Natalia Mehlman Petrzela

Wellness. In 2018, it’s at once omnipresent and misunderstood—a buzzword from campus health centers to high-end real estate to pet food to preschool marketing. In a culture otherwise riven by stark divides of ideology and sensibility, wellness enjoys weirdly wide appeal. Who doesn’t aspire to “more than the absence of sickness,” as it’s commonly described, even if particular wellness totems, from organic kale to healing crystals, can seem annoyingly bourgeois or suspiciously woo-woo? Notably, the otherwise polar opposite online worlds of the upscale “curated” lifestyle (e.g., Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop) or right-wing conspiracy theory (e.g., Alex Jones’s Infowars) peddle surprisingly similar wellness products.

The few holdouts that most strenuously resist wellness are disproportionately concentrated among social critics and my fellow academics. In growing chorus, they smartly if at times snarkily point out limits of a vision that emphasizes individual wellbeing over collective action and they snub science. They also illuminate inequality, noting that processed food is cheaper than the greenmarket, making time to hit the gym is harder when you work an unpredictable shift job, and a sage-scented home is indulgent if not outright luxurious.

However valid these critiques may appear to be, they have mostly forestalled an exploration of the specific spaces in which wellness culture originated. Postwar California, ever the American frontier, was hugely important. There emerged a wellness culture defined by the at-times contradictory liberation, celebration, and beautification of the body: At countercultural retreats in places like Big Sur’s Esalen, the feminist self-care clinics increasingly dotting university campuses and ethnic neighborhoods, and Southern California’s multiplying gyms. From countercultural yogis to Bay Area love-your-body feminists and San Diego Jazzercisers, wellness has become so ubiquitous by uniting an unlikely range of players in the embrace of once-marginal mind-body holism and self-care as the basis of the good life. The wellness culture they forged has spread far beyond California the place but remains bound up with California the idea. Reflecting broader social and economic inequalities, wellness culture is not necessarily an engine of such malaise, contra many of its critics, but a potentially powerful counterweight to them. History uncovers these counter-narratives easily obscured in 2017.

What is Wellness?

“Wellness, there’s a word you don’t hear every day,” ran as the opening sentence of a 1979 60 Minutes feature on Marin County’s Wellness Resource Center (WRC). Host Dan Rather offered a glimpse as to how “wellness” became the household term it is today.[1] Hardly so accepted in Rather’s day, “wellness” was a fledgling movement that earned skepticism as a “middle-class cult.” The thirty or so mostly white enthusiasts who appeared on national television imparted a common experience that had led them to wellness—suffering caused by ailment that had stumped western doctors. Often desperate by the time they arrived to WRC, they found there a refreshing new set of assumptions: that mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing were interconnected; and that regardless of their expertise, they were uniquely qualified to lead their own healing processes, often through preventative measures. To skeptics, these premises conjured the vacuousness of what Christopher Lasch lambasted that same year as a creeping “culture of narcissism.”[2]

Expansive economic, political, and cultural changes keenly felt in postwar California gave rise to this phenomenon. Increased, if unevenly enjoyed, affluence inspired an appreciation of therapeutic interventions that elevated “emotional balance,” and later “healthy narcissism” and “self-esteem” as social goals, a distinct break from a public health discourse that had emphasized staving from polio, depression-era privation, and wartime venereal disease.[3] Cold War warriors like John F. Kennedy celebrated a corporeally and intellectually agile citizen as the paragon of civic virtue. California public school curricula—from quaint 1950s filmstrips about proper “attitudes and health” to the famed 1960s La Sierra High School physical education curriculum now the subject of a nostalgic 2017 documentary and the 1980s self-esteem commission that appeared on Oprah and are chronicled in the 2017 book Selfie—revealed this sustained new focus on holistic wellness, and anxiety about achieving it, gaining national attention then and now.

The privileges of increased affluence enjoyed mostly by whites were hardly the only impulse galvanizing the pursuit of wellness. Women, racial, and sexual minorities incorporated the cultivation of their own holistic health as a form of political resistance. Historian Alondra Nelson has charted how the Black Panthers established community-run East Bay medical facilities to foster wellbeing, “body and soul.”[4] Unwittingly, in this endeavor, this radical African-American group subscribed to an emergent worldview resonant with that in physically near, but culturally and socioeconomically distant, Marin, as well as growing communities statewide. This essay will consider three of these.


