Over the past few years, the "wellness" industry has been criticized, called out and even smashed from all corners of the internet, thanks in large part to its commodifying, exclusionary, white-washed, culturally appropriative and fat-shaming tendencies. Rightfully so. I don't need to rehash any of that here. Still, problematic though its execution may often be, the concept of "wellness" — especially when it comes to prioritizing physical and mental wellbeing amidst a global health crisis, erratic political climate and a barrage of cultural traumas — shot to the top of many priority lists in 2020. Also rightfully so. Last year made many of us face, perhaps for the first time in a real way, just how trivial everything else becomes when you can no longer consider your physical or mental health a given.
As the events of 2020 unraveled (and, like, unraveled), people turned to "wellness" practices to seek solace, to find a semblance of order, to get answers they couldn't necessarily obtain through traditional channels and to simply fill the time and carve out new routines at home. And so, the (estimated $4.5 billion, ahem) "wellness" industry continues to boom.
But this January — typically a time of diet resolutions and "New Year, New You!" marketing schtick — and as we look ahead to 2021, how can we reframe conversations around the concept of wellness? How should we redefine, reappropriate and rethink it to serve and heal communities, rather than exclude, shame or grift from them? I turned to experts and advocates in the fields of fitness, nutrition, mindfulness and mental health for their perspectives on the matter. Read on for their thoughts.
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Sophia Roe, Chef, Wellness Advocate, Host/Producer, "Counter Space" on VICE TV
"Wellness has always been my top priority. I make what 'wellness means to me' less granular. For me, it's less about a beauty routine or sleep ritual and more about making sure I have my bases covered. I subscribe to very simple pillars of wellness: food, air, water, sunlight, movement, purpose, community. I actually think those simple pillars are what my ancestors, and the Indigenous communities that created the protocols, rituals and remedies that we use today had in mind.
As we move into 2021, my biggest hope for all of us is ease. With so many complicated and extremely challenging things happening around us, the time we spend with ourselves should feel undemanding and straightforward. We should also be diligent in reframing the seemingly small things we accomplish in a day, as the big stinking victories that they are. The state of the world feels like swamp water right now; so waking up to brush your teeth, put on clothes and make yourself coffee is a feat to be celebrated. More grace, gentle self observation and ease in 2021!"
Jessamyn Stanley, Founder, The Underbelly Yoga
"I think that wellness is all about the holistic self. It's about your physical experience, your mental experience, your emotional experience, your spiritual experience. For me, being well and feeling well has always incorporated a combination of those things. When I only focus on my physical wellbeing, or only on emotional, or any other one area, then I don't feel well.
It's also crucial for us to collectively redefine wellness because we are in a time of great social peril, and there's no way to survive the chaos if you're not taking care of every single piece of yourself, checking in with yourself, and putting yourself first. As a responsibility to the collective whole, we must all individually redefine wellness."
Nichole Powell, Founder + CEO, Kinfield
"One of the biggest takeaways this [last] year has been a reminder to listen to my body. It was so easy in the go-go-go in the 'before' times to get caught up in my to-do's and to ignore my body asking for rest or balance until I was exhausted. Now that I'm at home more, I find it so much easier to listen and make time for whatever makes me feel whole and well — whether that's a hike on sunny morning, a solo dance party or staying in bed all day. It seems like now there's less performing 'wellness' and more focus on being 'well,' in whatever way that feels right for you, and I think we'll all be happier for it in the years to come."
Joe Holder, Nike Master Trainer and Founder, The Ocho System
"'Wellness' is a bit of an all-encompassing term that we utilize to promote our end goal and state of being, which is health. I think this year we need to actually more clearly define what our wellness strategies are, and for me that is looking at key areas such as physical health, mental/emotional health, environmental health, financial health, social/community health, spiritual health and so on.
We've done ourselves a disservice by thinking 'wellness' only has to do with fitness and nutrition, when we actually need to evolve to take a more proactive stance in the areas that truly impact our overall health, mental state, environment and culture in general, as 2020 has shown us. So when you set goals for the new year don't just think about the goal you are wishing to achieve, but the strategies you will take to get there. Be clear what your daily 'wellness practices' are — the actions you will take to achieve your state of health."
Michelle Siman, Creative Consultant, Brand Strategist and Podcast Host, "Lemon Water"
"Wellness to me means showing up for myself when I need it most, so I can then support those around me. Prior to 2020, it was very obvious that there was this superficial perception of 'wellness' floating around — the boutique gym studios and the $12 green juices — that isn't it.
This past year has taught us that without community wellness, we cannot be 'well' as individuals. Our mental health and wellness right now is more important than ever and is something I've prioritized in my life. As we set goals for the upcoming year, I encourage others to adapt the mindset that strength and wellness of our community is important for us as individuals, and to support each other wherever possible."
Marisa Moore, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist
"Wellness takes into account the whole of who you are. It's a focus on mental, physical and emotional health and has little to do with the latest trendy superfood powder. This past year has given us time to be introspective, but also to see how our environment impacts wellbeing — be it nature, home life or political and social injustices. Looking forward, taking time to identify and prioritize what really matters is key."
