to live, the wellness industrial complex has ensured self-improvement remains an automatic response to each new crisis, big and small.
This peculiar kind of rose-quartz neoliberalism has been quietly crystallizing for decades. Wellness in the 1650s simply meant the opposite of illness. Now, it encompasses both legitimate and sham medical treatments, workplace interventions, and luxury goods. It’s pervasive in real estate marketing (Deepak Chopra bought a condo in the “health-centric” Delos building in Manhattan) and tourism (New Mexico is no longer a hippie paradise—it’s a state-sized spa). Since 2010, interest in the word “wellness” has roughly doubled, according to Google Trends. Numerous forces drive this linguistic metastasis: In an unstable economy with little social safety net, maintaining a healthy body is a capitalistic necessity. The visible erosion of social norms under the Trump administration has pushed people to develop private routines, however arbitrary, to satisfy their cravings for control. And otherwise essential conversations about mental health, disability, and chronic conditions, when paired with frustratingly little scientific insight, have given rise to a questionable culture of cure-seekers. But wellness culture has also grown in recent years alongside more global anxiety: climate change.
The American obsession with inner stasis offers a perfect foil to the country’s increasingly wild CO2 emissions. In 2019, David Wallace-Wells became one of the more prominent climate writers to note the problematic trend. Wellness, he wrote in his book The Uninhabitable Earth, arises from “perception of worldly sickness uncomplemented by political commitment.” Wellness “gives a clear name and shape to a growing perception even, or especially, among those wealthy enough to be insulated from the early assaults of climate change: that the contemporary world is toxic, and that to endure or thrive within it requires extraordinary measures of self-regulation and self-purification.”
To some 2019 readers this may have seemed a stretch. But the past few months of Etsy mask orders and a nationwide home-buying frenzy have only exacerbated these tendencies: Stripped of political solutions to the degradation of the environment and the existential peril of climate change, Americans have joined a cult of personal empowerment through consumption. Implicit in many of our most desirable commercial goods, and in extreme cases explicit, is the promise that whatever happens to the Earth, its most optimized inhabitants can continue to thrive.
Gwyneth Paltrow did not invent the pursuit of purification. Rather, Goop is the most recent incarnation of a tradition that extends at least back to Galen. For millennia, most people subscribed to the miasmic theory of disease, which understood that illness was caused by “foul vapors” wafting up from fetid marshes, decaying organic matter, and general rot—best fought with distance. Just as the richest Romans spent malaria season in their mountain villas far from town, the 0.1 percent today retreated from Covid-ravaged cities to the seaside pastures of the Hamptons.
Disaster—or the threat of it—has always exacerbated the human desire for cleansing, although what “clean” means has changed with time. In medieval Europe, a sect of Catholic radicals began publicly whipping themselves as a form of penance, the blood on their back washing their sins away. The flagellants’ practice peaked during the Black Death, as growing numbers tried to drive the plague away. By the late twentieth century, cleanliness focused on the absence of more mundane elements—namely, chemicals: The advent of atomic weapons, the well-publicized use of chemical weapons in the Vietnam War, and the rising awareness of damaging insecticides like DDT contributed to widespread chemophobia, driving a preference for “natural” alternatives.
Today, many people also live with the persistent dread of a changing climate and an equally devastating sense of inaction. But by combining two separate civic religions—purification and consumerism—wellness has allowed people to purchase spiritual indulgences without modifying their behavior. Philosophy, the bath and body company, bottles “Hope” and “Purity.” A boxed set costs just $40.
As the locus of our fear shifted from divine wrath to industrial engineering, so have our solutions. Both earlier cleansing rituals and our contemporary obsession with the natural “allow their subscribers to maintain a sense of control over their own health by pursuing personal purity,” according to Eula Biss in her 2014 bestselling book On Immunity. Nineteenth-century Londoners might have resorted to “heavy curtains and shutters” to “seal out the smell of the poor and their problems. Our version of this shuttering is now achieved through the purchase of purified water, air purifiers, and food produced with the promise of purity.”
For an example of how this plays out today, look to Flint, Michigan. Following news reports of lead in the majority-Black community’s water supply, a majority of Americans reported they were concerned about the contamination of their tap water. But as ever, it was the wealthy, who are least likely to affected by these problems, that were the most able to take private safety measures, like in-home filtration. The rest of the country—unable to filter out generations of racist, classist policies with a 10-cup-capacity Brita—has continued to suffer.
Wellness companies refer frequently to this fractured relationship between humans and the land, water, and air that sustain us. “For the most part, people are finding more and more that everyone they know is kind of sick,” Elise Loehnen, chief content officer at Goop, said in a 2017 interview with The Cut. “There are concerns about our food supply, about the rampant use of glycosate. Food used to grow in many feet of loamy soil! I think we’re just depleted. I think there’s a vitamin D deficiency because we don’t go outside, and when we do, we’re always wearing sunscreen. We’re out of touch with the Earth in general, and I just don’t think this is the way we were intended to live.” But Loehnen and her competitors will sell you a sleek, 400-thread-count escape chute: You can practice “earthing” (walking around barefoot) to realign yourself with the planet’s electrical energy, buy “grounding crystals” like tourmaline to balance your “root chakra,” or “sound bathe” on a desert retreat to deepen your relaxation.