The Retreat

Established in Big Sur in 1962 by two Stanford graduates whose studies of Eastern religion and culture had left them disenchanted with American attitudes toward religion and mental health, the expansive Esalen Institute cultivated countercultural approaches to wellbeing ranging from the spiritual to the psychedelic.[5] As it became a national attraction, Esalen’s pedagogy exceeded the religious abstractions to focus on the body as a vehicle for transcendence. Nude “encounter sessions,” cultivation and consumption of organic foods, and yoga all juxtaposed the “natural” body and earth with the materialistic, technocratic, corrupt realm beyond its gates. Unabashed nudity and non-procreative sex, sustenance unspoiled by laboratory intervention, and “being in your body” were sufficiently subversive to be explored in secluded enclaves. Yet these sensibilities were going mainstream. Esalen’s founding yoga instructor, Pamela Rainbear Portugal, tellingly recounted one purpose of this elevated self-awareness: Enduring bourgeois domesticity. “Punch a punching bag instead of secretly—even to you—sniping at your mate,” she advised. “Otherwise you might someday ‘accidentally’ run the family Buick over him.”[6]

Integral to the Esalen mission was the pursuit of “self-actualization, creativity, and human potentiality,” and one way this mind-body ethos found expression was through yoga.[7] In keeping with the institute’s philosophy, development of a strong sense of self was the goal of embodied asana: “As long as you use your senses, you can do whatever YOU WANT,” Portugal wrote.[8] This actualized self was unapologetically corporeal but liberated from conventional beauty standards in a way that feels astonishing given the airbrushed aesthetic of today’s commercial yoga imagery. Line drawings depicted a woman whose ample figure, unkempt hair, and bulbous nose figured almost as conspicuously as the poses she modeled. Portugal also openly extolled the “release” of regularly vacating one’s bowels.[9]

Similarly, historian Sam Binkley relates the establishment in 1973 of Esalen’s sports center in which the customary goal of vanquishing an opponent was supplanted with “non-competitive organized play and deeper experiences of self-exploration, spiritual community, and transcendence.” A staff member remarked that this program was especially effective in implementing Esalen’s core principle “that the body and mind are so closely related.” A reporter agreed, musing that the “the clout generated by Esalen” might effect “a change in sports” as dramatic as “the storming of the Bastille.”[10]

Such innovations both reflected and shaped broader politics. In 1972, MAD magazine featured a grid portraying defining characteristics of “Liberals”: taking up yoga, feeding one’s pets organic foods, “walking around nude in front of the children,” and “making it a habit to call Negroes ‘blacks’” all made the list.[11] Holistic wellness, this mockery illuminates, was perceived as a liberal fascination. Meanwhile, in suburbs like San Mateo, Anaheim, and the Sacramento environs, burgeoning right-wingers simultaneously articulated an opposing sensibility that invested the body with reactionary political significance: Massive resistance to sex education, pornography, and the sexual revolutions ensued.[12] Lasch reflected in the New York Review of Books on these twin movements born in seemingly distant universes of the suburban subdivision and the spiritual retreat: “A growing despair of changing society has generated on the one hand a revival of old-time religion, on the other a cult of expanded consciousness, health, and personal ‘growth.’”[13]

If this historical moment spawned these divergent sensibilities, the ubiquity of twenty-first-century wellness culture relies on their peculiar convergence: The National Wellness Institute (1977) enjoys the support of both Mike Huckabee and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. A Republican lawmaker cheered the defeat of a bill regulating yoga studios by taking crow pose atop his desk; and wellness luminaries are at the same time progressives, like recent congressional aspirant the Los Angeles-based spiritual leader Marianne Williamson, or libertarians, like Lululemon Athletica founder Chip Wilson. This broad appeal at times signifies co-optation—which movements like Decolonizing Yoga have emerged to combat—but it also highlights how the previously marginalized, from the elderly to disabled, to fat, to queer, to Christian communities, now make claims to wellness culture and its benefits.


The Feminist Health Clinic

Reluctantly, Dan Rather’s interviewees skeptically embraced wellness as a last resort for mundane ailments like strained wrists and chronic back pain. Esalen’s patrons were drawn to its potential for spiritual emancipation, though as Betty Friedan commented after visiting, the retreat didn’t always challenge entrenched attitudes and hierarchies that lionized “macho mountain men.” Still, Esalen maintained a strong commitment to the thorny task of defining personal growth and political liberation as inextricably intertwined, welcoming Black Panthers, dissident intellectuals, and political figures alike to Big Sur.

