Wellness without judgment

How trust and compassion can free women from toxic stereotypes

Image source: Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health
Image source: Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health

Last Sunday, I opened the New York Times to discover an essay that piqued my curiosity — and shocked me, too. Novelist Lisa Knoll’s “Smash the Wellness Industry” (New York Times, June 8, 2019) says the “wellness industry” is an oppressive, modern-day proxy for the diet/weight management industry. Like most women and, one can hope, many of our male allies, I recognize the distress the “wellness” juggernaut has imposed on the author and legions of like-minded women. Yet I am struck by Ms. Knoll’s proposed solution, because it inadvertently perpetuates the very model she rages against. The suggestion that sharing a meal without mention of womens’ bodies, diets, our idealized preferences and our actual realities is, in itself, an admission that the traditional, patriarchal (read: Western) concepts of female beauty still hold powerful sway.

The female body has long been a ‘dirty secret’ – something to control, contain, and disempower. That same thinking is terribly current: witness the spate of new laws dictating that women may not fully control their bodies or reproductive rights. Women contribute to this power steal because so many of us, steeped in pop culture and centuries of history, have internalized the archaic imperative of male-serving, sylph-slender female beauty. But instead of avoiding the proverbial elephant in the room, I say, let’s look at it. Let’s take that elephant out to dinner.

Let’s talk intentionally, explicitly about our bodies – what we love about them, our struggles and yes, our strengths. Diets masked as “wellness” disempower female strength; let’s talk about what our bodies are, not what they are not. The author celebrates her liberation from the conflicts her binge eating once expressed; this “disease” – both clinical and psychological, of course – comes from the objectification of women in our society, which the author unwittingly perpetuates even as she opposes it.

I propose a new definition of “wellness” – one that avoids how we are perceived by others, and focuses instead on how we see ourselves, in our bodies, and in the world. This intrinsic “wellness” is a state of being in which we trust our bodies; we observe ourselves without judgment and with compassion; we let our bodies lead us to what we need, instead of trying to fight our instincts. This is how we can resist the very exploitation and objectification that we have internalized, and forge a new way forward.

The author is right that women – all people – need antidotes to hidebound thinking and social conventions. But the antidotes we need must reject the frame of objectification. The wellness work that will truly advance our understanding, and our compassion, connects us more deeply to basic trust in our essential nature. It also includes plenty of good food, especially at Kripalu, where I hope Ms. Knoll will visit as my guest, to set down the ancient burden of the patriarchy and discover a path that nurtures her humanity, as a woman, a human being, and a caring member of society.

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