Skincare, perhaps the most accessible form of wellness today, excels at such dubious eco-promises. Even the most casual Sephora shopper knows that gels and balms are considered essential protection against the ravages of the outside world. But products formally marketed as “anti-pollution” are now on the rise, according to industry trend data. Despite no scientific research assessing their claims, dermatologists gladly offer their advice on how to protect your skin from smog. In a 2019 piece in Glamour, doctors recommended readers apply antioxidant creams before they leave the house, “limit exposure” by walking down less-trafficked roads, and use acids and exfoliants at the end of the day to strip any accumulated grime. If this sounds like too much work, a $145 bottle of Sturm Anti-Pollution Drops promises to protect “against daily pollution and blue light generated by computers and phones to help fight environmental aggressors that cause aging” all on its own. While air pollution has been a concern of the beauty industry for at least 150 years, the careful corporate-speak of “environmental aggressors” seems to gesture beyond the tiny particles that clog our pores and into a new, diffuse realm of dangers, where some of the biggest threats we face are, like carbon, totally invisible.
Wellness culture isn’t limited to the body. Its logic also presents in physical environments, from storefronts to private homes. As our illusion of control over the natural world has withered, we’ve invested in naturalistic design, a clean, minimalist, artificially atmospheric style exemplified by South Korean beauty brand Innisfree’s storefronts with ivy walls and LED-equipped artificial clouds. These brands promise better, healthier materials in their products—and better, healthier lives for their customers.
The illusion grows on our windowsills, too. From the safety of their climate-controlled homes, people care for species like baseball succulents, African violets, and the omnipresent Pilea peperomioides, all of which are wildly popular among plant moms but endangered or threatened in their native habitats. Most recently, online shoppers began panic-buying seeds in quarantine. Houseplants, sales of which have increased 50 percent since 2016, are often explicitly recommended as an investment in wellness because they’re shown to lower stress and boost mood and, in office spaces, productivity—a capitalist win-win. “[I]f the spread of coronavirus shows us anything, it’s how therapeutic plant care can be in a time of high anxiety,” Summer Rayne Oakes, a model and environmental activist, recently wrote on her blog. But they also allow us to lord over a landscape all our own, no matter what’s going on outside.
Regular exercise, healthy eating, and work-life balance seem to be unimpeachable goals. But, as Barbara Ehrenreich wrote in her 2018 polemic Natural Causes, a runner’s high can mask a more fundamental existential power grab: “I may not be able to do much about grievous injustice in the world, at least not by myself or in very short order, but I can decide to increase the weight on the leg press machine by twenty pounds and achieve that within a few weeks,” she writes. “The gym, which once looked so alien and forbidding to me, became one of the few sites where I could reliably exert control.”
The same unsettling logic is at work when people turn to air purifiers and skincare products to address air pollution, instead of demanding better regulations that curb the pollution in the first place. The focus suggests magical thinking at best, and myopic selfishness at worst: personal solutions for public crises. Climate activists have recently begun to acknowledge the limits of individual action when it comes to curbing CO2 emissions, but the belief persists almost everywhere else, especially when it comes to health. This bootstrap approach is predicated on a misunderstanding—or a denial—of the severity of the problems we face, as well as a persistent belief that some of us can escape with the right creams and meditation mantras. The truth is that the primary problem with air pollution, carbon emissions, and other environmental hazards is not wrinkles: It’s death—on a potentially massive scale.
“Self-care,” ironically, started as a radical political act aimed at asserting and protecting one’s humanity in the face of oppression. In the 1960s, feminist health clinics decided to take gynecology back from the academy and educate women on their own anatomy. In the 1970s, the Black Panther Party began building its own clinics to provide care to marginalized people. In this original incarnation, the “self” in self-care extended, however narrowly, beyond the boundaries of an individual. It was women protecting their own bodies, and those of other women. It was Black people protecting their own health, and that of other Black people. “It had nothing to do with massages or manicures,” Amy Larocca observed this spring in The Cut as Covid-era interest in wellness soared. “It was about looking out for your community when no one else would do it for you.”
Today, “wellness” seems like an exercise in self-isolation. But perhaps more people are finally waking up to the reality that while wellness can provide a temporary psychological buffer from climate change and other social ills, it will never be a real or lasting one.
In the midst of the pandemic, many people have joined mutual aid networks for the first time. These grassroots organizations seek to redress systemic wrongs like incarceration, but they’re also good at making sure everyone on the block gets groceries. At rallies organized in the response to the murder of George Floyd, a common chant is “We protect us”—a rebuke of the police state, but also the cult of the individual. While digital distractions abound, Black Lives Matter co-founder Opal Tometi told The New Yorker that our time inside may yet prove productive: “I believe [Americans] are just thoroughly fed up and thoroughly beside themselves with grief and concern and despair because the government does not seem to have a plan of action that is dignified and comprehensive and seeks to address the core concerns that the average American has.”
Whether these experiences will lead to substantive change remains to be seen. But despite the risks of going out to protest, half a million Americans went anyway. Many more began supporting the effort from home by calling their representatives and donating to abolition efforts. No matter how insignificant these Venmo receipts may seem, it’s a profound shift to spending cash on the collective, not the individual—and on changing the system, rather than mitigating its worst by-products. For racial justice advocates and emissions watchers alike, it’s a hint of what might happen were the affluent to put that imported Korean sunscreen to good use—by taking to the streets.