One of the common criticisms of American culture is that we are a nation that prizes individualism and commercialism. American society emphasizes personal growth and development. We take pride in the mythic ability to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps in all aspects of our lives, including our health and well-being. Too often, wellness and mental health rhetoric reflects that attitude, in our understanding of joy and happiness. We believe that wellness and happiness is at the tip of our fingertips, if and when you work for it. If you are unhappy or are unable to obtain joy then there is something fundamentally wrong with you, the individual. This narrow way of thinking is reflected in the vilification of fat persons, their “fatness”, is their fault and their choice.
The wellness industry thrives on the narrative of individual choice and desire. We are taught that “wellness” is attainable to us via hard work and sacrifice. Sacrifice of time, sacrifice of “unhealthy” foods and sacrifice of money to attain the perfect body and/or state of mind. If we join the right gym, drink the right protein shakes and eliminate the right habits, then we will achieve the acceptable body that will be deemed “well” by others. The “well” body myth insinuates that the you today, can never be well. Yet we wonder why young college aged students are having higher levels of anxiety than ever before and feel unable to access wellness services. The current wellness model establishes the harmful cycle of work begets wealth which begets fulfillment.
The cycle is only true on the surface. It is true that we need money to be able to buy and do certain things. The real question is, when you have those things, will you then be happy? Will you then be whole?
In order to be truly well, we need to be whole. Wholeness is a coalescence of community, connection, and self actualization. Wholeness is interconnected with the the health and well-being of all environmental systems that we live within and among. According to systems theory, when stress is placed upon one part of a system, it corrupts and affects the overall health of the whole. Therefore, we, the wellness industry cannot continue to stress wellness as individual choices made to reach fulfillment. The mind and body do not function independently but instead as a unit that exists within an environment. When one or the other ceases to function, it places stress not only on the body as a whole but also the persons and the environment(s) that interact with that body.
Let’s talk about the part versus the whole structure of wellness. Wellness media dictates that “fatness” is the fault of the individual. Fat people are stigmatized as lazy, sneaky and wastes of society. Thus it makes sense that they should be sad or unhappy. The wellness industry tells them that if they work hard to lose weight, then they will be happy and accepted by the community. This course of action is bullocks and leads to the unhealthy dieting cycle. Fixing one thing about an individual will not make them feel whole or accepted. To obtain joy and reduce self-loathing, the whole being needs to be healed, seen and loved, not only by the self but by the community. Parker Palmer, a wholeness author, writes that “finding union, authenticity and coherence between inner and outer life, between the desirable and the undesirable, is how we live lives that are congruent with the whole of who we are — both individually and collectively”. We cannot be whole if we only praise or love the parts of ourselves that we see as valued. We have to learn to radically love and accept all of who we are.
“Wholeness does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.”
— Parker Palmer
Wholeness theory does not have expectations for the individual of who they should be, what they should look like or even what happiness should mean to them. It allows for mistakes, exploration, trial and error. Wholeness allows you to bring yourself along in your current form whether that is broken or whole. It allows you to build upon your own narrative and assess your own truths. It disengages from the wellness paradigm of one-dimensional standards of beauty and wellness, to acknowledge that the avenues towards wholeness are endless and each one unique. No one life or body is the ideal or the pillar of wholeness. Each person’s life is their own benchmark and pillar.
By moving away from wellness rhetoric in schools and in the workplace, we will open up avenues for healing and self-exploration that is separate from the fear of not fitting in or matching up to a standard of “wellness”. We can begin to preach that happiness and joy looks differently for everyone, that beauty is unique to each person, that success varies for each individual. I believe that fulfillment begins by breaking down walls and boxes that have held people hostage for too long. I believe wholeness is just around the river-bend, if we take the opportunity to explore it.
Look out for part 2 of this series which will explore how the wellness industry feeds loneliness, and in-authenticity through the propagation of historical oppression of marginalized identities and how wholeness is the antidote.