Glossy women’s magazines were once to blame for promoting unattainable standards, but in the curated world of wellness Instagram, nothing short of perfect will do.

The generation that grew up on a diet of hypersexualised pop stars has a new female icon for aspirational fodder — that of the Goopy Gwyneth variety. Over the past decade, millennials have been told to stop worrying about being sexually desirable and instead aspire to reach the lofty heights of “fitspo”.

We’ve ditched the denim hotpants and replaced them with hemp-fuelled green smoothies, embodying a lifestyle characterised by cruelty-free skincare, organic wholefood produce and a work-life balance that surely only exists for those who don’t actually have to make a living. All the while, our wellness-filled lives need to be aesthetically snapped and shared on our social media platforms, #wellbeingwarrior.

Globally the wellness industry is worth over $4 trillion. Key figures in the wellness army, and those aspiring to make it past the industry gatekeepers into fitspo fame, encourage followers to join them in a quest to become the “best versions” of themselves. They encourage us to eat healthier, exercise smarter and cleanse often, all in the name of reaching wellness nirvana. But what if this quest is doing us more harm than good?

Amie Maclaine, a 24-year-old digital marketing professional has been burnt by what she calls the gimmicks of the wellness industry. Over the years Amie has purchased several wellness cash grabs including products that promise toned abs instantly, harmful diet teas and juice “detoxes”, all in a bid to live up to the standards of the fitspo accounts that flooded her social media feeds. Labelling the wellness industry as performative, Amie says the industry as a whole thrives on trends that perpetuate the idea that perfection is achievable.

After three years of following diets promoted through fitspo social media accounts, Amie developed an eating disorder. While she has since recovered, she says the industry is still a “big mind f*ck. Every day I see something that makes me second guess my health,” she says. “Largely thanks to TikTok and my Instagram explore page, I am constantly flooded with new ways to ‘be healthy’. For years I have struggled with what being healthy means to me. I’m still working through that struggle. Having hundreds of accounts telling me to be in a calorie deficit to lose weight is extremely confronting for someone who has suffered with body and weight issues for over a decade.”

At the height of her immersion in the glossy, acai-filled rabbit hole of wellness Instagram, Amie began suffering with physical and mental exhaustion and the constant shame of not living up to the wellness lifestyle’s standards. “Physically, no matter how much I slept, my body constantly felt like it had been hit by a bus,” she says. “The lethargy had taken over and there was seemingly no cure. My stomach became over-sensitive to foods that I had never had issues with before and the headaches were never-ending. Emotionally, texts, emails and messages became impossible to reply to. Social commitments were anxiety-inducing for fear of no escape when the tiredness hit.” Amie was burnt out.

UK-based career and life design coach Selina Barker is on a mission to help perpetual perfectionists like Amie notice and proactively overcome the throes of burnout. The author of Burnt Out: The exhausted person’s guide to thriving in a fast-paced world, Selina says that burnout has myriad symptoms including physical exhaustion, insomnia, feeling irritable, as well as an inability to focus and make decisions.

Since suffering with what she calls her first mini burnout seven years ago, Selina has become increasingly agitated by how normalised severe mental and physical exhaustion has become. “When I had mini burnouts, my body and brain would go on strike,” says Selina. “It’s like a fuse would go off in my brain where I was so mentally exhausted that making any kind of decision was overwhelming. Deciding what to eat for dinner would bring me to tears. It’s the kind of exhaustion where more than an early night is needed to cure it.”

Selina believes society’s obsession with perfection is causing burnout and heightening the noise of what she calls our “inner shitty committee. The inner shitty committee is the negative voice in your head that always tells you you’re not good enough and why you have to be better,” says Selina. “Our quest for perfect everything is causing burnout; the quest for perfect health, the perfect life, the perfect work-life balance. All of that can contribute to burnout.”

The hyper-glorified world of Western yoga dictates that not only is this perfect balance attainable, it’s necessary for a holistically viable life. Through endless Instagram images of contortionist-style poses and drool-worthy plant-based recipes, yoga has transitioned from being a practice for healing into a social media competition.

Sydney-based yoga teacher Janet Yockers has witnessed how yoga and the wider yoga community can both alleviate and exacerbate the symptoms of burnout. “It’s amazing that there are so many incredible wellness offerings available and opportunities for people to be healthy,” says Janet. “However, the media really only shows us the good stuff, which unfortunately can lead us to comparison and feeling like we’re not enough or doing enough.

“There are also so many buzzwords out there like ‘mindfulness’ and ‘self-care’ that, as consumers, can mistakenly make us believe we need something. Every industry has to promote and sell itself. It’s just tricky when the values of yoga and wellbeing are compromised in the process and there is no real salutation except to be honest and genuine about what we are offering.”

While the yoga industry is often presented as the golden ticket to enlightenment and perfect health, Janet believes the physical practice is just one facet of fostering a lifestyle that is healthy and also maintainable. “I like to think of exercise as just one piece of the pizza,” she says. “For a balanced, whole and sustainable life, we have to look at all the things that create a solid foundation of wellbeing: healthy and meaningful relationships, a stable home life, financial security, meaningful work and activities that challenge us, eating nourishing good food … the list goes on.”

In order to recognise and tune into such a balance, burnout expert Selina argues that we need to do the internal work. It is up to us to decipher which health practices are soothing and those that actually cause more stress. “It’s so important that we recognise the wisdom we have within us,” she says. “But we have to tune into it and it takes time to develop that. We are in a world of noise that constantly wants to tell us what we need. Social media absolutely plugs into that.”

Selina does believe some wellness influencers are genuinely trying to help people find their own health nirvana, but it’s up to individuals to look beyond the filter to deduce what is truly healthy. And that will look different for each person. “When you look at someone on Instagram who appears to have a so-called healthy life just because of how they look, you need to be mindful,” says Selina. “There is nothing wrong with being inspired, but don’t be fooled into thinking that being skinny, wearing nice workout clothes and following expensive diets is what healthy looks like. Healthy is so much more about what is on the inside then what is on the outside.”

While the hypersexualised music video stars of the naughties have been replaced by social media influencers who pedal liquid diets and “skinny” teas, there is a growing undercurrent of wellness industry rebels. The body normality movement is on the rise in Australia. Championed by figures including Abbie Chatfield and Flex Mami, these leaders are empowering their followers to embrace balance over burnout.

For Amie Maclaine, her 20s have come with two awakenings: a redefinition of what is healthy and a clean-out of her Instagram feed. “In recent years, I have found a small niche within the health and wellness industry on social media that promotes finding happiness with who you are and where you are at present,” says Amie. “This community is one that has finally empowered me to feel solace and peace of mind with where my health is at.”

Will loves seeking out and crafting inspiring stories. Born and bred in Adelaide, he has lived in Sydney for over half a decade where he has been a publicist for international brands, a food writer and advocate for The Butterfly Foundation and batyr.