Running on a treadmill is an appealing analogy for both the search for wellness and the investigation of its claims. A lot of effort goes into it, yet we never seem to get anywhere. At least with running, there are clear health benefits.
I read two books about the wellness industry this year: Rina Raphael’s The Gospel of Wellness and Colleen Derkatch’s Why Wellness Sells. These two tomes pull the façade off of this $4.4-trillion wellness economy to interrogate the self-empowerment it sells. Raphael’s book, meant for a lay audience of women, weaves her own adventures in wellness with quotes from experts, who shine a scientific light on the chemophobia of the beauty product business and the supplement recommendations of wellness influencers. (Full disclosure: I was interviewed for a tiny section of the book that deals with functional medicine and have two sentences quoted in there.) Derkatch’s volume, meanwhile, is aimed at an academic audience. It analyzes the language and arguments of wellness and how, for all of its posturing against pharmaceuticals, wellness often relies on the same sickness model and marketing style that medicine uses.
The two books agree that wellness’ expensive prescriptions did not pop into existence from nothing; they are understandable Band-Aids meant to treat systemic problems the extent of which is so vast, it makes me pessimistic about the possibility of truly fixing them. “Chemical-free” beauty products, clean eating, and a truckload of supplements may make us feel in control in the face of work-induced burnout and chronic symptoms that doctors still puzzle over and refuse to take seriously, but these wellness remedies rarely stand up to scrutiny. This examination reveals a religious reverence for nature and a two-faced self-empowerment that blames ill health on the individual who simply did not do enough to buy their way to salvation.
Wellness as sacred fashion
One of the issues with wellness, as Raphael puts it, is that it “is often treated a lot more like fashion in the media.” Raphael herself is a journalist who has covered the industry for mainstream publications, first as fashionable trends and later with a critical eye. She knows all too well that dietary supplements are often pitched to consumers with the same sizzle and razzle-dazzle that magazine writers use to announce that skinny jeans are out and ruffle is in. Crucial to the allure of wellness interventions is the appeal to nature: its influencers denounce anything synthetic as inherently bad while their products, originally derived from nature but processed ten times over, are seen as pure. As Perry Romanowski, a cosmetic scientist, is quoted as saying in the book, though, “There are no lipstick trees.” You can’t shake vitamin tablets from a bush, yet the wellness industry’s marketing campaigns, tapping into ancient notions of good and evil, have clearly succeeded.
I haven’t even defined what I mean by “wellness,” but both Raphael and Derkatch agree: wellness consumers can’t seem to rein that word in either. Derkatch interviewed 40 Canadians who regularly take natural health products and who are actively interested in wellness, and when they were asked to define wellness, she writes that their definitions were “thoughtful but nonspecific and often circular, with frequent pauses, false starts and frequent interruptions.” They zeroed in on ideas of balance and functionality, but wellness, it turns out, is an ideal, forever out of reach, and its hazy definition allows its industry to grow indefinitely. Wellness can truly be anything you want it to be, from bending over into downward-facing dog on a yoga mat to anxiously decrypting ingredient lists on shampoo bottles to avoid “toxins” and “chemicals.”
In Derkatch’s Why Wellness Sells, health humanities scholar Catherine Belling is quoted as remarking that “the body is not transparent.” Health is thus always hanging by a thread. Something could be lurking inside our opaque bodies, ready to plunge us into illness any day now. This opacity turns consumers into “intuitive toxicologists,” and this is where communication often breaks down between scientists and wellness consumers. To us, a toxin is a biologically produced poison or venom, ironically a natural substance, whereas the worried well have been trained to think of toxins as industrial by-products that move around, play hide-and-seek in our environment, and are ultimately bad for you. Conversations are fraught when we are not even speaking the same language.
Moving consumers even further away from science is the religious halo that so much of wellness paints above its metaphorical head. One of Raphael’s book chapters is titled “Gym as Church.” It begins with a description of Ally Love’s virtual Peloton class called “Welcome to Sundays with Love,” in which Love, sitting on her stationary bicycle, stares into the camera and declares that “today’s virtue is honesty.” Her classes, Raphael writes, “are motivational sweat sessions dripping with nondenominational faith.” Working out is no longer simply about health; it is now a fitness experience and a lifestyle, complete with spiritual fulfillment. Listening to her research participants talk about their supplement routine, Colleen Derkatch observes in her book that there is a parallel to be drawn with the Christian ritual of the Eucharist. The woman who takes capsules of N-acetyl cysteine for “something for the mind, I forget” can see, smell and taste these capsules, but “the outcome of her ritual is neither sharply defined nor concrete.” In a sense, those who engage in the rituals of wellness have faith that these acts will pay off in the future.
And these rituals are accompanied by unspoken guidelines, a credo of sorts, which Derkatch calls “pieties,” meaning the scripts that determine when, where, and how people perform the acts of wellness. They are lessons drawn from how wellness is marketed. Women, one piety goes, should be calm even under pressure. Healthy and successful people should sleep easily and without interruption every night, goes another. If you are beautiful, you must be well. You become yourself through wellness and being yourself takes on-going commitment and work.
These are aspects of wellness culture I was already familiar with. But one of the central observations made by Derkatch in her book put words to something I had been feeling but hadn’t been able to articulate clearly enough.
