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Male wellness
Wim Hof

Fist pumps and ice baths: How wellness became more ‘manly’


TextFrancis Blagburn

From Boys of Yoga to Goopfellas, we examine the explosion of male wellness and why it's in a world of its own

Welcome to the Dazed Beauty Digital Spa. From the role of placebo in extreme wellness to the problem with our cannabis obsession, here we explore the complexities of the wellness industry and how it might evolve.

I am lying on my bed and Wim Hof is staring at me. The Dutch adventurer, nicknamed the Ice Man after his love of sub-zero temperatures, is being beamed into my room via YouTube. “Get high on your own supply!” he is saying against the hypnotic sound of an ambient drone, my lungs filling sharply as I breathe in through my stomach, chest, face – and out; stomach, chest, face – and out. Outside, life is happening. Another email pings into my inbox. My to-do list app is buzzing angrily. A Netflix show I just have to watch is taking off. But as I reach 30 of these breaths, it all floats away. My hands fizz and crackle like popping candy. I feel elated.

This is my introduction to the Wim Hof Method, an increasingly popular form of wellness based on breath work and cold water immersion techniques. Its growth echoes the rise of the wellness economy as a whole, a booming market valued at £3.2 trillion (£463 billion more than the entire GDP of Germany). Wellness itself is a fuzzy word which incorporates everything from health and fitness to spa days, juice cleanses, skincare and Andy from Headspace, but it broadly refers to the pursuit of health on a holistic basis, nurturing mind, body, and – if you fancy – soul.

In its modern form, this has not typically been associated with men. The global industry is led by female entrepreneurs, with Women’s Health estimating that approximately 27 million women are influential within their definition of the wellness sector. But this isn’t just because women happen to like the taste of flax seeds and acai bowls more than men do. One of the reasons wellness has become so traditionally popular among women is that it is seen to be a kind of reaction to problems women have faced with conventional health care. With medical professionals statistically more likely to be sceptical of the chronic pain symptoms of women, in turn, women are more likely to proactively seek out a plan B. Hence, the birth of an alternative healthcare ecosystem: the wellness industry.

But the tide is turning, with industry giants like Goop, who hitherto traded on feminised branding, now expanding into the male wellness sector. Not only is it debuting a men’s podcast called Goopfellas later this month, Goop will also be launching its very own men’s vertical and associated newsletter. Elsewhere, Lululemon and Nike are making yoga apparel for men, while Boy Smells are selling scented candles with genderfluid branding.

There’s also Hims, a Silicon Valley start-up targeting men exclusively, emphasising the lifestyle factors that can contribute to anxiety-inducing issues and personal health issues. The brand’s mission statement is to “enable a conversation that's currently closeted”. They want to lead the charge, “creat[ing] an open and empowered male culture that results in more proactivity around health and preventative self-care”. These statements are aimed squarely at millennials, banking on the notion that it’s not just older men who worry about issues like erectile dysfunction (ED) and hair loss - both of these being medical concerns that have been encompassed by the holistic wellness movement. It’s a smart move since a new generation of men are indeed worried about these issues. One survey showed that more than 25% of men under 35 turn to drink and drugs as a result of hair loss, while another showed almost half of men in their 30s suffer from erectile dysfunction. With its pastel-shaded adverts featuring cacti as wink-wink-nudge-nudge substitutes for penises, Hims’ marketing echoes taboo-busting ads in the feminine wellness space like Libresse’s Viva La Vulva.

Millennial men, accustomed to these Instagram-friendly aesthetics, are listening. Within months of launch, Wired reported that Hims was worth $200 million, and had sold $10 million of hair loss and erectile dysfunction products.

"At first glance it can look as though this boom in male wellness is the last nail in the coffin for toxic masculinity"

But it’s not just viagra that Hims is selling as a solution to the stress of this thirty-something male. There are all sorts of pills and potions in the brand’s cabinet of wellness creations. Shoppers in the US can choose from everything from vitamin C serums to wrinkle creams and pills to deal with premature ejaculation. (UK men have a slimmed down menu focusing on hair loss and ED, the rest falling victim to EU regulations.)

At first glance it can look as though this boom in male wellness is the last nail in the coffin for toxic masculinity, heralding an era when men and women will come together under one gender-neutral banner of wellness. But while our changing gender assumptions signal a liberation in some ways, that’s not the full picture. Male wellness is still very much its own siloed version of wellness, with men particularly attracted to wellness doyens who promote a masculine “extreme” or “no pain no gain” mindset. Take Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. GQ dubbed his wellness regime a “highly public performance of suffering”. It involves taking three ice baths a day, meditating for two hours a day and spending his birthday in total silence practising vipassana, a gruelling form of meditation he describes as “extremely painful and demanding physical and mental work”.

There’s also tech CEO Tim Grey, whose incredibly demanding wellness routine went viral earlier this year and had Twitter comparing him to Patrick Bateman from American Psycho. Tim Grey wakes up at 7.45am having had “seven hours and forty-one minutes’ sleep.” He then goes on to take a multitude of supplements (probiotics, Quinton Isotonic, Chaga mushroom powder, potassium, colostrum and collagen); measures his urine pH levels with litmus test strips; uses a “HumanCharger” which shines light into his ear to give him energy; fist pumps the air; takes the nootropic drug called aniracetam to switch on his brain, before rounding off his day with a trip to his very own Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy Centre where he lies “in a pressurised chamber while pure oxygen is pumped into it”.