Echoing this blend of politics and practicality, feminist health advocates also celebrated self-care and mind-body holism. Interweaving structural analysis with self-help, they blamed a male-dominated medical industry for limiting access to contraception and for dehumanizing women. In 1971, Belita Cowan of the Los Angeles Feminist Women’s Health Center taught herself how to use a plastic speculum, flashlight, and mirror to perform an examination on her cervix—which she then turned into a public teach-in inside of a feminist bookstore. In promoting unembarrassed physical self-knowledge and connecting female nudity to empowerment rather than objectification, Cowan inspired similar demonstrations all over the country. Such political spectacle could inspire sustained activism: In 1975 Cowan co-founded the National Women’s Health Network that laid bare the complicity of the medical industry and the Food and Drug Administration in concealing the harmful impact of many drugs on women’s health.[14]

These clinics cultivated a coherent notion of wellness, even as they provided different services based on community need. Facilities sponsored by the Office of Economic Opportunity (1965) offered otherwise financially prohibitive services such as basic exams and safe abortions in rural and inner-city communities. Like clinics run by the Young Lords and Black Panthers, these sites also offered an environment that challenged the “white coat” of the (often white, male) doctor to welcome communities long marginalized by mainstream medicine.[15] Inspired by women’s liberation on campus, colleges often operated clinics or recommended community centers. In 1972, the Stanford Women’s Center’s “A Guide for Stanford Women” listed female-staffed clinics that “provide good, low-cost care… to women and minorities.” The pamphlet’s emphasis on birth control and “menstrual extraction,” a measure that terminates pregnancy before detectable, suggested its focus on the needs of sexually active college women.

Such particular interventions were undergirded in a philosophy considered so new that a separate section called “MIND AND BODY” spelled out: Women are fundamentally different from men in their physical and psychological health needs; mental and physical health are inextricably intertwined; and “self-help,” inspired by the pioneering Los Angeles Feminist Women’s Health Center, seeks to “change women’s consciousness about their own bodies,” and “provide them with skills to maintain and improve their own health.”[16] The communities such clinics cultivated cast a wide net in promoting preventative health: One San Francisco outfit advertised consciousness-raising, another in Palo Alto was “a place to just go read a book.” By the 1980s, historian Jennifer Nelson describes an Atlanta clinic’s “Healthy Love” celebrations that framed women’s health as worthy of a party rather than pathologizing.[17]

Perhaps the strongest evidence of how effectively feminist health advocates promoted wellness as key to female self-determination was in its ready commodification. In one case, an Orange County used-car salesman-cum-abortion-provider, opened “Women Helping Women” in 1974. Devoted to helping “women [with their] special needs, special problems,” the clinic engaged in questionable practices such as compensating employees with breast enlargement surgeries, prompting denunciations by both anti-abortion picketers and the director of Santa Ana’s Feminist Women’s Health Center.[18] The clinic was “jammed” with prospective clients, reported the Los Angeles Times, intimating that a considerable segment of women were more interested in how “affordable care for women” translated into cut-rate plastic surgery than with the incongruity of such marketing with the feminist politics that birthed such clinics. As “wellness” became more broadly defined in the 1970s, it was marketed in ways that obscure its radical, communitarian origins.

The Gym

It was in the gym where notions of bodily transcendence and self-determination converged with beauty culture in an earnest embrace that remains passionate today. With little of the political or spiritual purpose of the retreat or health clinic, gyms also promoted mind-body holism and self-care, often wrapped in an unapologetic pursuit of beauty.

Working out was considered a bizarre, even suspicious, undertaking until the 1960s and ’70s.[19] In 1936, when exercise enthusiast Jack LaLanne opened his first gym in Oakland, the resistance he encountered foreshadowed the attitudes that would so irk feminist health advocates: “People thought I was a charlatan and a nut,” he remembered. “The doctors were against me—they said that working out with weights would give people everything from heart attacks to hemorrhoids; that women would look like men.”[20] On his television show, which ran for over three decades until 1985, LaLanne reassured the homemakers who comprised most of his viewers that physical training would not “ruin their figures with exercise” but would improve every aspect of their lives, from the emotional to the aesthetic.

Brick-and-mortar fitness clubs built by LaLanne and other Venice Beach entrepreneurs established arenas where exercise became about more than physical culture. [21] By the 1980s, such health clubs were multiplying, and were not necessarily temples of transcendence. A 1983 Rolling Stone cover story and the feature film it inspired, Perfect (1985), likened these gleaming successors of “sweaty dungeons” to “the wailing wall of West Coast fitness religion,” but they also resembled a somewhat seedy, spandex-swathed annex of the “sex-charged” L.A. dating scene.[22] A former patron agreed, remembering that the multi-level Sports Connection—where Perfect was filmed—was better known as “the Sports Erection.”[23] Training one’s body had not only somatic, but increasingly social payoffs.

