Calling All Free Spirits

 
 

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"

I woke up like this (& in Breton stripes)

I woke up like this (& in Breton stripes)

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

Natalie Portman: the unexpected rebel (SNL)

Natalie Portman: the unexpected rebel (SNL)

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.

[Rebels]...want to do what they want to do at all times...they are completely motivated by present desire.
— Gretchen Rubin

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. 

 
no brush, no bra, (probably) no deodorant: no problem

no brush, no bra, (probably) no deodorant: no problem

 

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.

My girl Drew is a Free Spirit Queen

My girl Drew is a Free Spirit Queen

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Sometimes You Just Gotta

Life Butter is a thoroughly London-based channel, and don't get us wrong - we do love it here....most of the time.  But there are some times when you just have to get away to get some perspective.  Fresh air, more green & a slower pace - these are all things that help you feel better.  There's an argument to be made that travel (well vacation travel anyway) is just as centring as meditation.  How can you be anywhere but in the moment when you've left behind the daily grind to check out somewhere new?  We recently had relatives in town, and, emboldened by the additional set of hands to help with LB's smallest team member, decided to brave the car journey down to Cornwall.

The ride wasn't that long by American standards (7ish hours door to door?), and within moments of setting foot on the sandy beach, we felt it had been worth the journey.

Not that it was particularly warm.  

But the sun was shining, the air fresh and we'd found that organic wine was available on the Sainsbury's delivery, so all seemed spectacularly well.  In the latest Episode of Life Butter Radio we get well into organic, natural & bio-dynamic tipple as well as some fun, gut-friendly non-alcoholic drinks.  Feeling inspired, we also brought some kefir granules and made our own kefir!  Which was great, because we had a lot of fish & chips (almost once a day, I would reckon)...and the resident sweet tooth got well into the cream teas.

Not for me, but I was into the retro plate

Not for me, but I was into the retro plate

Of course, true to what we've been learning about food over the course of our look at that over on the radio show, we found that, despite the fact that we were eating & drinking loads of things that would normally feature on the "never" list at home (e.g. bread, sugar, fried everything), we felt amazing the entire time we were away.  No one even seemed bothered by allergies, despite all the incredible flowers in bloom.  Convinces me that it might not be just the pollen that sets us off this time of year in London.

The best part by far, however, was the incredible coastline, littered with old mines, ancient ruins (druids, anyone?) and early Christian chapels.  Maybe it was the glorious carpet of wildflowers, maybe it was the sun, or maybe it was the wine, but the local superstitions about the existence of fairies and such seemed faintly plausible.  There are just so many places for magical creatures to hide!

I've always loved areas with a real sense of identity, and Cornwall is one of those places where, if you tap into it, you can really feel the history all around you.  Not to sound all woo-woo, but the energy of these ancient holy sites in particular....well, it's palpable.  We were speaking to a friend who's just gotten into reiki (coming up sometime soon on LBR!), and she said that the reason why we feel more at ease, and perhaps better attuned to our true selves near the water is because water is a conduit for energy.  That's also the reason why the rhythms of the moon matter, because they affect the tide.  That might be too much for you to swallow, but next time you're at the beach, notice if you feel calmer, or a greater sense of certainty.

Cornwall has always been a favourite holiday destination, but thanks to the latest two seasons of Poldark, it's become even more popular.  You don't have to be there during shooting season to see Aidan Turner's face...I think he's become the unofficial mascot of this county!

See?  Multiple reasons to come down and enjoy something easy on the eyes.

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So You Say You Want A Revolution

The V&A's Retrospective On The Counter-Culture & What it Has to Say About Our Neo-Hippy Now

It's not exactly breaking news to say that many of us are drawing parallels between the Days of Revolution: Recent Past (i.e. the '60s/'70s) and now; everywhere you look in fashion, music and popular culture, we are going all braless and protest-y.  And quite understandably; on both sides of the political spectrum in the West, there is a swell of dissatisfaction, confusion and anger at the "establishment", whatever that means to you.  Wherever you look, there are references to the historic protests around the civil rights movement, equal rights movement and peace demonstrations, and the slogans of that era are being reinterpreted & repurposed to give voice to current frustrations.

Of course this was the era that also brought us that brand of Californian, holistic wellness that we are seeking to understand here at Life Butter, and so I thought it would be interesting to check out the Victoria & Albert's retrospective You Say You Want A Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970 to see if it held any insights into the incredible growth of the wellness industry, currently valued at $3.72 TRILLION globally.  I've also been a long-term fan of '70s style...particularly that look that involves not cutting or brushing your hair.  😜 So off I went.