Chloe Kernaghan, Co-Founder, Sky Ting
"My biggest takeaway from the last year is that you really have to listen and stay present with yourself to even know what you need and what to do to reach a state of 'wellness.' I think avoiding assumptions and softening expectations of how you 'should' feel is key; rather, allow yourself the time to explore what might bring you to that state of optimal health and wellbeing. It will probably change regularly — maybe even day to day, so honor that."
Savanna Stevens, Model and Founder, S3 Yoga
"In light of the difficulties and traumas of the past year, we've learned that 'wellness' is more than just occasional spa days, juice cleanses and fancy gym memberships. Wellness is about seriously taking care of your mental, physical and spiritual health, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
As we reframe and rethink goals for ourselves in the new year, it's imperative to understand three things: True 'wellness' is an inside job, 'wellness' does not need to cost you anything (there are so many free tools and resources out there!) and 'wellness' can be a vibe. Try out simple things that you enjoy doing and make you feel good — it'll make all the difference."
Krissy Jones, Co-Founder, Sky Ting
"Going into 2021, my wellness practice is less about being effortful and adding more things to my schedule (dry brushing, tongue scraping, infrared sauna), and more about allowing myself space and time to simply be. This year I'm interested in meditating, slowing down my schedule, enjoying nature and doing things that fill me up with joy."
Alicia Ferguson, Beauty Marketer and Co-Founder, BK Yoga Club
"I think of wellness as my active journey toward wholeness, the conscious awareness I bring to my physical, mental and spiritual body. Wellness for me can be three deep, conscious breaths, laughing with my friends until tears form in my eyes or meeting God on my yoga mat.
Every day I choose to prioritize protecting my joy and peace. It's a conscious decision I make to focus on things that affirm, edify and bring me joy. Creating boundaries around my peace looks different season to season, but I realized anything can be self-care if done mindfully. So I relish in turning ordinary moments into mindful moments now."
Gigi Vogel, Founder and Creative Director, De La Heart
"[This year], we unite all the lessons and practices we gathered from our experience in 2020 in order to stay committed to self-love, growth and expansion. 2021 is the year we go after our goals, and wellness has evolved into support and foundation for people all over the world."
Jayme Cyk, Co-Founder of And Repeat, Contributing Beauty Editor, Beauty Brand Consultant
"Wellness has become all about the detox, the reset, the intentional eating, the paleo diet, pricey organic tampons and so on. And it costs a lot. I co-founded a company with my husband Ben Rabb called And Repeat to normalize mental health, and we're having conversations typically had in private. Through these chats and my own personal experience, I've learned 'wellness' can have a profound impact on one's mental health, but we also have to be realistic that with 'wellness' comes privilege, and it needs to be reframed from an accessibility standpoint — everyone should feel good!"
Nadine Joseph, Founder and CEO, Peak and Valley
"2020 challenged our collective mental health in so many ways — from disrupting our usual routines, to limiting contact with friends and family, to facing the prospect of job and housing insecurity. In the midst of all of this uncertainty, consistent self-care has become a necessity. We've all had to look at what we're doing for daily self-care and strip it down to its essential parts, or reevaluate certain components.
For me, this has meant taking some Zoom calls outdoors, incorporating lots of midday yoga breaks and setting firm boundaries between work life and personal life. It's also meant cultivating a kinder inner dialogue and realizing that while I may not have control over what happens, I have complete control in how I respond to it."
Melissa Wood-Tepperberg, Founder, Melissa Wood Health and Creator, The MWH Method
"The beauty of wellness today is that it's no longer attached to a specific time limit, a location or a perfect way of showing up for yourself. I believe these difficult times have taught us that even the tiniest efforts to carve out time for yourself can make a massive impact on your entire day.
The idea of 'wellness' is thankfully evolving away from the mentality of needing at least an hour to get a good, sweaty workout in or following a very specific diet to see results. I believe 2020 has forced us to slow down and take a good hard look at ourselves, our lifestyles and what is actually serving us each and every day. To me, this heightened awareness and tuning in with ourselves is the definition of 'wellness.'"
Kira West, Content Creator, Activist and Writer
"As I look ahead, 'wellness' for me means prioritizing self-care and truly taking the time to fill up my cup so that I can pour back into my business and my relationships. 'Wellness' can often seem both exclusive and expensive, so I want to help reframe that for others as I explore it for myself. Wellness and self-care can look different for everyone and can be as simple as a quick walk outside, a workout, meditation or just mindfully enjoying your favorite meal or music."
Gabe Kennedy, Co-Founder, Plant People
"Often wellness is rooted in individual privilege; now more than ever, we must switch our mentality from 'me' to 'we' and focus on our collective health and wellbeing as much as our own. The past year has encouraged us all to acknowledge and address the health of our communities and our planet in a new way. Covid has emphasized the importance of taking better care our ourselves so our immune systems are stronger — this involves stress reduction, community support, eating well and so on. I believe we need to remain patient with our selves and others. We're all working through unprecedented times, giving ourself grace in navigating them is important to our physical and mental health."
These quotes have been edited for clarity.