From ice baths in Mexico to inpatient treatment at the hospital—2020 was my year of “wellness” extremes, both of which left me questioning what it means to be “well” as I head into 2021. This essay is a continuation of last week’s, which recounts these two wildly different experiences. I recommend you read it first—it helps to enter this story knowing the origins of “normalcy” and the way that group-think enforces it as a social aspiration.
Whether we’re conscious of it or not, a part of us always wants to be a part of the crowd. But nowadays, it’s not enough to just be “normal.” Where “normal” used to be about fitting in, defined as the sharing of common traits with the majority, the pursuit of normalcy is now about being better, perfect, even. Whether I was on a wellness retreat or in the hospital, everyone was there for self-improvement.
“We’re living in an age of perfectionism, and perfection is the idea that kills,” Alexandra Schwartz writes, quoting the author Will Storr. “People are suffering and dying under the torture of the fantasy self they’re failing to become.”
When we feel we fall short of this image of the “best” version of ourselves, we become so ashamed of the parts of us that aren’t "normal,” developing entirely new “disorders”—like anxiety and depression. By pursuing normalcy, we bolster its false promises: that we’ll be happier, more successful, more something when we reach it, and reinforce its boundaries: by suggesting that everyone, including ourselves, who falls outside of “normal” needs to be fixed.
The shame we feel for not measuring up makes us vulnerable, and that vulnerability is what makes us easy consumers. It’s estimated that the self-improvement industry takes in ten billion dollars a year, “there is a great deal of money to be made by those who diagnose and treat our fears of inadequacy,” writes Schwartz. “Feel like you’re failing; seek solution; fail at solution or solution fails you; repeat,” echos Anne Helen Peterson.
From CrossFit to SoulCycle; Lululemon to Goop—wellness brands foster cult-like loyalty because we’re so obsessed with self-improvement that we’ve become, what Schwartz likes to call, “aspirational narcissists.” “Junk-food marketing is similar to what the tobacco industry used for decades: an emphasis on individuals’ responsibility for their own health.” The danger with “a world whose abusive logic wants you to see no structural problems, but only problems with yourself,” writes Laurie Penny, is that “obsessive ritualization of self-care comes at the expense of collective engagement, collapsing every social problem into a personal quest for the good life.” We buy self-care products and memberships for the latest wellness practice to “feel better” but also to make us more efficient and valuable friends, partners, and workers.
“This isn’t just New Year’s resolution time, of course. It’s all times, at least under capitalism, which depends on the cultivation of a constant feeling of lack, no matter how much abundance you have. There’s always more to be done, more ways to improve, productivity levels to cultivate,” — Anne Helen Peterson in her newsletter Culture Study.
Take athleisure, the new normal OOTD for example. Sure, the clothes are comfortable, but they also signal an aspirational, frictionless lifestyle—one in which we can move with ease between work and life. “While Spanx are a secret weapon for managing intractable body parts, Lulus put that effort on proud display, announcing that their wearer is eager to be seen as engaging in constant self-management,” writes Moira Weigel. “The ideal contemporary subject is a person who is willing to spend all her time being productive.”
That “wellness retreat” I talked about last week would rather be called a “productivity paradise”—it wasn’t a retreat, in the traditional sense, it was a trip designed to make us better; to teach us how to maximize the potential of our bodies. It’s not enough to go on vacation anymore, it has to serve a purpose. Even if the leisure activity is seemingly self-indulgent—seven days at an all-inclusive resort, for example—we’re there to unwind, so we’ll be rested when we get back to work. At the very least, we’re taking photos to show we were there, to optimize one’s self-image.
“When your entire life has been geared toward building value for college, hobbies feel like foreign dreams: Every activity must be a means to an end,” — Anne Helen Peterson in Can’t Even: How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation.
I fear I’ve come to see self-improvement (under the guise of “wellness”) as a hobby, something I mistakenly think I do for pleasure. Sure, I go to yoga to relax, but is that relaxation to actually feel good, or to make me a calmer, more well-rounded person (ideally I’ll reap multiple benefits with this one activity while I’m at it, like gaining flexibility and socializing too). When we stop doing things simply because they nourish us, the “best, most alive parts” of ourselves,” as Peterson writes, quoting Jenny Odell, “are paved over by a ruthless logic of use.”
“The burnout condition is more than just addiction to work. It’s an alienation from the self, and from desire. Cherishing of oneself isn’t self-care or self-centered-ness… it’s a declaration of value: not because you labor, not because you consume, not because you produce, but simply because you are.” — Anne Helen Peterson.
