If you're anything like me, your Instagram feed is populated by wellness influencers sipping adaptogenic lattes at the latest vegan brunch spot after yoga class. These women help define our vision of health today. They portray themselves as fit and happy, inspiring people to try and imitate their brand of "wellness." For instance, it's largely because of influencers' endless adaptogen-featuring recipes (think chocolate bars, beauty butters, and cold brews) that these herbs went from being a little-known Ayurvedic tradition to being featured on the news.
While I admire their entrepreneurship, these women project an image of wellness that is unattainable for the majority of people: you probably don't have $38 to spend on a minuscule three ounces of ashwagandha, especially if you're working minimum wage. You might not have time to do an hour-long yoga flow if you're working two jobs, either.
People may argue that being blasted with these images is inspirational, but instead, they portray wellness as an indulgence.
Painting wellness as something exclusive deters people excluded from the influencers' demographic (whether by economic status or race) from living a "healthy" lifestyle. A 2014 study from the Women's Health journal shows that perceived barriers for exercise and healthy eating deter women in low-income communities from achieving a healthy lifestyle: if "wellness" is as unattainable as influencers make it seem, why even bother trying? As one participant said, "It's not for me." Moreover, this deterrence has tangible impacts: physical inactivity and poor diet, two indicators of an unhealthy lifestyle, are among the leading preventable causes of death, according to a study done in 2004 by the Journal of the American Medical Association.
But these are changeable. The images of "wellness" created online don't necessarily define what it means to live a healthy lifestyle. By changing these images, and thus decreasing perceived barriers to wellness, women in low-income communities (or really, anyone else without Instagram influencer-esque resources) can live healthier, more fulfilling lives. Here are four ways wellness is attainable to everyone who wants to better their life.
1. Free apps
Free apps like Calm (a meditation app) or Nike Training (an exercise app) provide a valuable resource to anyone for whom cost is a barrier to a healthy lifestyle. These apps also treat time as a valuable resource: they offer workouts or meditation routines of different durations and intensities, perfect for someone who might only be able to spare twenty minutes for themselves.
Another major benefit is they let you work out or meditate in a space that is easily accessible. Darian Hall, the founder of HealHouse (a wellness center in a primarily African American neighborhood in New York), says that "One of the biggest challenges is the lack of inviting and accessible spaces where people can see themselves reflected." This is also reflected elsewhere: participants in the 2014 study mentioned feeling like the "biggest person [at the gym]... that might stop [me] from wanting to go." By allowing you to work out somewhere as inviting as your own bedroom, these apps decrease the discomfort caused by a space that doesn't reflect you, making a healthy lifestyle significantly more accessible.
One downside of these apps is that they don't account for motivation, another major deterrent towards a healthy lifestyle. But true motivation is an intrinsic quality -- no app can change that. And if you're reading an article on wellness, you're clearly not lacking.
2. Use and share your resources wisely
Finding healthy foods to eat is often difficult, whether because you live in a food desert, or you simply don't have the money (healthy foods cost about $1.50 more per day, which could be a burden for low-income families). One way you can help combat this is by donating bulk canned vegetables to your local food drives, instead of the normal cans of sugary pumpkin paste or candy and cakes. In fact, some food banks are already making this easier by rejecting junk food donations.
On a more personal level, if you're looking for ways to eat healthy on a shoestring budget in college, you could try making your own food to control what goes inside. Two examples of time and cost-efficient recipes are microwaved omelet in a mug or baked oatmeal (also microwaved, in a mug). While this problem is too deeply rooted in our economy to meaningfully address on an individual level, we can still try to eat healthy within our means and donate nutritious food to people in need.
3. Understanding different definitions of health
While gua sha and infrared saunas may sound enticing, they might not be the right choices for you. At its core, wellness is merely an effort to improve your quality of life. In other words, wellness means something different for different people, based on their situation. A rigid diet might be a worthwhile effort for someone trying to lose weight, but not for someone trying to wean themselves off of dieting. Even something like meditation, shown to reduce depressive symptoms in college students, can make us too introspective and complacent. As a result, mindfulness wouldn't be a beneficial course of action for someone aspiring to be more motivated. But utilizing something like a planner (typically excluded from the wellness industry) just might.
In these scenarios, these so-called "wellness" tools have a high cost without the promised improvements in quality of life. This means that contrary to what Instagram might suggest, there is no catch-all solution to health. To improve your quality of life, you need to identify and resolve obstacles, and each problem likely has a different solution. Ultimately, Instagram will never know you as well as you know yourself. This is a relieving realization because it implies you don't need to adhere to the classic antidotes of clean eating or mindfulness. As cliche as it sounds, you're more likely to achieve a healthy lifestyle doing things that work best for you (like writing in that planner).
4. Diversifying online images
Currently, wealthy white women are the face of the wellness community, in part because their accounts have much larger followings. However, this can be changed. Accounts like @bananabreadtoburpees or @christinamrice break this mold by showcasing the unique perspectives of an Indian graduate student and a black female CEO trying to find wellness, respectively. Following less homogenous accounts like these increases their impact. This, in turn, diversifies the image of the wellness community, making it more inclusive. People are able to see themselves represented in wellness communities, reducing the perceived barriers preventing people from living healthy lifestyles. Of course, propelling an influencer to the face of the wellness community requires widespread effort, but it's important to make a contribution. And at little to no cost (all it takes is one click of the follow button), there's no reason not to.
Another way to diversify the image of wellness is to create your own account, showcasing your own perspective. Kris started @pearsandpancakes as a fourteen-year-old, and her early recipes show her attempts to eat healthy while balancing school, family, and friends. By showing others how you strive for a healthy lifestyle, someone might relate to your situation and be inspired to start living a healthier lifestyle.
Making wellness more inclusive is beneficial for influencers as well. Influencers offer their followers the opportunity to interact with them (for instance, by replicating the influencer's recipes in a bid to be featured on their Instagram story). These reciprocated interactions allow people to feel like these brands are guiding them on their journey to health. This mentor-mentee relationship creates the impression that the customer is a valued member of the influencer's community. In turn, this grows the wellness influencer's brand.
In other words, the wellness community is currently able to expand and define itself because a select few people feel like they belong in this community. This community will broaden and have a bigger impact if it tries to include more people, benefiting both influencer and influencee.
The perceived barriers caused by our views of wellness have tangible impacts on people's health. To help members of our communities live healthier, richer lives, we must stop portraying wellness as a luxury.