Facing health and wellness messaging is hard at the best of times. It’s a multi-billion-dollar industry with global influence and you’re just you. And it has a special monopoly on the new year, making you feel like you need to be healthier and fitter, fix your flaws, become a better person.
Well, we’re here to tell you that you’re wonderful just as you are. You probably don’t believe us so we’ll say it again: You are wonderful as you are. And if you still don’t believe us, read on for our top tips to dodging the ‘new year, new you’ bullshit.
New year’s resolutions centre on the idea that we need to be better. And, it turns out, that has always been the case. In fact, this idea is older than January itself – the first records of new year celebrations is the ancient Babylonian spring festival, Akitu, where people made resolutions to their gods to behave better in exchange for their gods’ favour. The Ancient Romans rewrote the calendar and new year celebrations moved to January, named after the god Janus, but making promises to the gods endured.
As time went on, new year’s resolutions started to including repenting for past wrongs. For example, 19th century Christians used new year’s mass as an opportunity to reflect on their sins and resolve to be better.
In 1813, a Boston newspaper coined the phrase ‘New Year’s resolution’ in an article that said: “And yet, I believe there are multitudes of people, accustomed to receive injunctions of new year resolutions, who will sin all the month of December, with a serious determination of beginning the new year with new resolutions and new behaviour, and with the full belief that they shall thus expiate and wipe away all their former faults.”
Then, at some point in the 20th century, promising to do good and wipe away our faults morphed into perpetual self-improvement and we started making lofty resolutions about how we could transform ourselves.
According to a survey by Forbes, the most common resolutions for 2023 were improved mental health (45%), improved fitness (39%), weight loss (37%) and a better diet (33%). Have a look at Forbes’ stats if you’re interested, but be warned – the published results are accompanied by adverts for weight loss companies.
While there’s nothing wrong with wanting to improve aspects of our lives per-se, how does it make us feel about ourselves? And there’s the rub – the ‘new year, new you’ message doesn’t just imply that you should be better, it also makes you think that you’re not good enough.
The thing is, naming your perceived shortcomings and setting yourself goals to improve isn’t great for your mental health – especially if you do it in the giant, monstrous shadow of the wellness industry.
“The global health and wellness market size was valued at $4.7 trillion in 2021 and is projected to reach $12.9 trillion by 2031,” according to Allied Market Research. Its foundation is the idea that our lifestyle choices affect our health. It’s a truth with scientific backing, but you have to be careful. While many wellness concepts have a foot in legitimate scientific research, they often deviate well beyond the realms of science and reason. Plus, it’s worth bearing in mind that it’s a money-making industry and not a health care service.
So, ‘new year, new you’ messaging comes from the health and wellness industry in the name of profit. It pretends to be empowering, but its subtext is judgement and shame. And it’s everywhere: on the internet, social media, billboards, newspapers, TV ads. It’s impossible to escape that pernicious message that you ‘overindulged’ over the festive period and you need to fix yourself.
It also comes on top of an entire lifetime of exposure to female tropes that conflate body size, skin colour, age, ableness and appearance with worth, success and desirability. And that can make it especially triggering if you have complicated feeling about your body, your health or your state of mind.
We’re not saying it’s wrong to want better physical and mental health – it’s why so many of us swim, surf and paddle outdoors. But the idea of pledging to become a better person at new year can be really anxiety-inducing. Plus, feeling like you’ve failed only adds to this. Research by the exercising tracking app, Strava, used more than 800 million user-logged activities to work out that January 19th is the day you’re most likely to give up on your new year’s resolution.
So, how can you look after yourself this new year?
The only detox worth doing is removing from your social media anything that makes you feel shit about yourself. That fitness influencer posting a video showing ‘7 exercises to slim your thighs’? Unfollow. That nutritionist email newsletter telling you which ‘superfoods reverse signs of aging’? Unsubscribe. That friend posting weight-loss progress photos? Mute. (Muting is great – the person you mute will never know.)
On the flip side, there are loads of thoughtful, empowering, brilliant brands and influencers out there to support you. Find them on social media, listen to their podcasts to expand what you see what happy, normal and healthy really looks like. We love: @mollyjforbes, @antidietriotclub, @thenutritiontea, @mynameisjessamyn and @yrfatfriend, the Anti-Diet Club podcast and Willing to be Wrong podcast by Dr Joshua Woolrich.
Here’s an aggressive invitation to fix yourself – and by the way, it’ll cost you £500. If somebody’s asking for money for their self-improving product or service, you’re right to be sceptical. Think about how else you could use that money to make you feel better – buying a beautiful, supportive swim suit that fits your body and makes you feel fantastic, for example!
At this time of the year, well-meaning friends and relatives will be all over their new diets or exercise routines – and they’ll want to tell you all about it. We would all really like to wear these earrings, but you may want a politer response. Work out your own reply – for example, ‘I’m working hard to get off the dieting wagon,’ or simply, ‘that doesn’t work for me’.
You don’t have to face this alone. Whether you’ve found ‘new year, new you’ messaging confronting in the past, or the madness of these past few years are getting to you now, remember that so many other people feel the same. Therapists, professional support, peer support, community groups – having just one other person who gets where you’re coming from can make the world of difference.
There’s so much going on the world that’s outside our control that it can be super-tempting to try and grasp control by signing up to a weight-loss programme or buying a rowing machine. That’s the power of the ‘new year, new you’ messaging – it gives you solutions to feelings of overwhelm or lack of control. The antidote is focussing on what makes YOU feel happy. What gets those endorphins pumping? What makes you laugh? It might be walking the dog on the beach, or film night with friends, or getting in cold water. The key to looking after yourself is often as simple as that.
You are wonderful just as you are. You are good enough. Repeat it, live it. It’s the most difficult, most cringey, most brilliant conversation to have with ourselves, but it’s so worth having.