But it was California’s peculiar postwar context that blended experimentation, political self-determination, and body-consciousness into a distinct culture and ideology.

Women like dancer Judi Sheppard Missett and Hollywood star Jane Fonda, however, launched fitness studios in the 1970s and ’80s out of frustration with the assumptions about women’s abilities that shaped the emergent fitness scene. In the late 1960s, Missett had been confused by the results of a physical fitness test administered at her local YMCA; she was matter-of-factly explained that the exam was geared to male physiology. Disturbed by this exchange, by low participation in her technically sophisticated dance classes, and by her sense that “mothers believed they should sit on the side watching their daughters rather than dance,” in 1969 Missett founded the inclusive dance-exercise format that evolved into Jazzercise.

A recent transplant to San Diego, Missett papered supermarket bulletin boards with flyers advertising her classes, in which women of all ages gathered to exercise free of the usual intimidation of the mirror, which she pointedly removed. When the devoted military wives who attended Missett’s classes inevitably faced relocation, these students became instructors themselves rather than abandon the exercise rituals some described as “life-affirming.” Missett and her acolytes actively linked physical exercise to fulfillment (and a global franchise), if not to overtly feminist politics, which had little currency in conservative San Diego County.[24]

Meanwhile, in Hollywood Jane Fonda built a fitness business that reflected the city’s more progressive sensibility.[25] Early profits of her Robertson Boulevard studio (opened in 1979) funded her activist husband Tom Hayden’s antipoverty nonprofit, California’s Campaign for Economic Democracy. Yet in 1969, the same year Missett launched Jazzercise, Fonda was flummoxed by a feminist who pointed out how the erotic film Barbarella objectified her: “I did not even know I had been. The burgeoning new women’s consciousness had not yet found its way into my mind and heart.”[26] Exercise was ultimately an important avenue for the development of Fonda’s feminist consciousness. The dance-aerobics she popularized in her three freestanding California studios and wildly popular VHS tapes and books inspired her to “create more realistic, less anxiety-ridden standards” for women—from “women judges to women janitors,” as her second book declared—also struggling with body image and sexual exploitation.[27]

Were Missett and Fonda deliberately endorsing wellness? In 2015, Missett told me, “the main focus here is continuing to help women understand that they can take possession of their lives by being healthy and fit” and “cultivating joy through music.” She targeted suburban women likely “intimidated” by swanky, “big-city” clubs like Sports Connection. Thousands of notes from students revealed that Jazzercisers gained more than physical benefits, relaying personal accounts of achieving the confidence to “get married or divorced or go on a safari or climb a mountain.” Fonda also recalled that women socialized to eschew exercise flouted conventions to do her videotapes; as far away as in “mud huts in Guatemala” working out galvanized female self-actualization. Indeed, in the United States countless women recalled that Fonda’s prominence made it acceptable “to sweat in public.” And increasingly, to find community therein: Gloria Steinem wrote in Ms. in 1982 that the “Family of Woman” engendered by the intimacy of the locker room at her women’s gym made “great beauties seem less distant and even mastectomies seem less terrifying.”

The same year that Steinem published that elegiac essay, titled “In Praise of Women’s Bodies,” Missett taught a Jazzercise class at the University of California’s San Diego campus as part of the fitness program for Wellness Week, so declared by Governor Jerry Brown. Not until the early 1990s, however, did Missett remember using the word wellness to market her own classes; she described herself as “tuned in” and influenced by the mind-body practices such as yoga and Pilates since the 1960s, but “it wasn’t marketable” until three decades later. In the 1982 follow-up to her 1981 bestseller, Fonda was more open about her grand ambitions for exercise. This close-range regional history of contemporary wellness illuminates a far more variegated landscape than most critiques permit. If wellness culture has created new arenas for the twin forces of narcissism and neoliberalism to flourish, so too have its arenas—yoga studios, gyms, farmers’ markets—cultivated resistance to the individualizing, stratifying dynamics that have come to structure our political economy, culture, and identities.

