The version of wellness marketed towards women today—the kind that involves Goop products, flat tummy teas, gold-flecked face masks, and 30 different devices and apps for meditation—has its roots in the years between 1980-2000, when famous people discovered that shilling wellness practices could produce a substantial income and brought the concept into the mainstream. By 2014, wellness had exploded into a lucrative series of products and the Global Wellness Institute, a research and wellness advocacy group found that the industry was a $3.4 trillion market worldwide. Wellness was suddenly an economy of its own.
The practice of wellness, which stems from Ayurvedic disease prevention dating back to 3000 B.C. India, has morphed into a modern term that now encompasses a variety of things that can be sold to women looking to improve: Anti-aging, fad dieting dressed as an ancestral return to food, and toxic fitness spaces selling empowerment through cardio. Recently, gyms have begun to frame exercise as a form of mental healthcare. This “emotional wellness” seems birthed from the coronavirus pandemic, where isolation and job loss have led to increased anxiety and depression across the country and a need for easy if haphazard, fixes.
According to the National Institutes of Health, the term emotional wellness refers to “the ability to successfully handle life’s stresses and adapt to change and difficult times.” But if Instagram is any indication, emotional wellness can be achieved by doing a range of things: laying in a meadow, buying flowers, staying in bed all day, or, more recently, joining the right fitness group. While the idea of emotional wellness has long lingered on the edges of physical fitness, particularly in the yoga space, it recently became a centerpiece of “fitspo” accounts on Instagram, as an increasing number of people turned to exercise to temper their anxieties over being stuck at home.
Much of emotional wellness, and general wellness really, is gendered, targeted at women who are constantly being sold better and newer ways to improve themselves. (Men may fall into wellness traps as well, but they aren’t as compelled by societal standards to broadcast their journeys on Instagram under the guise of empowerment and projecting an image of “goodness.”) For the most part, cis men don’t have to worry about proving their bona fides as much because they have more power where it matters—the real world. But that doesn’t mean they’re not quietly seeking the benefits that wellness promises. Kat Novoa, founder and CEO of Babes of Wellness, said, “I have worked with men on the [down low] because they don’t want to be called babe. It’s been amazing to see a man cry in front of a woman.”
Babes of Wellness is a boutique wellness studio in South Los Angeles that promotes a holistic approach to wellness geared largely towards women, exploring “physical strength, while simultaneously healing generational trauma, renewing their mindset, and connecting spiritually,” according to its website. Seeking a new way to approach helping people, particularly women, and helping them define what wellness means to them, Nova created her studio based on years as a domestic violence counselor and the inadequacies of her own fitness journey.
The way Novoa explains it, Babes of Wellness puts the body and emotions on the same level of importance: “Our body, our nervous system reacts to our emotional state of being,” she told me, adding that the two are inherently linked. In training sessions with women, she could often see from the way their body moved, particularly in the hip area, if something was happening emotionally. “When you feel free, when you feel happy, your body just moves differently,” she told me. “There’s not so much tension that you’re holding. And I think that’s what has been missing in the fitness space.”
Novoa found her way to wellness as a reaction to work-related stress, saying that her previous work in the apparel industry took a toll on her health. She “start[ed] paying attention to wellness as a whole,” Novoa explained. She joined a local Crossfit, but “there was a lot of toxic masculinity,” she said. “It was very competitive in a sense.” At the time, Novoa says she was dealing with a lot emotionally and it was affecting her body, often coming out during her workouts: “I would find myself... sometimes crying my eyes out and dealing with that emotional and spiritual healing aspect of it on my own.” She felt she couldn’t open up to her Crossfit classmates because they were mostly men and all they wanted to do was build muscle. Novoa began the search for something more personally fulfilling and eventually became an advocate for victims of domestic violence, volunteering at a shelter as a trainer, and broadened her practices into mindful meditation and prayer because “training them physically wasn’t really enough for them.”
The spiritual practices Novoa shared with women in shelters also helped her get through a difficult time in her life and inspired her to start Babes of Wellness. She converted her garage into a boutique studio space where women (and some men) could come and exercise but also have a safe space to discuss their feelings. Novoa argues that the physical aspect of her training programs is just as important as asking a client how they’re feeling on a given day. “[I’m] providing them space afterward to say hey, what’s really going on with you? Or that workout seems really tough for you. Do you want to share? Do you want to pray? Do you want to meditate?” For the community of color she serves in South LA, a few miles away from Compton, Novoa says the business has been a “game-changer.”
The idea of doing any kind of emotional sharing seems unrealistic in the landscape of personal trainers, who live and die by tangible results, like weight loss or muscle definition. While some people have deep, meaningful relationships with their trainers, in the two times I’ve attempted to work with a trainer the interaction felt forced and awkward if conversations went further than discussing how much we were going to squat on a given day. But Novoa says she’s created an environment and mission that avoids that kind of resistance. “When people come to me they’re open. So they’re like, this is exactly what I need. I’ve been pushing all my feelings down the drain that I just can’t deal with this anymore. And my body is starting to react either in hives or I’m gaining weight. I’m having thyroid issues. I’m having a lot of hormonal issues. And I don’t know how to deal with this.”
But despite the name of her studio and her enthusiasm for marrying physical and spiritual wellness, Novoa is skeptical that such practices can be bottled into the growing trend of emotional wellness in the fitness space. “I’m kind of starting to dislike the name Babes of Wellness for my company because wellness has become such a buzz word,” she laughs. Despite laughing at her own name choice, the serious tone in Novoa’s voice betrays her concern that she may have branded herself into a corner that doesn’t fully encompass the work she wants to do. However, she still firmly believes that the fitness industry needs to take a turn inward for the sake of consumers and not just as a temporary trend.
Although the fitness industry is creeping closer to a wellness-focused model, it’s hard to imagine Novoa’s method being widely applied when businesses are dependent on consumers never being satisfied. Much of fitness seems to be about, as Novoa put it, “an Instagram booty pic,” and less focused on the other benefits of exercise, like stress relief and longevity. Were the fitness industry at large to suddenly start taking emotional health seriously, it would be a clusterfuck for marketing departments to figure out how to emotionally heal clients while breaking them down enough so that they continue to buy products that are designed to make them feel complete.
Novoa thinks that the path forward for emotional wellness as more than just a buzzword starts with having the right leadership in place. “I think it would take the people who are really at the top to say, hey, guys, you know what? I think we’ve got it all wrong. We need to pivot and we need to switch things up because this isn’t working and this is causing a lot of body dysmorphia.”
Certainly, in an ideal world, everyone could have a trainer that was part therapist, part friend, and come out of an exercise session feeling physically and emotionally better. But in reality, wellness has its limits—as does exercise. Wellness as we know it is also an unmonitored free-for-all. There is no singular formula to deliver emotional wellness to a client nor is there a course or certification to equip a trainer with every single tool necessary to combat every potential emotional scenario that may arise. Until such a time we’ll all just have to continue swallowing our emotions in our home gyms.