For whom is wellness suitable? by Fariha Róisín book review


Wellness is something we all want – to be healthy even when the world is collapsing around us. But like shows like “The White Lotus” and “Nine Perfect Strangers” show that wellness has become a commodity aimed at the rich, white and healthy seeking shiatsu and savasana her way out of late capitalism through mindfulness, dewy skin, and a Pilates-sculpted core. For less privileged others, wellness is an unattainable luxury, locked in by racism, ableism and fatphobia, shutting itself off from those who need it most, e.g. B. the poor, working class, queer and transgender people and people of color. Indeed, as online essays on toxic wellness culture and recent books like Kerri Kelly’s American Detox and Dalia Kinsey’s Decolonizing Wellness argue, wellness is not good.

Fariha Róisín’s new book Who is Wellness for? An Examination of Wellness Culture and Who It Leaves Behind follows the author’s “personal experience of needing wellness” while simultaneously examining the wellness industrial complex and its failures. Róisín, author of the poetry collection How to Cure a Ghost (2019) and the novel Like a Bird (2020), identifies as a queer Muslim woman from Bangladesh, part of a new generation of black and brown women writers who – in the tradition of black feminist poet-scholar-activists such as Audre Lorde , June Jordan and Bell Hooks (whom Róisín all calls heroes) – they tackle issues of trauma and identity through the lens of social justice. For Róisín, healing and self-discovery are closely linked to the collective reckoning with the legacies of racism and colonialism as well as sexism and homophobia. As Who Is Wellness For? argues that healing is an integral – if not the most important – step in liberation from such aftermath.

Wellness is an industry, a journey, and now a $5,000 a year club

Róisín’s journey begins with her desire to heal from the psychological, physical and sexual abuse of her mentally ill mother, which she describes at the beginning of the book as leaving her body “forever in a state of distress”. The abuse is compounded by the author’s ever-growing awareness of being a queer brown Muslim woman in a world of white settler colonials. Róisín, who grew up in Australia and later moved to Montreal and New York City, writes harrowingly about her inability to escape – quoting from psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk’s best-selling title The Body Keeps the Score.

She’s soon confronting her trauma not only in her mind, but also in her body — while struggling with severe body dysmorphia and irritable bowel syndrome — and her relationships, which are fraught with manipulation and damage. But her quest for “wellness” keeps bringing Róisín to places that amplify her trauma — an all-white yoga studio in Montreal, a massage therapist who disparages Dylan Farrow’s allegations of abuse, toxic female friendships.

The book guides readers through what Róisín describes as the four aspects of well-being – mind, body, self-care and equity. In each section, she functions as subject and scientist at the same time, telling her own stories of struggle and healing, laced with academic and scientific references. This sometimes works well, for example with Róisín describing how early in her healing journey she encountered yoga and suggests that she was drawn to it at age 13 because “it was the best grasping understanding I had, South Asian.” While there have been numerous critiques of the cultural appropriation (and corruption) of yoga by white practitioners in the West, Who Is Wellness For? takes this critique astutely a step further, highlighting how British colonizers were transforming certain forms of yoga Endorsing yoga as practiced by upper caste Indians while supplanting that of the homeless and poor.

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At other times, however, Róisín’s narrative shifts can be harrowing, moving abruptly between her personal experience and her academic analysis. And while the book critiques the wellness industry’s decontextualization of the cultural, ethnic, and spiritual origins of its practices, Róisín himself often cites Black and Indigenous scholars and writers (such as Lorde, Jordan, and Hooks, as well as Robin Wall Kimmerer, Winona LaDuke, and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson). little preoccupation with the stories of violence and struggle that fueled her desire for healing. While being Muslim is central to Róisín’s identity, the book briefly covers Islam, specifically its extensive teachings on holistic health and healing, as well as its rich history of liberation for black Americans.

So, who is wellness for? Róisín’s poignant response to her own question is that our healing must be collective, accessible, and available to all: “Wellness isn’t for everyone if it’s not for everyone. Otherwise, it’s a paradox.” This is perhaps the book’s most important takeaway—that what we need is not “wellness,” but an equity-based ethos of reciprocity, compassion, and caring.

Sylvia Chan-Malik is Associate Professor of American Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University and author of Being Muslim: A Cultural History of Women of Color and American Islam.

An exploration of wellness culture and who it leaves behind

Harper Wave. 320 pages. $26.99

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