A man in a suit laying in a bed with an IV drip in. The IV bag is filled with money.
Design by Emily Schwartz.

The phrase “health is wealth” has become relatively universal, to the point that it almost feels cliché to write. Nonetheless, it’s a message that holds true across geographic borders and cultures: You can’t enjoy life in the absence of good health. Regardless of whether your health is currently your top priority, it provides a basis upon which everything you value is built — family, work, school, hobbies and community.

Traditionally, “health is wealth” is well-intentioned with a genuine message; its significance and sincerity are further supported by the phrase’s longevity. The idiom dates back 2,000 years, when the Roman poet Virgil supposedly coined the phrase, stating, “the greatest wealth is health.”

While the particular syntax of the saying has changed, the meaning has maintained its integrity: Your health is of the greatest value and is the key to a fulfilling life. 

The saying is built on the idea that health is so valuable that we can’t put a price on it. It’s meant to ground humankind by advising against superficiality and reminding us that what makes life special can’t be purchased. Conceptually, we understand this to be true. However, what is seemingly an obvious message has been distorted in our modern, capitalist world as we reshape the meaning of health. 

Health is a notoriously difficult term to define. While it’s used in everyday conservation, we lack a universal definition for health that everyone agrees upon. For the purpose of this discussion, we’ll go with the World Health Organization’s definition of health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being.” However, there’s a caveat even to this definition: Many individuals, from physicians to anthropologists to myself, don’t feel this accurately represents a “healthy” individual. WHO illustrates an ideal, “complete,” state of well-being. But perceptions of well-being and health status vary from person to person. If someone is managing a chronic illness like diabetes, are they considered healthy? What about the pain I feel from the bruise on my knee, or the extra stress induced the week before my organic chemistry exam? These questions point to the variable definition of health. There’s no one scale that places an individual in “good” or “bad” health because normative terms like good and bad are interpreted uniquely by each individual and their experiences.

Instead of showcasing the value of our health, the phrase puts a spotlight on our materialistic society. “Health is wealth” may have been true in the past, but in a modern world that is fueled by money and power dynamics, we’ve learned how to turn health into a marketable good. Our society is so deeply ingrained with consumerist ideals that we’ve discretely swept the prior notion of health as a priceless commodity under the rug. Companies now profit off something that is not even for sale.

The saying no longer holds the same meaning because we live in a society that capitalizes on the illusion of health. An apparent illustration of this can be seen in the social media trend of the “clean girl aesthetic.” Any quick internet search will bring you thousands of videos that model similar routines and “healthy” lifestyle habits. The typical “clean girl” wakes up at 6 a.m., makes a green juice, performs her six-step skincare routine, attends a SoulCycle or Equinox class in a Lululemon matching set, takes her supplements and changes into her Aritzia sweat set for work. The wave of healthy “clean girls” overtook social media. On TikTok, as of March 15, there were 3.3 billion views from videos with this tag. These influencers, whether they are aware of it or not, have tied this aesthetic to consumerism. The clean girl craze is an evident illustration of the changing meaning of “health is wealth,” as expensive skin care products and matching workout sets are glamorized and viewed as necessities to the new healthy, it girl aesthetic.

I am not trying to neglect the benefits of these trends. I enjoy watching these 10-second compilations and have been inspired by the “clean girls” in question to build better habits. However, the downside of this aesthetic is the tunnel vision of how health is defined in these videos. With an audience of over three billion people, the expansive reach of these videos showcases only one specific version of health and lifestyle choices. The women in these videos have excessive free time and typically come from mid-to-high socioeconomic backgrounds; consequently, they showcase morning routines and lifestyle habits that are not viable for the average person. 

The “clean girl” aesthetic further markets wellness-style brands, and now they’re reaping even greater profits off warped definitions of health. Sporty & Rich, a luxury brand popularized by the wave of “clean-girls,” charges $300 to $400 for matching sweat sets decorated with phrases like “Health & Wellness Club” or advice like “Be Nice. Get Lots of Sleep. Drink Plenty of Water.” The message of “health is wealth” has been tarnished by brands like this, whose advertisements and marketing are centered on the idea of achieving wellness at an unreasonably high price tag. At the top of their website, before the pages of overpriced, minimalist athleisure, they have their slogan displayed: “Good Health Starts Here.” Health is often seen as a luxury, so there’s a problem when brands use “good health” as a marketing ploy to increase sales and further the notion of achieving health by means of money.

The saying “wealth is health” is more fitting within the current economic climate. However, it is not just social media and lifestyle brands that perpetuate this twisted narrative: it’s the healthcare industry itself. Vitamins are often portrayed as a necessary component of personal healthcare. They practically sell themselves, as the root word “vita” (quite similar to “vital”) in “vitamins” functions as an easy sales strategy. Companies offer a pill for every problem and commonly market vitamins as a preventive health strategy that offer numerous health benefits. Despite the fact that there is little evidence that this is true, approximately half of the U.S. adult population takes vitamins.

Due to the marketization of health, the dietary supplement industry earns over $30 billion each year. However, there are many more cost-effective alternatives to vitamins that consumers can reallocate their money toward. “Pills are not a shortcut to better health and the prevention of chronic diseases,” said Larry Appel, a researcher at John Hopkins. Changes in nutrition and habit — such as reducing trans fat, sugar and sodium, and eating a balanced diet — have shown far greater health improvements. However, our capitalist society has Americans hooked on the idea of health as a commodity, and it is only becoming easier to market such a sought-after good.

This is just one of the many intersections between health and wealth. Companies market the illusion of health at a high price tag. It’s equally if not more important to recognize the prevalence of health disparities that exist due to unjust advantages resulting from socioeconomic statuses and social determinants of health. A 2008 study reported that adults below the poverty level are five times as likely to report being in poor or fair health than those at 400% of the federal poverty level. It remains true that wealth is a critical factor in health outcomes, and companies, as well as the U.S. healthcare system itself, continue to broaden this divide while profiting off of wrongful depictions of health.

It appears we often prioritize maintaining the illusion of health over one’s actual well-being. Our society has manipulated this vulnerability of health status that afflicts all humans. Now, wealth more accurately represents what “health” looks like. Health continues to provide lucrative opportunities for such companies that perpetuate these false narratives. It is up to us to change the definition of health to reflect a more accurate and diverse picture. 

We ought to dismantle the notion that there’s one “normal” version of health and cease being victims to the marketing tactics of athleisure and lifestyle brands. Being healthy is relative, and the experience of living includes sickness. Take care of your mind, listen to your body and do what makes you feel your best. 

Kate Micallef is an Opinion Columnist from Boca Raton, FL. She writes about lifestyle, trend cycles, and college culture for The Daily and can be reached at katemic@umich.edu.