Why do we join the self-improvement marathon? Do we think happiness awaits us at the finish line? Wouldn’t we all be happier if we never signed up for the run in the first place; if we recognized that it’s more like an endless hamster wheel? “Once you realize that it’s all just an act of coercion, that it’s your culture trying to turn you into someone you can’t really be, you can begin to free yourself from your demands,” Schwartz writes, quoting the author Will Storr. Maybe happiness is found not through self-improvement, but by settling for the ordinary, and most importantly—defining “normal” for ourselves.
I left both that wellness “retreat” and the hospital early without saying my goodbyes. But I did leave behind my skepticism. At the hospital, all it took was me planting a seed of doubt for the other patients to start questioning the arbitrary logic behind the program. When we remind ourselves of the subjective nature of “normal,” we see how what is considered “heathy” or “sick” is defined by our environment and cultural values.
In a perfectionistic society that values time and efficiency, a body with a disability, for example, is (dis)-abled.
“If contemporary society diminishes the disabled, is because we have appointed the clock the highest judge of our moral and economic value,” writes Sara Hendren in What Can A Body Do? “Industrial time is meant to synchronize our actions. But disability desynchronizes us.”
Disability is not a personal failure, it’s a failure of cultural and physical design; an ableist world disables the disabled person by designating them outside the boundaries of normal.
If we could see mental “illness” as a different way of seeing the world, rather than a disorder, people wouldn’t feel they need to fix themselves with the latest wellness product, self-help retreat, or at the extreme, institutionalization. When we pursue “normal” we give away the agency to define for ourselves what a happy life looks like; we lose the individualization that makes us unique; we promote the fallacy that life will be better if we just improve ourselves. That more efficient, kind society we’re all striving to be better for? It would, ironically, likely occur naturally, by people embracing difference and being more accepting of their “flaws.”
So if you’re pursuing New Year’s resolutions this month, consider “what changes you’d like to make, but also why you want to make them,” advises Dr. Sara L. Dolan in The New York Times. “If you know you’d like to lose weight, is it because you’re trying to conform to society’s standards about body size? Is it because your doctor told you to do it? Those are external motivators. Internal motivations that will make you more likely to build new, long-term habits.”
More importantly, ask yourself who really profits from your resolutions, and whether your desire to change comes from feelings of inadequacy. Why are you trying to be better? And, as Laurie Penny says, “Who exactly are we being well for?”
Signing off this week high school yearbook-style…
Don’t ever change,
We all know the post-orgasm glow, but did you know masturbation can prevent the estrogen loss that comes with menopause, delaying the acceleration of aging skin? Or that an orgasm fills your body with happy hormones that decrease inflammatory skin conditions like acne?
Female masturbation is finally being recognized as a form of self-care, thanks to a shift in the beauty industry towards the promotion of self-love and inclusivity. But we continue to overlook the skincare benefits.
I got the low-down on the big ‘O’ from two NYC-based dermatologists and talked to Canadian skincare brand Consonant on their new Mask and Masturbate initiative. Check out their podcast with Bachelon-Nation personality Taylor Nolan and upcoming virtual event Skin + Self Pleasure with Holt Renfrew.
I loved Anne Helen Peterson’s viral Buzzfeed essay on millennial burnout, so naturally I’m obsessed with her new book Can’t Even: How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation. Why do we aspire to read books but find ourselves scrolling endlessly on Instagram? Why is it so hard for us to get a basic to-do list done? The book dives into the millennial condition—our economic precarity, class anxiety, performative consumption, and of course, our constant exhaustion.
“Millennials became the first generation to fully conceptualize themselves as walking college resumes. We came to understand ourselves as ‘human capital’: subjects to be optimized for better performance in the economy.”
“If you subtract your ability to work, who are you? Is there a self left to excavate? Do you know what you like and don’t like when there’s no one there to watch? Do you know how to move without always moving forward?”
My favourite chapter titled, “What Is A Weekend,” gets into our broken relationship with leisure.
“Our leisure rarely feels restorative or even fun. Hanging out with friends? Exhausting to coordinate. For many people, just the idea of any of those activities seems to require an insurmountable expenditure of energy. We’re too tired to actually rest and restore ourselves.”
“We watch television, we smoke weed and drink to force our bodies to relax, we celebrate introvert behaviour with T-shirts that read ‘Sorry I’m Late/I’d Rather Be At Home.’ So many of our best intentions, our most curious and creative and compassionate selves, are right there, closer beneath the surface of our lives than we know.”
🧗♀️Are we improving ourselves to death?
