As we get close to wrapping up our look at food series on the podcast, we've been contemplating the spirit behind the wellness movement. We're all so tribal these days, so what is the "wellness tribe" ethos? Is it (as I like to think) that neo-hippie-meets-OG-70's sun-kissed "we are all one", free spirit vibe? Is it a worship of the latest research on how to get cut and optimise mental performance? Or is it, as many say, the club for a rich, privileged, out-of-touch minority? More alarmingly, is it actually just another branch of advertiser-led consumerism, created by the now-enormous wellness industry to sell us expensive supplements, protein powders, superfood mixes and other "well" necessities priced at a premium? We've had guests on the show who subscribe to all of these views to varying degrees, and it's an argument that we see played out across the wellness world.
If you are wondering what the heck I am talking about & need to catch up on Life Butter Radio, you can do so on this website, or in iTunes here. We've been taking a multi-dimensial look at food and health, so whether you bleed green juice or put cheese on everything, there's bound to be something that catches your interest.
Be Well, Be Free
There's many angles on a critique the Cult of Well, but today's discussion is about that first group I mentioned above - the well-mama free spirits. These women have seemingly found the secret; they look good, they exude energy and happiness, and though they are of the world, they don't have a lot of time for, well, much of it. You know the one: the wellness-mamas for whom rejection of Western healthcare (Ayurveda flows better, thanks), traditional cooking (revering instead either the newest research or the purported diets of our pre-civilisation ancestors) and any institutionalised religion (communing instead with the Universe) equates to rejecting all manner of conformity with our flawed, flawed Western world. These women are creative, they are connected and in the flow, and they have moved past their traumas and suffering which makes them alluringly, captivatingly FREE. Channeling a '70's vibe, they speak of the universal healing a "well" lifestyle delivers, which coincides with the shift in our times predicted by the Mayan calendar and the arrival of the Aquarian age. We have entered into an age of upheaval and change, of the rise of the feminine (or so we hope). Does all this upheaval & change mean that the age of the Free Spirit is upon us too?
Expectations: Why We All Want To Be Free
We love a free spirit, don't we? Kate Moss, Drew Barrymore, Zoe Kravitz - they spark something in us that we just can't stop obsessing about. Us femmes are constantly caught in the snares of both societal expectations and the very high expectations we place on ourselves. Though some of this is self-imposed, we long to cut loose, so we worship women who seem to be able to buck all expectations, thrive (or sometimes not - equally compelling to watch), and actually enjoy themselves. And increasingly this isn't just about women owning their lives as individuals; because happy mom means happy family, the free-spirit attitude can (though doesn't always) make for a fun and fulfilling family life too. In essence, the free spirit is now not just the effortlessly cool girl, but the ultimate mama and romantic partner too.
But what is a free spirit, and is wellness really all "IDAF", "you do you", "follow your own flow", or are we swapping one set of expectations for another?
Iterations of the Free Spirit: Wellness Mama as the New "French Girl"
We started thinking about what really makes a "free spirit" more seriously after reading a W magazine article on the wellness-mama character of Bonnie from HBO's production of Liane Moriarty's "Big Little Lies". Bonnie, played by the ever-sassy, sexy and inspirational Zoe Kravitz, is a yogi, fitness instructor and holistic guru...who nevertheless drinks wine and permits the presence of Cocoa Puffs in her kitchen. The article contrasted her hippie-chill with certain big-name wellness mavens who may profess free-spiritedness, but loudly reject anything that doesn't fit their earth-loving, health enhancing green queen persona.
It really reminded me of several excellent reviews of the book How To Be Parisian Wherever You Are: Love, Style and Bad Habits, which celebrates the other sort of free-spirited beauty we all long to emulate: the French Girl. The book is a few years old so you may have read it or at least read of it, but to give you a flavour, it recounts tips on beauty, sex, fidelity, style and general French girl cool for, well, the rest of us. You know these by heart I'm sure - French girls smoke like chimneys while on their way to the countryside for some French air. They mix things up, cheating on their boyfriends with their lovers and then on their lovers with their boyfriends. They love mascara and their "flaws" equally, because they generally love themselves (above anyone else). I don't hate this book, but I probably enjoyed the snarky reviews of it even more. My favourite, locked sadly behind The Times paywall, eloquently skewered the hypocrisy of the seeming glamour of the Parisian lifestyle and this purported French IDAF-and-I-look-good-on-it attitude:
"The Parisian look, says [the author], can be summed up in six words, “I do not give a f***.” I’ve never come across a city where women give more of one."
Yep, this is a view I've long subscribed to - the French-girl, "effortless" cool, has, actually, a hell of a lot of effort behind it. A similarly scathing-but-funny review by my babe Hadley Freedman can be read for free here.
It's Not About Whether Gwyneth is Right
These critiques take a different tack than, say, the persistent criticisms of Goop, which all seem to centre on the validity of the site's health reporting. But this isn't about whether Gwyneth Is Wrong About Everything; it's about whether all the green juice, meditating and chakra alignment really make you free. It's something I've contemplated as I've attempted to design a morning routine that incorporates care for my mind, body and spirit...and doesn't taken two and a half hours (starting at 5 AM!). Do structure and routine actually give you freedom? Or is freedom skipping the meditation and gym session for an extra hour in bed?
