Long story short: My journey into the exclusive world of wellness taught me to check my privilege

“I, like many others, realistically don’t have the time or resources to be concerned with the next wellness fad”

Image credit Tiffany Chan

By: Molly Johnston, SFU Student

I have a confession to make: I drank the green Kool-Aid and bought into the oh-so-exclusive club of wellness.

Ever since I can remember, I have struggled with chronic stomach pain — a persistent discomfort accompanied at times by heartburn so bad that it could often be hard to breathe. After twenty-something years of being bounced from specialist to specialist, I was given the ever ambiguous diagnosis of IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) which is basically medspeak for “we don’t know why but your bowels are just easily irritated.”

The solution? Try cutting out different foods and see if your symptoms improve. But even after years of discomfort, I was unable to comprehend not being able to indulge in my mother’s ever-present cheese plate. Without any clear answers or advice, I accepted the pain as my normal.

It wasn’t until I discovered a sizeable bald spot atop my 26-year-old head that the seductive cure-all promises of clean eating, kale-smoothies, and the power of chia seeds truly became appealing.

While I had always scoffed at the idea of fad diets, I started following blogs, Instagrammers, and hashtags preaching how I could finally reach a state of wellness, if I only tried hard enough.

To my surprise, and bank account’s distress, I felt fantastic. I was now a card-carrying clean eater; a membership that required me to spend my already jam-packed days as a full-time working student recipe planning, curating the perfect grocery list, and hours upon hours of batch-cooking. My health problems had all been repacked into aesthetically pleasing miracle cure-alls; $35 organic collagen powder to mix with my $2.50 apiece avocados and coconut water for an Instagram-worthy smoothie that promised to improve my gut health and promote healthy hair growth.

But as I made the weekly pilgrimage to the organic mecca of Whole Foods, something ate away at my conscience; the same something that had deterred me from ever venturing into the modern world of wellness before. I cringed at the righteousness that permeated its culture, flinching every time I read the word clean in relation to what I was eating.

After being fraught with feelings of guilt, without a clear understanding of why, I was somewhat relieved to discover “The Whole Foods Market Effect.”

Shopping at Whole Foods requires a lot more than just the high-limit credit card you need to afford staple products. When I go to Whole Foods, I watch as Kevin carefully selects which hormone-free cheese he will be adding to his charcuterie board, and realize that either way he will still be spending 57% more than at a conventional grocery store. I also spot Skye, the green-juice guzzling, Lululemon-clad yogi, as she preaches that a plant-based diet is the solution to any health problem. She has her naturopath on speed-dial to help her navigate the endless choices of supplements and superfoods. As I finally complete the obstacle course of aisles, I then need the patience of a saint to ignore Karen the cashier, who gives me the side-eye as she hands over a brown paper bag of groceries because I’ve forgotten to bring my reusable canvas tote.

But what if I don’t have one, Karen? What if I don’t have somewhere to store one, or I couldn’t spare $10, after spending that money on food rather than a bag that reads “BUY LOCAL” and ensures people know that I am supposedly a good, ethical, clean consumer?

Just because Kevin is able to shop at Whole Foods for “clean,” hormone-free cheese, does that make him better than the individual who buys the No Name brand at No-Frills for a substantially lower price?

By using clean to describe food, wellness circles make wellness not so much about actual health or nutrition but morality. Clean eating implies that any other form of eating is dirty, and that consequently, so is the eater. It implies that because I was shopping somewhere that described their products as clean, I was somehow better than someone who couldn’t.

The idea that my premature balding was simply caused by my own irresponsible eating habits . . . it failed to account for the fact that to make ends meet, I needed to work two jobs while attending school full-time and constantly stressing over rent and ever-increasing student loans.

I have since shed the food-ridden guilt and given up my strict diet in favour of allowing a few indulgences of my favorite cheeses and chocolate. To my surprise, I still feel better than ever and I’m thankful to report that my bald spot is filling in quite nicely.

In the end, my quest for wellness wasn’t found in collagen-boosting smoothies or the right brand of coconut water. I realize that my membership to the wellness club was a privilege that many aren’t afforded to. By not acknowledging this it’s easy to perpetuate the idea that the onus is on us to just eat better and exercise more instead of demanding things like affordable healthcare, and access to nutritious food for all. I, like many others, realistically don’t have the time or resources to think about the next wellness fad, and neither should we be held to this standard of health when our most pressing concern is having access to enough food, period.