🧖♀️ On self-care: “The risk of promoting individual self-care as a solution to anxiety or oppression is that victims will become isolated in a futile struggle to solve their own problems rather than to collectively change the systems causing them harm,” writes Jordan Kisner.
🧘♀️ More on self-care: “There is a reason that the rituals of wellbeing and self-care are followed with the precision of a cult (do this and you will be saved; do this and you will be safe): It is a practice of faith,” writes Laurie Penny.
🚴♀️ What’s with all the fancy WFH exercise equipment? “So many of us treat our bodies like machines because we crave the consistency of structure,” says therapist Nick Bognar, “Living in a country that runs on capitalism has turned us into success addicts in pursuit of the ‘health is wealth’ mentality.”
😃 The psychologist who devoted his life to studying happiness killed himself, what does this reveal about happiness? “What maintains us is unhappiness. Our gratification from the new is fleeting. You may as well chase your afternoon shadow. Happiness always looms ahead. Money doesn’t buy you happiness. But it does upgrade despair,” writes Jennifer Senior.
📆 Consider downsizing your 2021 resolutions and framing them in action-oriented terms, rather than from a place of shame (I.e. What you’re going to do instead of what you shouldn’t do).
🏋️♂️ What does bro culture tell us about meritocracy? “That’s a quintessentially American value: the idea that anybody can make something of themselves if they work hard enough, move enough weight, run fast enough,” writes Patrick Wyman
🧘♂️ Sweatpants is the new WFH uniform, but athleisure maintains its sexist force. “Because [yoga] pants only ‘work’ on a certain kind of body, wearing them reminds you to go out and get that body,” writes Moira Weigel. “The ideal female body changes as the needs of capitalism change. The new physique [of the 1970s and 80s] expressed the contradictory values of female passivity and masculine ambition.”
🤳 Not only do targeted ads remind us of our trauma, they make us feel inadequate by evoking shame. For addicts or people with eating disorders, they can even prevent recovery.
🍷 Why do we differentiate high and low pleasures? For example, “eating illustrates how the difference between higher and lower pleasures is not what you enjoy but how you enjoy it,” writes Julian Baggini. “The highest pleasures don’t merely use our distinctively human capacities, they use them for a valuable end.”
🎒 Schools are teaching kids to diet. Remote learning is causing kids to moralize food and obsess over exercise. “Healthy” food promoted by school curriculum is often white and upper middle class, adding another layer of shame for migrant children.
I’m catching up on the latest season of arguably the most beloved self-improvement show of the last few years—Queer Eye (Netflix). Don’t get me wrong, this show is my own version of self-care; it’s my go-to when I’m feeling really low. But I just have to criticize it, because I fear people watch Queer Eye without realizing how it promotes the same self-betterment ideology as traditional makeover shows that are obviously cruel (think, Extreme Makeover or The Biggest Loser).
Each contestant gets help in five departments of their life: grooming, home, cooking, style, and personal growth. Compared to your typical makeover show that relies on ridiculing the contestant, here the Fab Five insist any change should come from a place of self-love. But, similar to the way we mistake “wellness” and “self-care” as a form of pleasure, the contestant’s motivation for change isn’t really self-love, it’s to become a better person.
“The [Queer Eye] contestants should do these things because it will make them feel better, and feeling better will make them look better, and looking better will make them more successful,” writes Leila Sackur.
They still ridicule the “before” of the contestant, suggest they’re in need of fixing, and the big reveal of each episode is not when the contestants sees themselves made over, it’s when everyone else in their life does. Queer Eye draws the conclusion that each contestant will be happier if they can learn to show that they value themselves, with how they dress, host, decorate, etc.
But…I still love it. 🙊
Brene Brown’s interview with Sonya Renee Taylor, author and founder of The Body is Not An Apology. Taylor reminds us that we’re all part of a system that profits off our self-hatred—we can only find fulfilment if we stop trying to fit in and instead seek radical self-love. “Radical self-love invites us to divest from the ladder [of societal norms], because the ladder is only real when we keep trying to climb it.”
Taylor insists we question the “why” behind every “what.” For example, “My ‘why’ is I want to move my body and feel good, my ‘what’ is walking. When I buy fancy gym equipment it changes my ‘why’, it becomes ‘that’s what I should do because everybody’s doing it.’ Lining up the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ is how we get to the radical self-love motive internally.”
My ah-ha moment: “pleasure is revolutionary.” Taylor encourages us to seek genuine pleasure, the kind that ignites you, because when it’s authentic, it acts as a form of resistance. “That which is nourishing, nurturing, and fulfilling is an act of radical self-love.”
Also, this moody cover of Death Cab’s The New Year.