Other influencers promote more wholesome ideals, but still ultimately lionise discomfort over self-care. Want to experience the joy of nature but also become “superhuman”? Try going on one of Wim Hof’s retreats and climbing a mountain in your short shorts. Want to have toned abs but also be spiritual and sensitive? Just be like Crosby Tailor from the Wildfire Initiative (a group of LA gym bros who lead workshops on meditation and breathwork). He’s wholesome, like the way he bakes sugar-free desserts and posts videos of his dad on Insta. But he’s also, in many ways, ascetic: setting an unattainable standard where to fit in you’ve got to have perfect pecs, sturdy glutes, plenty of cash and a willingness to suffer. “We say to people, don’t be afraid of discomfort,” he told The Times. “It’s only going to help you grow.”

These icons of male wellness encourage men to embrace a certain degree of pain in order to become better, stronger, more productive – to “hack” the body as an answer to workplace and other kinds of stress. For Artur Paulins, a certified Wim Hof Method instructor, this discomfort is all about connecting with our natural biology. “We're evolved over thousands of years to be exposed to nature,” he tells me. “But we don't expose ourselves to this acute stress any more, we expose ourselves to chronic stress, from bills and emails to job obligations. I think if we introduce some of the controlled stressers, your body just functions better.”

"It seems that men are still reluctant to embrace wellness wholesale, and still require their own version"

But while functioning better can be a genuine result of breathwork and cold water immersion, it can also provide cover for some more dubious practices such as fasting. Male wellness frequently targets diet as a key area to introduce even more acute stress to the body, with the theory being that fasting kickstarts the body's fat burning processes. Control is a hallmark of disordered eating, and though men are not often associated with eating disorders, they are by no means immune: there has been a 70% rise in the number of men suffering from them in recent years. It’s in this context that the rise of intermittent fasting is raising some concern.

“We've seen a lot more men in clinic, particularly towards the tail end of last year and beginning of this year, who are telling us that they are going on all of these wellness-y trends”, says Laura Thomas PhD, a registered nutritionist and author of Just Eat It. “For females it was more the kind of clean eating, veganism, raw vegan, but we're seeing a lot more men go down the route of keto diets, intermittent fasting and time restricted feeding – so I think there's an interesting gender divide there.”

But why is there a gender divide at all? It seems that men are still reluctant to embrace wellness wholesale, and still require their own version. While raw vegan might carry associations explicitly tied to diet and weight loss, keto and other diets are repackaged in more masculine language of bio-hacking, optimisation and eating like a caveman. Thomas points to the connections between keto and the paleo, or caveman, diet, and the masculine cachet in the idea of tapping into primordial strength. “It’s bundled up with [the notion that] that men are providers. It kind of taps into the bio-hacking thing as well, the idea that men can dominate and conquer even biology and genetics.”

These notions of dominance and caveman-like gender roles stand in opposition to the narrative that men have moved beyond toxic masculinity. However, Paulins notes that the cold water therapies of Wim Hof act as a form of “trojan horse” to mindfulness. At least at first, men appear to require some sort of justification or false pretence to get involved in the more spiritual side of things – such as mindfulness – which still carry a ‘feminine’ stigma. Even in yoga, which has seen numbers of men climbing rapidly from 18% of total US yogis in 2012 to 28% four years later, there is still a separate movement packaged for men. As the Boys of Yoga website puts it: “To most guys, yoga is pink lycra and vegan chicks. It’s breathing deeply while doing poses named after animals and feelings. It’s done in dimly lit rooms with candles and incense, followed by gluten-free cupcakes and kale smoothies. And if that’s your mentality then you’re not alone. But it doesn’t mean it’s right.”

This need to delineate male wellness from feminine wellness feels increasingly unnecessary. But perhaps, as Artur suggests, it serves a purpose, a way of getting men through the door so they might reap the multitude of benefits that wellness can provide. In this light, this gendered language feels like a first stage, a growing pain, that will become increasingly redundant as time goes on. “Oftentimes there is resistance to new things or things that may come with the stereotype or a stigma,” says Michael James Wong, who founded Boys of Yoga and has written a book on mindfulness and meditation called Sit Down, Be Quiet. “The biggest obstacle is actually the word yoga or the word meditation as opposed to the actual practices or experiences. Once people try, they have a huge cultural benefit.”

For Wong, the gendered language of the Boys of Yoga site is just a way of getting men over the line, with the ultimate goal of inclusivity. “The more men that come into the conversation of wellness the more rounded the conversation,” he says. “Having men come into the conversation isn’t to change it, divert it or make it a different in a way, it’s about appreciating a full conversation around wellness and a lifestyle that benefits everyone, and everyone’s wellbeing.” But while his ultimate goal may be inclusivity, the hyper masculine nature of the language used on the Boys of Yoga website feels at odds with this and perhaps instead creates an unwelcoming environment for everyone else.

That said, his focus on an inclusive conversation that goes beyond gender is echoed throughout the global wellness community. While there remains a male wellness movement that packages masculine approaches to competitiveness and stoicism, there’s actually no need for a siloed approach based on gender. It seems to exist primarily as an introduction to wellness, a “trojan horse” to get men over the line: once there, a world of opportunity opens up that is more rooted in an inclusive conversation than the promotion of masculine dominance. With more men stepping over that line, we might expect to see even more men getting involved in wellness in years to come and, paradoxically, a decline in male wellness as its own phenomenon.

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