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When Wellness Is a Dirty Word

May 6, 2016

First came the anthropologist of Arctic poverty who found me on Instagram and confided that she was a Jazzercise fanatic. Then the intellectual historian who eloquently introduced herself as an expert on a similarly Serious Topic but rapidly and with sparkling eyes, before any of our fellow conferees entered the elevator, effused that it was really her Ashtanga yoga practice that sustained her. And the implacable administrator who waited for the meeting room to clear before explaining to me, her gaze softening, the admirable commitment of her Wednesday-night "Zumba ladies," who traveled from three boroughs to their class in the Bronx.

Ever since I began researching wellness culture in America — and outing myself as a passionate participant — confessions from my academic colleagues have come fast and furious, if in hushed tones. Why all the furtiveness?

"Wellness" is everywhere. The White House is home to both an organic garden and an annual children’s yoga class. "Holistic pedagogy" is a respected instructional approach, and the term "wellness" appears in more than 30,000 titles on Amazon, not to mention labels on products as varied as pet food and probiotics. It’s no longer reserved for Marin County hippies like those whom Dan Rather interviewed in 1979 to explore then-radical concepts like "self-care" and "the mind-body connection."


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