An alternative to medicine
The ways in which people talk about wellness reveal an uncomfortable dance between two perspectives. On the one hand, wellness, in opposition to health and to the interventions of medicine, is seen as enhancing the body, mind, and soul. It makes us better than well and is holistic, meaning all-encompassing. It builds and boosts and feeds. But interestingly enough, when Derkatch pushes her research participants to explain why they take specific wellness supplements, the idea of enhancement disappears, to be replaced by a logic of restoration that focuses on treating illness. She is told about “natural papaya stuff” to treat a cut. She hears about arnica for pain relief. Someone mentions boric acid to treat a yeast infection. All of a sudden, the logic of enhancement falls to the ground like a curtain being dropped to reveal what is really happening: wellness, in its day-to-day applications, is often seen as an alternative to medicine.
Even the idea of being well is often described as a pre-illness state in keeping with a medical perspective. Pharmaceuticals are seen as dangerous, harsh, and suppressive of symptoms. Natural health products have been sold to the masses as benign, gentle, and targeting the underlying cause of illness. Faced with complex problems and rising levels of stress, it’s no wonder that so many choose a simple alternative that feeds off of magical thinking.
I learned a lot from Derkatch’s work, which scrutinizes the ideas and values that hide behind the words chosen by wellness influencers and customers, but I do have to push back against two of her arguments. She claims that consumers are not ignorant of science. I find this hard to square with the data I have seen. Most people do not know what homeopathy is and conflate it with herbalism. Rina Raphael quotes a shocking figure in her book: 45% of American adults—nearly half!—do not even know that all food from plants and animals contains DNA, which puts the hubbub around genetically modified food into perspective. In a survey of 2,000 American adults, three quarters of high-income respondents and two thirds of lower-income respondents agreed that they avoid products containing “chemicals” when purchasing groceries. We can resurrect the “toxin” definition debate here and notice that consumers and scientists are speaking different languages, but that is a problem of scientific illiteracy. All groceries are made up of chemicals. There is much work to be done here.
Derkatch also alleges that “debunkers of celebrity health fads” and pro-science advocates simply believe that giving consumers more and better facts will help them see they have been duped, and she calls this approach less rich and less accurate than looking at how an entire industry has trained these consumers to think in this way. While there are still science communicators out there who simply lean on the information deficit model—which states that the public believes inaccurate things about science only because it is ignorant of the science—they are the exception, not the rule. Facts can work, but we are well aware that believing the pseudoscience of the wellness industry involves a complex ecosystem in which systemic problems, value judgments, and community forces all feed each other, and we write about this all the time.
And debunking does work: as Rina Raphael points out at the end of her book, we don’t hear much about The Food Babe anymore. Her ill-informed takes on the food industry were sharply criticized by many debunkers. “Mainstream news networks seemingly stopped booking her,” Raphael observes. Debunking is also part of an ecosystem and it can influence who the press chooses to spotlight, which has an impact on what consumers are exposed to.
Ultimately, though, both Raphael and Derkatch agree: the trickle-down, you-do-you health advice we receive from our institutions is toxic and it only serves to drive people into the arms of the wellness industry.
The system is unwell
Derkatch’s Why Wellness Sells begins with the COVID-19 pandemic. She writes that her university, like so many others, reminded her to keep her wellbeing top of mind. Her workload, however, did not lessen. As healthcare, education and social support spendings get cut and as permanent employment tied to generous benefits becomes rarer, governments and employers are being absolved of their duty to care for their citizens and workers. Individuals are encouraged to shop their way to health. A lack of success in this area is seen as a moral failing. The self-empowerment carrot dangled in front of us by the wellness economy is an illusion; it is sleight of hand to disguise the shifting of important responsibilities away from large infrastructures and into the hands of stressed-out individuals. To change this would require collective action, but as Derkatch smartly notes, how can we engage in it when we are barely hanging on, suffering from a type of exhaustion that has been promoted to us as a status symbol?
Faced with these systemic issues, Rina Raphael lashes out in the title of her first chapter: “Why the hell is the advice always yoga?”
As governments and corporations place the burden of staying healthy—and becoming the best “us” we can possibly be—strictly at our feet, a wellness industry has sprung up, giving us the illusion of control with exaggerated health claims, unproven potions, and disproven alternatives to medicine. And keeping up with the prognostications of the wellness soothsayers is stressful, much like trying to keep a wardrobe hip in the era of fast fashion. Those of us trying to shake people out of consumers’ trances, understandable as they are, are then faced with the problem of infinite empathy. No matter how much we talk about women and minorities often being disbelieved by doctors and about the repercussions of a system that treats workers as disposable cogs in a machinery, we get accused of simply being debunkers who lack compassion.
I really enjoyed Raphael’s The Gospel of Wellness, and though I disagree with Derkatch’s take on those of us who push back against pseudoscience, I think Why Wellness Sells will inform my work moving forward.
Meanwhile, the next time a friend of yours praises the glory of the wellness movement, ask them to define what they mean by “wellness.” Watch them frequently pause and interrupt themselves as they voice nonspecific and often circular definitions. This is the greatest trick the wellness marketing machine ever pulled off: convincing people to pay money to reach an unreachable, ill-defined target by buying into a system as focused on illness as medicine is but without the mechanism to evaluate the worth of its evidence.
An alternative to pill-pushing doctors? Take a look at Joe Mercola’s $100-million worth and his emporium of dietary supplements and ask yourself if maybe we’ve been lied to.