What does “wellness” even mean?
This is the question that has been on my mind lately. We began this new decade blissfully unaware of the changes that lay ahead of us. Eight months later, we have begun to settle into a “new normal” of mask wearing, social distancing, complicated schooling decisions for our children, and the real possibility that life may never return to what we once knew.
And that’s just what I’ve experienced as a financially stable white person living in the Foothills of Tucson. Beyond keeping my kids home for nearly five months and placing my own solo-enterprenuerial aspirations on the back burner, my life has changed very little. Sure, the past five months have been difficult, but I am grateful every day for the privilege I’ve had to stay home with my girls.
I believe a few things about health and wellness. I believe that it is a RIGHT as a human being. It is subjective, complex, and ever-shifting for each individual. Health is NOT a moral standing, but our culture likes to pretend that it is. I believe that wellness is holistic, meaning that it is a whole being experience that includes body, mind, spirit, community, and environment. Health and wellness is impacted by trauma. Wellbeing should be achievable, but there are complex factors that prevent marginalized peoples from having access.
And yet, health and wellness in our modern day culture is only for the privileged, when in reality true wellbeing can only happen when we ALL can experience it.
Our particular American brand of self care remains preoccupied with bubble baths and spa days, assuming that a little pampering will heal the emotional pain within us, while abandoning those without access to clean water or financial means. “Self care” isn’t exactly possible or available to many (i.e. those in immigrant concentration camps).
Access to quality health care remains out of reach for many, not only because of its outrageous cost, but also due to racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, and transphobia. Black mothers are dying at a much higher rate than white mothers (1l). Transgender people face stigma in the medical community (2). Disabled persons are much more likely to have poor health outcomes because it is difficult to find providers to care for them (3).
One of the worst types of health care inequities is the lack of and stigma towards mental health care. Accessibility and cost remain an extremely dangerous problem for a culture in which 40 million Americans suffer from anxiety (4). We pride ourselves on our military in the US, and yet only half of those requiring mental health assistance receive it (5). The pandemic itself has had a profound effect on drug and alcohol use, as well as depression and anxiety.
White supremacist and patriarchal “beauty” standards persist, insisting that there is a “norm” and that it directly impacts health. That “norm” is white, thin, and able-bodied. Because we all hold this expectation within us, gaining weight during a global pandemic is enough to throw many of us off emotionally. We begin to believe that gaining a few pounds is the worst possible thing to happen to us, ignoring the science that has shown us that weight itself is not an indicator of health (it’s far more complex). We continue to judge ourselves and others for our appearance and the number on the scale as though weight is a moral issue or deems us worthy of love and care.
One particularly enraging subject I’ve witnessed these past five months is the argument that people should be eating right, exercising, and taking supplements to prevent COVID-19. While healthy habits are great for the immune system, this is a highly simplistic and privileged statement that doesn’t hold space for much nuance. Many communities in the US do not have the same access to healthy foods that I do. The majority of exercise programs, particularly home-based, do not provide alternatives for those with disabilities. Supplementation requires assistance from knowledgable health care providers, which are not always available. The very health coaching that I provide comes at a financial cost that many cannot afford, not to mention it requires internet access not available to all. The argument that health and wellness is solely the responsibility of an individual, is misguided and dangerous. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs doesn’t begin with self efficacy. (Please wear a mask and stay home as much as possible.)
As someone who considers herself to be an integrative practitioner (one who believes in both complementary wellness AND modern medicine), the anti-science movement is particularly painful for me. All too often, the vaccination debate highlights the lack of care and awareness we have for our fellow human beings. It showcases blatant disregard for others who require herd immunity to remain healthy or those who have lost their lives to preventable diseases. While there is room for critical thinking and safety in this conversation, ignoring the cost our decisions has on others is the epitome of privilege.
Mothers have become the household buffer during COVID19. The pandemic has truly shown a bright light on the injustices in the workplace. For a country so obsessed with family values, I see very little evidence that our country truly values families. Womxn have lost jobs or placed their careers on hold because of the lack of resources available to us. Even while many mothers are the breadwinners, the expectation of being the primary parent persists in many families. As a result, mothers are more burned out than ever and new parents are at even higher risk of PPD and PPA (6).
The topic of racism, regardless of recent events, remains a highly contested and emotional subject. It’s appalling that we are still debating that racism is a profound and complex systemic issue when coronavirus has disproportionately ravaged Black, Indigenous, and communities of color (other examples of racism like police brutality notwithstanding). We all need to be demanding more for our fellow human beings.
And then there’s climate change- one of the most obvious, yet ignored risks to environmental health in our lifetime. The changes in our environment will spare no one, regardless of political ideation, belief, or privilege.
How can we continue to believe that health and wellness is available to everyone when we haven’t made it available to everyone? Health should not be a trophy at the top of the mountain available for everyone who has the ability to make the climb. That would mean it’s only available to people like me- white, able-bodied, financially privileged, young-ish, cisgendered, and straight. It should never come at the expense of others, and yet here we are in 2020.
What does “wellness” even mean when only someone like me can have it?
Wellness needs to include community. In our ever-changing world, it is vital for us to realize the impact our lives, choices, and actions can have on others. We do not exist in vacuums. It is not every person for themselves.
I’ve stayed within the comfort zone of my own privilege and silence for far too long, even when it did not feel authentic. This post is not for kudos or accolades or to show how “woke” I am, but to shed light on a subject that is very important to me and to hopefully inspire others to look outside their own wellness privilege. I’m not always going to get it right- this very blog post is likely flawed. But I promise you, I will keep trying to figure it out and I will no longer be silent.
So, here’s my call to action for you: recognize your health and wellness privilege. Don’t stop learning. Get busy with me as we change the system. And stop being silent.
May you be happy & healthy,
P.S. I welcome civil conversation. If you are feeling emotional or defensive about anything I’ve said in this post, please take a few days to let it simmer before you email me (firstname.lastname@example.org). That being said, if something I stated about a marginalized community was incorrect and you have the capacity to tell me about it, I will readily take the feedback and provide a public apology and correction.