It's Not About "Balance" Either
Balance, you may think, is the answer, but free-spiritedness is different from "balance", which we see lots of wellness gurus and models like Gigi Hadid espouse - mostly in the context of a post-workout burger, or the 80/20 rule (80% good- i.e. greens, always greens / 20% naughty - i.e. doughnuts, or whatever is the new doughnut). But does "balance" really equate with liberation from the shackles of societal expectations? I've always preferred the celebrities who own their regimes honestly (a recent-ish example: Zoe Saldaña interviewed by Balance magazine here in London).
Only Rebels Are Free
If what we really want is to say a big EFF OFF to all expectations (YES!), then maybe what we really want is to be a rebel. That's what long-time student of happiness and habits (inextricably interlinked) Gretchen Rubin calls her expectation-rejectors anyway.
Rubin, author of the NYT best-selling The Happiness Project, has spent years looking at habits and happiness and has developed a personality-type framework that breaks down how easy it will be for you to form good habits, and the strategies that will be most effective for you in keeping them. Personality quiz junkies can get their fix here. For the rest of you, bear with me while I summarise for you: our ability to make & keep good habits all comes down to...what we make of expectations.
According to Rubin, the ease or difficulty with which we stick to good habits has to do with our relationship to expectations; if we are willing to meet expectations, whether imposed by ourselves or others, we can find strategies to help us form and keep good habits without too much trouble. Even if we question expectations, habit forming is still possible - we just need convincing reasons to value the expectation. But if we don't really DO expectations at all? AS in they hold no possible value for us? These people are "rebels"; they are our true free spirits. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, habit forming is hardest for them. As in, these people are unlikely to find it easy to rise at 5:30 AM to meditate for 30 minutes before a hot yoga session and green juice.
Honestly, other than grabbing that extra handful of pop chips, how often do must of us just do what we want, when we want? No wonder rebels are the smallest personality group.
Why a Rebel Isn't (Exactly) a Free Spirit
We love the idea of being a free spirit - someone light-as-air, unencumbered by worry, acting on desire without overthinking it. And as fashion fades and wellness grows in our cultural awareness, this woman looks less like a croissant-loving, exercise-eschewing, wild-haired French girl (at least to me), and more like a barefoot, tanned buddha bowl-eating yogi. These are both archetypes - something to aspire to, and I think we'll always want to be some version of her.
Do we want to be rebels? Sometimes, for sure. Maybe politically? Maybe in certain situations, and even daily in small ways...but there's something about the rebel girl which, while sexy, also suggests...selfishness and self-destruction. She may be into healing the world, in theory, but she doesn't entirely have her own shit together, and she's too caught up in drama. Sure, she may have her allure, but she's also kind of an asshole? Really draining to be around? I'm thinking of the difference between, say, the aforementioned Zoe Kravitz, and Madonna. I'm not sure as many of us are quick to admire emulate the rebel girl in every way, much as we may admire parts of her.
So where does that leave wellness and the gurus who promote it?
In Defence of Expectations
Much as I love a free spirit, especially from a style perspective, I've actually come around to the view that there is a great deal of freedom in structure. Parenting really highlights that actually - a bit of routine seems to make everyone happy...because you know what to expect.
EXPECTATIONS: do we want them, or do we want to overthrow them? When it comes to wellness anyway, I think we want to feel good. And I still believe that incorporating a few practices that calm the mind, restore the soul and condition the body help us feel our best. I'm definitely not a rebel; I need expectations to thrive...but I want them to be on my own terms.
This brings me to a bit a wisdom from a slightly older French lifestyle guru, Mireille Giuliano (see, not all French lifestyle advice is bad!), who talks in her books about "se sentir bien dans sa peau" - feeling good in your own skin. This, for her, means eating and drinking what she likes, but not to excess. A bit of light weights and yoga as she has gotten older, but no crazy gyms sessions that you can then use to justify an, epic blow-out meal. It's not about what Gwyneth has to say (though teachers are helpful); it's about knowing yourself, and living comfortably within the parameters of what makes you feel good. Because ultimately, that's what we all want.
Wellness promises happiness, and I believe it can deliver - not everything, not freedom from pain, but certainly a lot of good. The right food can give you energy, improve your looks, help your digestion and immunity and actually taste delicious. Sleep does wonders for the mind, body and soul. Meditation, breath work and yoga can calm the mind, bring you back to the present moment and help you cope with stress. New age rituals or religion can allow you to connect with your intuition, and God (whatever that means to you). These practices can't fix everything, but they are super likely to make you feel better than you would otherwise.
For me (and I think many of us), pursuing wellness means establishing a routine, and having discipline. It also means knowing when it's more important to stay up til 2 with a friend and a bottle of wine than getting to bed before midnight so you can meditate, but it mostly involves routine, ritual and practice. So it isn't exactly the path of the free spirit, for all the crystals and kaftans you may own. But it may help you feel good. True freedom? I'm not even sure the rebels have that down. True freedom probably comes from knowing that, at the end of the day, none of this matters.
In the meantime, I'll still have some photos of LA and Australia on my mood board, and remind myself, as I get up at 6:30 to make my morning smoothie, that I'm really a free spirit at heart.