California of course had no monopoly on the varied spaces that birthed American wellness culture. In the era this essay spans, we might consider the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York (1977), the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective in Cambridge, Massachusetts (1969), the Lotte Berk Brownstone on Manhattan’s Upper East Side (1970), or the tens of New Jersey rec rooms where Jacki Sorensen launched Aerobic Dancing (1969). But it was California’s peculiar postwar context that blended experimentation, political self-determination, and body-consciousness into a distinct culture and ideology of wellness so regionally specific but nationally resonant that when I told a curious patron in a Long Island coffee shop that I was writing about the history of wellness, he quipped: “Shouldn’t you be out in California?”




 [1] “Wellness Resource Center with Dan Rather,” 60 Minutes, 1979,

[2] Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in An Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York: Norton, 1979).

[3] Avner Offer, The Challenge of Affluence: Self-Control and Well-Being in the United States and Britain Since 1950 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); Eva Moskowitz, In Therapy We Trust: America’s Obsession with Self-Fulfillment (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008); Elizabeth Lunbeck, The Americanization of Narcissism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014); Coronet Instructional Films, “Emotional Balance: Snap Out of It,” 1951, accessed via

[4] Alondra Nelson, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).

[5] Jeffrey Kripal, Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

[6] Pamela Rainbear Portugal, A Place for Human Beings, 2d ed. (San Francisco: Homegrown Books, 1978), 95.

[7] Kripal, Esalen, 105-106.

[8] Portugal, A Place for Human Beings, 73.

[9] Portugal, 38-39.

[10] Sam Binkley, Getting Loose: Lifestyle Consumption in the 1970s (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 230-31.

[11] Frank Jacobs and George Woodbridge, “The Mad Guide to Political Types,” MAD, October 1972.

[12] Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015); Clayton Howard, The Closet and the Cul de Sac (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, forthcoming); Neil J. Young, We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Rise of Interfaith Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[13] Christopher Lasch, “The Narcissist Society,” New York Review of Books, 30 September 1976.

[14] Sandra Morgen, Into Our Own Hands: The Women’s Health Movement in the United States, 1969-1990 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2002), 15; Marlene Cimons, “Women’s Group to Sue Maker of Contraceptive,” Los Angeles Times, 11 January 1983.

[15] Nelson, Body and Soul, 84.

[16] Stanford Women’s Center, “A Guide for Stanford Women, 1972,” Marjorie L. Shuer Papers, Box 1, Folder 11, Stanford University Special Collections.

[17] Jennifer Nelson, More Than Medicine: A History of the Women’s Health Movement (New York: New York University Press, 2015).

[18] Shearlean Duke, “Clinic for Women Only Surrounded by Controversy,” Los Angeles Times, 15 September 1974.

[19] Daniel Kunitz, Lift (New York: Harper Collins, 2016).

[20] Bill Morem, “Fitness Guru Jack Lalanne, 96, dies at Morro Bay home,” San Luis Obispo Tribune, 23 January 2011.

[21] Shelly McKenzie, Getting Physical: The Rise of Fitness Culture in America (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2013); Jonathan Black, Making the American Body: The Remarkable Saga of the Men and Women whose Feuds, Feats, and Passions Shaped Fitness History (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013).

[22] Aaron Latham, “Looking for Mister Goodbody,” Rolling Stone, June 1983; Neil Karlam, “Jamie Lee Curtis Gets Serious,” Rolling Stone, 18 July 1985.

[23] Oral history interview with Leslie Kaminoff, 2016.

[24] Oral history interview with Judith Sheppard Missett, 2015; Michael Schroeder, “Looking for a Bigger Slice,” The Detroit News, 20 September 1985.

[25] Black, Making the American Body, 85; Nikki Finke, “Aerobics Videos Get Some People All Worked Up,” Los Angeles Times, 12 November 1987,

[26] Jane Fonda, Jane Fonda’s Workout Book (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981), 18.

[27] James Spada, Fonda: Her Life in Pictures (New York: Doubleday, 1985); Alan Citron, “No Sweat: Jane Fonda Closes Her Beverly Hills Aerobics Studio,” Los Angeles Times, 3 April 1991; Femmy DeLyser, Jane Fonda’s Workout Book for Pregnancy, Birth, and Recovery (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982), 19, 164; Spada, Fonda, 194.


Natalia Mehlman Petrzela is an associate professor of history at The New School. She is the author of Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture (Oxford, 2015) and working on a book about fitness culture. She is a co-host of the Past Present podcast. Follow her on twitter @nataliapetrzela or through her website

Copyright: © 2018 Natalia Mehlman Petrzela. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See







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