The exhibition was good fun; it was well-curated & had a great variety of materials to see & hear (sponsored by Sennheiser, you walked through with headphones taking you on an audio journey of the era, and a big-screen, 28-minute musical film on Woodstock at the end looked promising, though I didn't get to stay to watch as I had a 2-year old in tow).  Liberal economic politics, social change in the form of equalising rights and loosening strict moral codes, recreational drugs, The Beatles, The Stones & David Bowie (we are in London, after all), Mary Quant & Chelsea Girl style and Californian communes were all explored in vibrant relief.  But more than just another baby-boomer group hug on The Glory That Be Theirs (Which Will Never Be Matched), the exhibition also sought to draw parallels between then & now, though definitely with its own angle (excellent review on the slant here).

While the exhibition didn't explicitly examine any of the tenets of wellness per se, the spirit of revolution that categorised the Counter-Culture & called the young to divorce themselves from the "establishment" (remember: don't trust anyone over 30) is the same essence that is breathing life (and megabucks) into contemporary wellness.  The specifics matter less; whether your wellness jam is grass-fed beef and ghee or sprouted mushroom protein shakes and actual jam, a large part of the movement is against the "man" that is McDonalds.  Industrialised food, fast food, packaged anything is out: remember, don't trust your mother's cooking (if you grew up on the S.A.D. anyway!).  The young today are shockingly like The Beatles (who could be their (grand)parents), "we all want to change the world", we're just going to do it with our dollars.  According to a Neilsen, 73% of millennials are prepared to pay more for products and services from companies dedicated to social and environmental change, while 80% of global customers agree that companies must play a role in addressing societal issues, according to Edelman’s 2016 Trust Barometer (source).

Jam/jelly...Beyoncé is always relevant

Jam/jelly...Beyoncé is always relevant

So...what does that have to do with exercise, meditation, health eating...crystal healing & sleep?

Well, we all know that the baby boomers and the generation that WILL NOT GO AWAY; their story & legacy, and therefore much of this exhibition, didn't seem novel...until I got to the very end.

We will forever be your muses

We will forever be your muses

The exhibition concluded in a way that I didn't expect - showing the links between technology as an important tool of the Counter-Culture in creating anti-establishment, independent societies (think these Californian communes) and our use of technology today.  I might be alone, but I had never thought of the hoodie-wearing, Soylent drinking (someone please EXPLAIN THIS?!?!) Silicon Valley of today as a continuation of Californian hippiedom.  But if technology is the agent of revolution, and the agent of community (as it is so often said to be), it is also increasingly becoming the tool of commerce, with retailers not only encouraging e-commerce (duh), but using apps to track consumer movements, tailor specific discounts and nudge shoppers towards a purchase.  Here's the link to an interview Joseph Turow gave on his new book The Aisles Have Eyes; have a read or a listen if you want a forecast of all the new & sneaky ways retailers will use technology to separate you from your cash. 

So what does this all have to do with wellness? It's about the MONEY behind youth & revolution.  Because wellness is about revolution, right?  Or is it about luxury? Because feeling good is the new looking good, and every big brand is on board.

I don't have a problem with this; more money behind holistic health, beauty & wellness (hopefully) means that it becomes easier & cheaper to make healthy choices.  This too follows the trend of the 60s, when mass production decreased the price of all manner of "things", and so the generation of social change also became the generation of hedonism, consumerism and the credit card (according to a slightly pessimistic V&A).

But while I'm not completely anti-consumerism, I think it has an incredible ability to Dilute The Message (see this excellent mini-rant on this phenom in the fitness industry by ELLE UK Fitness Editor Bangs).  And if, as discussed in a previous post, wellness is really about community, then I really think we need to keep the message strong these days.

There was an image in the exhibition that really struck me; it was of Jean Shrimpton walking barefoot, barelegged & seemingly carefree down a wild Kings Road; Mary Quant's archetypal Chelsea Girl.  With the best will in the world towards all Chelsea Girls, that phrase connotes something a bit different today.

So I'll buy organic greens, I'll buy a gym pass...hell, I might even buy some palo santo..but I want to keep the end in mind.  Why am I doing all of this?  It's worth remembering.

Viva La Revolucion!