The Colonisation of “Wellness”

It’s everywhere: the Instagram pages talking about wellness during the pandemic, the articles on how to take part in a wellness lifestyle, and the advertisements of the brand-new superfood that is going to make you well. 


But what is wellness?


The Global Wellness Institute defines wellness as the active pursuit of activities, choices and lifestyles that lead to a state of holistic health. The Institute also includes ten industries that enable consumers to access it, such as wellness real estate, the spa economy, and personal care or beauty. 


In other words, wellness is an industry. It is an economic system, (hence we are termed “consumers” and there are businesses which sell us wellbeing.) “The modern iteration of wellness is defined…by the need to purchase something to have it.”


It is perhaps, not simply an industry, but to borrow from Teju Cole, an industrial complex.


The wellness industrial complex is now worth $4.2 trillion dollars ($5.8 trillion AUD) and has grown about 12.8% from 2015. That’s twice as fast as the global economic growth of actual countries. It is, without doubt, one of the most complex economic systems in the world and everyone participates in it, regardless if they are conscious of it.


This has inadvertently concealed the fact that the western wellness industry is a colonial product. What we now see as “wellness” contains practices that have been appropriated from cultures originally from People of Colour (POC), only to be peddled back to us in commercialised and commodified versions of these arrogated customs.


Often, wellness practices from communities of colour have been stolen outright, repackaged and sold in a way as to bear little resemblance to what they came from, or to what’s still existing in their originating cultures.


Yoga and Ayurveda were banned in India under British rule and colonisation. These are traditions that millions of Westerners now turn to as part of wellness but have been deliberately eliminated from India to the point where lineages were broken and thousand-year old traditions lost.


Yet, these mutated versions have come to define these practices, and the predominantly White Western practitioners have, in effect, come to own it.


Mindfulness, which now could mean anything and everything under the Western wellness industry, has its roots in Buddhist meditational practices. Its religious and philosophical underpinnings have been all but stripped from it.


Mindfulness is currently made up of some breathing techniques on a few apps—designed to increase your productivity, which belies its original purpose.  


During the short break from lockdown that Victorians had, a friend and I travelled to the Hepburn Springs. While there, I was struck by how the people owning and running it were all White. The springs were on Dja Dja Wurrung land and traditionally used for the wellness of Indigenous people.


However, colonialism has allowed White people to commodify and set monetary barriers on an Indigenous wellness area that used to be open to all, and now we pay for something that comes freely from nature. 


At its core, the wellness industry is neoliberal and individualistic.


It blames people for their own wellness outcomes, when in reality, people of colour have much worse access to healthcare than White people. Racism is in itself a key determinant of health and wellness, compounded by a racist medical system.


As a result, First Nations and Black people face structural factors that limit health outcomes, an issue the wellness industry refuses to acknowledge. 


The wellness industry also exists to sell a particularly aspirational aesthetic: thin, White and able-bodied. The industry is openly fatphobic, (as all health industries are) and considers fat people to be unwell simply by virtue of being fat. Fatphobia has its roots in anti-blackness and colonialism; to decolonise is to dismantle body terrorism.

Modern wellness is to a large extent about dieting and weight restriction but has been dressed up as holistic health because diet language does not sit well with the public anymore. 


The ableism of the wellness industry is blatant. How many differently abled bodies have you seen as a wellness expert?


People with disabilities and those who are neurodiverse are some of the world’s foremost authorities on wellness, because their bodies and minds have made them so. Yet, it’s not their Instagram platforms that the wellness industry turns to when it wants to hawk its newest product. 


Considering all of these issues, maybe the question we should ask is: What if the wellness industry, contrary to what it has been selling, is actually making you….unwell?


This is a business that makes its trillions of dollars by presenting your existing self as unable, as less-than, as lacking. What concealed adverse impact has this been having on our wellness? 


Perhaps a first step to decolonise wellness is to recognise that you are enoughThe industry cannot sell you a solution if you refuse to buy that your body and mind are a problem. 



Sangeetha Thanapal

Sangeetha Thanapal is a writer and activist engaged in anti-racism work in Singapore and Australia. She is the originator of the term ‘Chinese Privilege,’ which situates systemic and institutionalized racism in Singapore. She has spoken at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival, the Emerging Writer’s Festival and many more. She has recently returned from a stint as activist-in-residence at Massey University. Her fiction and political writing have been published by Djed Press, Eureka Street, Wear Your Voice, and many more. She holds a Master of Arts in Social & Political Thought from the University of Sussex. She can be found at @kaliandkalki.

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