PWR Voices: Talking Wellness Rhetoric and Neoliberalism with Shannon Hervey-Lentz
In Spring 2022, Shannon Hervey-Lentz piloted their new PWR 1 course "The Rhetoric of Wellness: The Social Context of Mental and Physical Health and Wellbeing," whose topic abundantly resonates with students and PWR lecturers alike. Newsletter writer Gabrielle Moyer had the opportunity to chat with Shannon about the class, self-care, well-being, and the importance of these issues in today's stressful social/political context.
Q: There are too many reasons why your class on Wellness is well timed. Can you share a bit about how you became interested in teaching this course?
As perhaps many of us observed, discussions of wellness, self-care, and self-improvement proliferated during the 2020 pandemic lockdown in various forms of media and discourse communities, and this preoccupation with wellness in a popular context has only grown. As of today, #mentalhealth TikTok has over 34 billion views, and mental healthcare professionals were and still are taxed, many with extensive client wait lists. Perhaps to fill a need or perhaps to capitalize on the moment, AI technologies continue to crop up, like Woebot, which is a cognitive based therapy app meant to increase accessibility of care (marketed as “self-help” rather than “healthcare” at the FDA’s behest). Meanwhile, wellness meditation apps like Headspace or Exhale (the latter promoted as “the first emotional wellbeing app for and by black, indigenous women of color”) have grown in popularity, Headspace is launching its own Netflix show in 2021. And, to a huge extent, it’s absolutely easy to see why rhetoric about caring for the self abounds right now. It’s easy to assign a kind of teleology where wellness has emerged as a unique response to the stressors of this particular sociocultural moment, as a hopeful suggestion that survival, or maybe even flourishing, is possible amidst an uncertain and seemingly impossible sociocultural and political landscape.
Yet, as is the case with many cultural phenomena, wellness culture isn’t new. Not by a long shot. During the months immediately before and after the 2016 election, the term “self-care” was googled by Americans almost twice as much as in previous years. But “wellness culture” can be traced much farther back to the 19th–century Europe “life-reform” movements which were predominantly driven by the upper class who feared the negative consequences of industrialization - namely, being disconnected from nature in their white-collar work and feeling dehumanized by the march of technology. The upper class addressed the uncertainty of the time through experimenting with spas, retreats, and vegetarian diets. Sound familiar? (If not, check out Gwyneth Paltrow's wellness/lifestyle blog, “Goop”). Life-reformers eventually emphasized the importance of self-restraint and came to conflate such discipline with virtue.
This course idea arose out of my own discomfort at what I observed was a burst of self-care and wellness messaging that emerged during the George Floyd protests, though it was initially difficult to put my finger on what, specifically, was so upsetting about well-meaning messages to practice self-care. Wasn’t I myself doing Yoga and meditating nearly every day to try and stay sane? Even so, there was something about this rhetoric that felt suspiciously similar to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” both in its individualism and in its obfuscation of inequities. It felt particularly irksome when places of employment simultaneously created obstacles toward wellness while also espousing supportive messages of self-care. And when I paid close attention, many of the messages about wellness were coming from and addressed to white, middle to upper class folks at a time when there was supposedly a paradigm shift happening toward acknowledging white privilege and refocusing toward anti-racist action. Something that stopped me in my own Yoga tracks was an article by journalist Prinita Thevarajah called, “How I’m Fighting the Commodification of Self-Care With My Wellness Routine.” She writes, “the wellness industry is complicit in the commodification of numerous ancient, culturally based healing practices… from the corporatization of mindfulness, jade rollers, turmeric lattes, to overharvested sage.” To better understand my own discomfort regarding the proliferation of wellness messages during the George Floyd protests, I rolled up my sleeves and did a bit of research. I found that many who write critically about the wellness industry discuss 1) the vast cultural appropriation currently happening that doesn’t seem to be even in its initial stages of acknowledgement, 2) the complex neoliberalism inherent in wellness culture (located in the gross consumerism attached to the wellness industry and in its messages of individualism), and 3) the fact that wellness culture thrives as an industry the more that it can make people believe they need to fix themselves.
For anybody who has spent time with undergraduates, it’s easy to see just how much they’ve been struggling since March 2020, for all sorts of identifiable reasons, and for reasons more existential, less namable. I wanted to create a course not so that we could all get together and talk about the struggle, but so that we could critically examine the language out there right now that attempts to attend to that struggle. It’s a significant and important thing to reflect on how each of us might be, in the name of wellness, interpolated into cultural appropriation, or espousing neoliberalist values, or drinking the kool aid that we are, each of us, in need of constant fixing.
Q: Does writing about wellness translate into improved practices of wellness? Is this something you're hoping for students, something that can be taught or a hopeful side effect?
I wasn’t necessarily hoping students would develop wellness practices, but I did want them to be more conscious of the individualistic, consumerist, postfeminist, self-blaming, toxically positive, classist, and racist nature of much of what’s out there. In identifying some of these threads, I’m hoping students have a better relationship to wellness as defined by our class - a “holistic integration of physical health, mental/emotional health, social health, community health, and spiritual health.” I wanted students to think about what wellness means to them, especially because, as mentioned earlier, wellness culture thrives as an industry the more that it can make people believe they need to fix themselves. Constantly feeling like you’re not enough is a byproduct of wellness culture, and this arguably isn’t good for anybody.
