BY Emily King in Opinion | 06 MAY 01
Featured in
Issue 58

Health and Efficiency

The naked truth behind the current vogue for well-being

BY Emily King in Opinion | 06 MAY 01

Stones, leaves, sheepskin, moisture, well-worn shoes, well-trodden floors, articulate hands and clean yet unkempt hair. 'Well-being' is a relatively recent category of consumer interest, but already it has acquired an unmistakable aesthetic - one that is peculiarly concrete for a quality that you might assume to be somewhat elusive. Since the early 1990s this kind of imagery has been seeping into the editorial and advertising content of many mainstream women's, interiors, and health and fitness magazines, but with the recent emergence of publications explicitly devoted to all-round mind/body contentment it has found a platform for pure, unabashed expression.

Two examples of this genre are Real Simple, published in the US by Time Inc., and Bare, published in the UK by John Brown. The emphasis of each magazine is quite different (Real Simple promotes pared-down living to an audience of thwarted comfort seekers, while Bare attempts to reconcile the contradictory forces at work in the lives of self-centred, urban professionals) but their message is the same: it is now possible to consume what was once seen as antithetical to consumerism. Moving beyond the scheme of the traditional consumer magazine, which encouraged us to buy products as stand-ins for the qualities missing in our industrially eroded lives, these magazines suggest that we can acquire the means to transcend those lives altogether.

Obviously there is something of a contradiction at work here, and that is what the aesthetic of well-being - all the rounded pebbles and so forth - aims to obscure. Flicking through the publications, it emerges that the most significant technique of obfuscation is analogy. This is a device that Real Simple uses fairly unimaginatively (flowers stand in for a multitude of desirable qualities) but which Bare explores to its fullest. Over its pages photographs of animals, plants, materials and textures, both natural and artificial, are used to create a seductive wallpaper of imagery behind which Bare's improbable proposition lurks like mildew. The Bare 'system' is most fully developed within a series of essays, one per issue, each of which tackles a one-word subject such as 'sleep' or 'light'. Laid out perpendicular to the spine, the texts force the persistent reader to turn the magazine 90 degrees. Requiring that we take a new angle, literally, on their subject matter, Bare pastes yet another layer of analogy onto their already elaborate construction.

Competing with the suggestive image, the other important ingredient in the look of well-being is the oddly cropped photograph: too much ground, too much sky, and disembodied hands and feet all feature heavily. The mood is intimate, yet evasive, a feeling echoed in the editorial agenda of the earlier issues of Bare. Celebrating self-consciously bizarre combos - high heels and yoga, vodka and vitamins - the first and second issues of the magazine suggested a privileged understanding of their audience's discrepant desires, but avoided addressing the discrepancy itself. By issue three things have changed quite a bit, but it seems that the world of mainstream magazines is still not yet ready for the relentlessly vague. Drafting in a more straightforward consumer agenda, the anonymous Bare faces that appeared on covers one and two have been replaced by Christy Turlington ('Bare Person'). Rather ominously, to the left of Christy's chin the coverline reads 'Well Being/ What the Hell is It?'

Emily King is a London-based writer and curator with a specialism in design.