Ten minutes after sitting down at my local wholefoods cafe, it struck me that I was the only patron debating the merits of ordering coffee made with a substance called “mylk.” Around me, girls who could double as off-duty models, were sipping glasses of green juice, laughing with their friends over $20 mountains of avocado and jumping on chairs to photograph plates of kale and beetroot. Wellness doesn’t just feel good, these rainbow-coloured images wink when they surface on Instagram, it looks good too.
The pursuit of “wellness”, a term that can mean both everything and nothing, has become increasingly intrinsic to the way we eat. A decade ago, being a food lover meant being charmed by Jamie Oliver’s bumbling enthusiasm and down-home pastas (easy to assemble when friends drop in to visit), Nigella Lawson’s invocation of cooking-as-carnal-pleasure (“superjuicy” roast turkey, slut-red raspberries) and Kylie Kwong’s ability to couple an Australian sensibility with Chinese traditions via yabbies with xo sauce. But these days, we’re more likely to idolise the Hemsley sisters, strikingly beautiful postergirls for bone broth who are about to launch a TV show called Healthy and Delicious, learn to make chia pudding from Deliciously Ella (Ella Mills), a 24-year-old blogger who turned to wellness after being diagnosed with a chronic illness (her 2015 debut cookbook is the fastest-selling on record) and comb through websites with names like Inspiralised before trading the carb-heavy evils of fettuccine for the zippy joy of eating “zoodles.”
And patchouli-scented outposts selling tofu and tempeh have given way to magazine-ready cafes with queues which prove that wellness has parted ways with the hippie fringe. A November 2014 study by Mintel found that sales of gluten-free products have jumped 63 per cent despite the fact that coeliac’s disease -- a severe condition that leads to bloating and digestive issues -- affects only one per cent of the US population. An April 2016 Sydney Morning Herald story reported that Kings Cross, the late-night district that housed some of the most marginalised people in the country, has become a glossy enclave ruled by yoga studios, juice bars and gyms.
Ten years ago, there was a clear divide between eating food for pleasure and looking after your health. Under the banner of wellness, looking after your health has been rebranded as a form of pleasure itself.
It might be hard to argue with this move towards healthy eating (especially if, like me, you’re one of the 19 out of 20 Australians who doesn’t eat enough vegetables) but the modern wellness movement isn’t interested in making it pleasurable for all. As Ruby Tandoh puts in a must-read May 2016 Vice article, wellness bloggers such as Ella Mills, Madeleine Shaw and the Hemsley sisters, who are fans of a glass of red with dinner, loudly proclaim their aversion to dieting (“nutrient-dense” is their answer to “low-calorie”, “vitality” a substitute for “slimness”), the implication that failing to eat like them will make you feel “sluggish”, “tired” or “bloated” points to a nascent fatphobia. The fact that they’re all slim and conventionally attractive hardly re-imagines the beauty ideal women have struggled with for years.
This narrow version of wellness obscures the ways in which starting our days with a coconut and maca dust smoothie might be less a matter of commitment than a question of money, resources and time. According to an August 2015 ABC report, people who live in Sydney’s sprawling western suburbs often have to walk over 1,600 metres to find a grocer, let alone ingredients to assemble an acai bowl. My aunt recently reminded me that for many new migrants, unprocessed food isn’t half as significant as access to affordable, packaged meals, which symbolised all the convenience and choice of life in the West.
Like clean eating, which implies a form of consumption that must be dirty, rejecting wellness means accepting an alternative, that by definition, must be sick. But the true sickness stems from a culture intent on conflate the pleasures of eating with the promise of self-improvement, without acknowledging the many forms that sustenance takes. Some of us order “mylk” with our coffee. Others believe that nourishment this limited is a sign of our ailments, rather than the cure.