That said, it’s also true that we’re in desperate need of avenues toward flourishing. So many of us are struggling, so maybe it seems counterintuitive to focus on how popular wellness notions fall tragically short. But I don’t think so. For instance, one student raised their hand at the beginning of Week 7 and said, “I walked by this wellness poster on campus the other day that had a QR code on it. You could scan it to find out more information about a wellness assessment. So I scanned it. The assessment only took into account physical things like BMI…,” they threw up her hands, “Weight does not equal health!” This exclamation, “Weight does not equal health” is a notion from the Health At Every Size advocacy group students learned about in a podcast we listened to during Week 2. Another student has stopped following instagram accounts and hashtags promoting “That Girl” aesthetics/identity realizing that these posts fail to make her feel empowered toward agency and health as their messages are narrowly oriented around normative ideals of beauty, consumerism, and disciplining aspects of self that aren’t necessarily changeable. The last example I’ll share is about one of my student athletes who has been spending a lot of time thinking about how the language around winning and competition doesn’t value or leave much space for self-compassion, in his experience. In sum, I wasn’t hoping the class would inspire students to take up a new workout routine or meditate more (though this would be nice) or go to bed earlier or work on healthy boundaries. At the start of the class, I’m not sure I was even conscious of my own deepest hope for what the class might provide students, but now that we’re coming to a close, I’m becoming more aware that I did have a quiet wish - that students would discover at least one thing this term, whether that be a theory or concept or source or practice, that would free them up in some way. And it seems like many of them have, and that leaves me feeling incredibly humbled.
Q: Is there one topic that you find students particularly drawn to and what, to your mind, have been some brilliant student insights?
Oh, goodness. These students are fire. So many of their projects are brilliant and inspired. One student wrote on the influence of gender socialization on the development of maladaptive coping mechanisms. Another wrote on decolonizing psychedelic research. Many students wrote about the stakes of culturally appropriating traditional Eastern modalities (i.e. cupping, acupuncture, Ayurveda, Yoga). And perhaps one of my favorite projects came from a student who really struggled but ended up writing about the importance of BIPOC music artists who promote messages of wellness in their music - he sees this as an act of radical advocacy with paradigm shifting capabilities. It was such a hopeful and well-argued piece.
An interesting note: Not one student opted to investigate wellness as it directly related to Covid. The most Covid came up was when one of our early readings referenced a group of 19th century anti-vaccination activists who weren’t keen on the smallpox vaccine. This group was fueled by a mistrust of doctors who, by the late 19th century, were now treating patients schematically rather than as individuals with holistic needs. Students were curious about how this history relates to our current moment where there’s both an uptick in distrust of our systems as well as a clear trend toward or interest in expanding Western medical models to include more holistic approaches. Still, not one student decided to go this way for their individual research projects, and I think this speaks to just how tired we all are of thinking about Covid constantly.
Q. I can imagine students being incredibly grateful for this space to bring wellness and writing together; do you find that teaching on this topic creates a different classroom dynamic than other courses you've taught ...in both valuable and perhaps challenging ways? I wonder, for example, if the already slim boundary between personal and academic erodes to such a degree that students are more confessional both in and outside of their assignments? How do you keep the class from sliding into confessional?
That’s a great question. Interestingly enough, this didn’t happen nor was I worried it would happen. Although there were definitely moments where students connected with material - like when a Black student wanted to discuss their own less than positive experience with a white psychotherapist, or when some of my athletes wanted to discuss their experiences with disordered eating encouraged by coaches, or when a bigger bodied student wanted to talk about fatphobia in medical establishments - these moments productively crystalized the complexity of the issues and helped us identify avenues of research. I think by framing the course first and foremost as a rigorous research and writing course, implicit boundaries organically developed.
Q. What is your favorite reading that you teach and why?
Students really came alive when discussing two readings in particular, which made them my favorite to teach: “Fulfilling the Self through Food in Wellness Blogs: Governing the Healthy Subject” by Kaisa Tiusanen and “Psychopolitical Literacy for Wellness and Justice” by Isaac Prilleltensky and Dennis Fox.
In “Fulfilling the self through food in wellness blogs,” Tiusanen argues that modern wellness culture draws upon postfeminist and neoliberal ideals to create the narrative that a personal wellness journey depends on individual self-control and consuming the “right” things. Indeed, neoliberalism and post feminism both champion personal choice and individual freedom rather than systemic change. They both emphasize consumption of the right kinds of products and foods as essential to women’s relationship to their bodies. Wellness blogs, and much wellness rhetoric, suggests that what people really need to do is change their personal habits to improve their health and well-being. The article ultimately makes the case that this rhetoric fails to address broader structural influences on health.
“Psychopolitical Literacy for Wellness and Justice” argues chiefly that wellness and justice are concepts that are inextricably linked. Contrary to the individualism inherent in much wellness rhetoric, these authors define true “wellness” as the satisfaction of 1) personal, 2) relational, and 3) collective needs. By defining “justice” as the allocation of resources according to deservingness, needs, and the right to equality for all members of a community, the article ultimately argues that wellness hinges on justice. That is, unless collective needs are met through just allocation of resources, wellness can’t be achieved. These authors go on to discuss the fact that modern approaches to psychotherapy are individualistic and fail to consider the role systemic inequities might play in one’s mental/emotional health and world outlook. As a result, mental healthcare professionals run the risk of reifying inequities and are ineffective at improving wellness at a societal level.