Wellness culture loves the “you should strive to be the best version of yourself” schtick. But are those wellness “empowerment” messages actually empowering, if they’re constantly undermining our confidence?
Yesterday, I was on a call with a journalist who asked me how we can protect young women at risk for eating disorders from all the truly awful “wellness” content on social media.
(And yes, as a journalist, it feels strange — but great! — to be on the other side of these calls now!)
I didn’t have any quick tips, or a short and satisfying answer. Because this — toxic ”wellness” culture on social media, as told by your favorite brands and influencers — is a massive issue. Really, it’s an umbrella idea that encompasses many, many smaller issues.
Thin, conventionally attractive women centering themselves in the body positivity movement.
Influencers sharing “what they eat in a day,” as if that’s ever helpful to anyone.
These same influencers giving health, fitness, and nutrition advice that they’re not qualified to give.
The rise of a “functional” and “alternative” approach to health that completely disregards science.
The exalted pursuit of thinness at all costs.
Brands that promise you intuitive eating and weight loss (which is an impossible promise).
And on, and on, and on.
If you’re on social media, there’s no way to completely avoid being manipulated by these things. Yes, you can unfollow. But now most platforms are sticking popular accounts right in your feed, whether you follow them or not. And the “Discover” pages tend to be overflowing with this kind of garbage, no matter what your activity is like.
But learning to be critical of these messages, and notice when and how they’re manipulating you, is a good start.
Let’s talk about why and how wellness brands and influencers COMPLETELY misuse the term “empowerment.”
When I Google the definition of “empowerment,” two things come up:
- authority or power given to someone to do something. (i.e. “individuals are given empowerment to create their own dwellings”)
- the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights. (i.e. “political steps for the empowerment of women”)
When wellness culture uses the term, it’s usually in the context of “empowering you” to “take control” of some aspect of your life. You’ll see phrases like, “You have it within you to become the best version of yourself!” or “Anything is possible if you work hard enough/believe in yourself.” And, yeah, it does sound very empowering.
It’s not really empowering, it’s just marketing.
What you probably don’t realize at first pass, though, is the implication that you’re not the best version of yourself unless you’re doing this thing/buying this product/following this diet. The problem is that the desire to do/buy/follow the thing/product/diet doesn’t actually come from you. It’s just someone else’s belief system (or bottom line) that’s being thrust upon you. That’s decidedly not empowering, because it’s encroaching on your own values and sense of autonomy.
Plus, most of the fake “empowerment” in wellness culture is focused on encouraging people to change their bodies.
Even if that’s not explicitly stated, it’s usually true. Influencers will go on and on about how it’s important to respect and connect with your body, and how all bodies are beautiful. Then they’ll turn around and try to sell you a 90-day plan of grueling workouts and low-calorie meals, using their own before-and-after photos as the marketing material.
And sometimes it’s even more subtle than that. I’m working on a story about inclusive and body-positive fitness apps, and I recently asked for suggestions on Instagram. I got some great ones (thank you to everyone who sent one!), but I was a little taken aback by just how many people wrote in about Peloton. If this was you, no shade! I’m glad you like it. (And honestly, I bet I would enjoy the workouts if I tried them.)
But Peloton, to be clear, is not body-positive, nor is it as “empowering” as it’s been carefully crafted to seem. Yes, the instructors are racially diverse (a step in the right direction!). And yes, I believe you all when you say that they talk often in classes about listening to and honoring your body. But these instructors are all thin, conventionally beautiful, able-bodied people. And by putting only a certain (ideal) body type on display,
Peloton is “empowering” you by suggesting that if you buy their bike and subscribe to their app, you can look like this, too. I know they don’t say that. I know that some of you won’t agree with me. But it’s the truth.
Empowerment isn’t just about being able to do something. It’s about feeling comfortable being yourself.
Toxic wellness culture has mastered the first half of this idea. They sell you products and workouts and diets by telling you that ‘YOU CAN DO IT! Change and progress is within your control!’
But they also make sure that you never feel comfortable with yourself as you are right now. They don’t just tell you that you have it in you to be fitter or healthier. They also tell you that you’re definitely not fit or healthy enough already. (If you were, you wouldn’t need them.)
So, the next time you find yourself feeling empowered by something wellness-y, ask yourself: Is this feeling really empowerment, or did they actually just make me feel like I should be trying to fix something about myself?
If you’re sick of falling for terrible diets and “wellness” trends, I can help. I’m a dietitian who specializes in eating disorders and disordered eating. I take a weight-inclusive, gender-affirming, patient-centered approach. Learn more about my nutrition counseling, offered to clients in several states. If you’re not ready to commit to counseling but want more information about the anti-diet approach, subscribe to my weekly newsletter.