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Can the wellness industry survive this sickness?

For those privileged enough to minimize their exposure to COVID-19, wellness culture transforms the current crisis into something meaningful, even positive.

Shane Barnard, CEO of UrbanKick, looks toward participants on her computer in the HIIT and Core class she teaches from her home in Oakland, Calif., Thursday, March 26, 2020. Barnard started livestreaming workouts on Wednesday, March 18, 2020, after losing her job as a trainer at a gym due to shelter-in-place orders from coronavirus concerns. Barnard does not charge for her classes, but accepts donations, and says she averages around 100 participants per class. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

(RNS) — First it was the exercise classes. A few weeks into the coronavirus shutdown in New York, personal trainers and boutique fitness studios I followed on Instagram started advertising on Facebook Live or Zoom. Memes abounded about wishing we’d purchased a Peloton — the indoor exercise bike whose tone-deaf ads about a woman receiving a bike from her devoted husband provoked such viral ire only a few short months ago.

Then it was the think-pieces: how to stick to your diet while only eating non-perishable foods from your pantry; how to stay fit at home; how to avoid gaining the “Covid-15” — the inevitable 15 pounds you’d put on in isolation.

Media outlets — bereft of ordinary news on the arts or culture beat — started filling their leisure pages with ideas for beautifying your home office or learning to make better cocktails or improving your ability to bake fresh bread.

Before long, the coronavirus crisis was being pitched (with sober nods toward the grim statistics) as a “blessing in disguise,” a time to get in touch with the “important things in life.” 

After years covering the boom in wellness culture, I wondered whether the coronavirus pandemic would at last put an end to our obsession with best-self-ism. Does the manufactured rush of adrenaline that 45 minutes on a SoulCycle gives us, and with it a bloom of emotional and spiritual peace, still have a role in a world whose dangers feel all too real?

Would the loss of the underlying conceit — that we control our lives — defeat the aspiration to create a best self ? When potentially fatal sickness is a possibility, would “wellness” become obsolete?

The answer is a measured no. Which is to say, those whose lives have moved seamlessly to work-from-home economics, who are not classified as “essential workers,” and who, as a result, have a drastically reduced chance of becoming infected with the coronavirus, can still pursue “wellness,” at least with a COVID-19 wrinkle.

The meditation app Headspace, for example, is now offering a free meditation program suite, called “Weathering the Storm.” Wellness influencers such as Ingrid De La Mare-Kenny have encouraged their followers to purchase scientifically dubious “immune system-boosting” supplements to help protect against the virus. Other celebrities, such as Miranda Kerr, are posting about all the free time they’re spending on self-betterment — by way of skincare masks.

Some of this is no doubt a result of necessity, rather than ideology. Personal trainers need to pay bills, too, after all, and professionals in a variety of fields are looking to Zoom-based classes and sessions in order to recoup lost income.

But at least for those wealthy and privileged enough to minimize their exposure to actual sickness, wellness culture provides a framework to transform the current crisis into something meaningful, even positive. Because wellness presumes the luxury of time, its purveyors are able to reframe a lockdown as an alluring vacation from capitalism. We can go “back to basics” — bake bread, make cheese, get fit and otherwise learn to appreciate whatever “real” living is supposed to be. The stultifying ennui is transformed into a vision of luxury: We are all on digital detoxes or writers’ retreats now.

This maneuver reveals how wellness culture has always been the other side of the capitalist coin. By projecting our desire for “authenticity,” for “real” food and a “healthy” (read: tight and slender) body and “time to appreciate the little things” into the spiritualized (and often depoliticized) arena of wellness, we’re better able to cope with the structures and demands of capitalism and legitimize our participation in it — even as those who benefit least from the capitalist economy, those whose jobs allow them neither the funds nor the leisure time to practice “self-care,” are excluded from it.

By treating the lockdown as a vacation from our “real” lives, wellness culture also reifies the political and economic structures of those lives: lives that are increasingly reliant upon the risks that other people take. The rituals we participate in — from quarantine smoothies, to at-home workouts, to at-home skincare — allow us at once to cope with the lockdown by giving it a purpose.

Sickness hasn’t abated wellness culture. It’s just made it clearer who the beneficiaries are.

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