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I want to relax so hard. I want to win at serenity. Because, as journalist and author Rina Raphael explains in her new book, “The Gospel of Wellness: Gyms, Gurus, Goop, and the False Promise of Self-Care“: “As Americans, we’re strivers.” Indeed, over the past few years, that ethos has helped fuel an explosively lucrative industry of products and services aimed almost exclusively at anxious, burned out, semi-affluent American women. While the patriarchy is yet to be smashed, maybe a sheet mask and detox diet will serve as a temporary salve.
As a writer, Raphael has been covering the wellness phenomenon for years. She has also, by her own admission, at times embraced it. And the intimate balance she strikes between her skeptical, curious investigation and her honest relationship with consumerism gives “The Gospel of Wellness” its intelligent, emotional punch. She doesn’t denigrate women for being influenced by a powerful and persuasive industry; instead she unpacks why modern wellness has become such a juggernaut, and the class and gender dynamics that drive it.
Salon spoke to Raphael about how we got to this place of “fetishizing health,” CBD leggings, and of course, Gwyneth Paltrow and Goop.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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I appreciated that you made this book so personal, and acknowledge your own participation in this culture. Even as you are uncovering difficult things, you are also keeping an open mind about why we gravitate toward them.
I see a lot of mocking of women. A lot of, “Oh, how can women be so stupid? How can they fall for that?” I definitely have a sneering tone at times, but not at the women who fall for these things, more at the people who are preying on their vulnerabilities and their unhappiness with certain aspects of modern life. It was important for me to include myself because I’m the same as anyone else who’s fallen for these things. It’s not necessarily their fault. There’s a lot of misinformation in mainstream media as well. There’s a bunch of stuff that doesn’t just come from influencers or Goop. You’ll find it in top publications.
And the consequences for women of not keeping up personally and socially are intense. Your own story starts eight years ago.
I had found myself constantly exhausted or dealing with pressures either within the dating scene or within the media industry, where I felt like I had to keep up with a certain pace of life. I had to have a fit body. I had to eat “clean.” I had to do all these things that at the time, I didn’t realize how I was being targeted.
I give an example in the book, where I say if you type in the word “toxic” in a woman’s publication website, you’ll get thousands of articles about “This is toxic” and “That is toxic.” “You have to clean out your refrigerator and you have to clean out your beauty pots.” Type in the word “toxic’ in a man’s website, and you’ll get one or two articles, and the word “toxic” is in reference to a man’s relationship to his boss.
We’re constantly being told we need to be better. We need to optimize. All these things which are usually exaggerated or misconstrued, but also it’s always on women. I didn’t realize that, and I basically got disordered eating. I felt exhausted. At a certain point, I realized that wellness wasn’t helping me as much as either holding me back, giving me chemophobia. I was terrified of anything that had, quote unquote, “chemicals,” without even understanding what an absurd statement that is, because everything is made of chemicals. It was adding more pressures to my life. At a certain point I just spun out.
I’m like many women. You buy a whole bunch of stuff because you see it in magazines or some influencer advocates for it. You say, “This will make me feel better. I’ll buy this CBD cream. This will help.” And you try it and it doesn’t do anything and you get a little bit wiser, and you don’t drink the Kool-Aid as much and you have a more critical eye when it comes to marketing. There was that aspect as well where I just tried so many things that I was promised would make me feel so much better and sleep better, X, Y, Z. Then you’re like, this is just snake oil.
The second part of my journey was I was a full-time wellness industry reporter. I touted a lot of companies that now I realize are quite problematic, but I was working for a business magazine. It’s not that we don’t care about science. It’s just that it’s really secondary. We care about profit growth. We care about innovative marketing campaigns. That was really more of the focus. It was also at a time where we were more susceptible to Silicon Valley and to brands and founders. Media, especially after Theranos, wised up a bit. What ended up happening is that I would do a piece on some company or some trend, and I started getting called out by scientists and doctors on social media saying, “Why would you write this piece?”
I’d be like, “What? It’s clean beauty. We all agree. Right? Clean beauty. Our face wash is trying to kill us. Right?” They’d be like, “What are you talking about? Did you speak to any toxicologist for this piece?” I’d respond something like, “Well, I spoke to a dermatologist.” They’d say, “But a dermatologist doesn’t know anything about toxicology.” I realized that I wasn’t doing the homework I thought I was, and this is a problem throughout all of mainstream media right now.
“Wellness is treated like fashion in the media. It’s not put upon reporters to investigate.”
I know we love to say misinformation is just with Joe Rogan, but it really is everywhere. That’s because wellness is treated a lot like fashion in the media. It’s not put upon reporters to investigate these claims. We just take it as a given. “Of course organic is better. Of course clean beauty is necessary.” That’s how we then basically uphold this industry that is having consequences that are not great for women. It’s stressing them out. It’s getting them obsessive consumerism. It’s telling them that if they get cancer, it’s because they didn’t buy the right foods or buy the right products. And that’s toxic.
I love in the book how you note the response when a woman says, “I have too much to do.” It gets punted back to women as, “You need to figure something else out now. You need self-care.” As you said, the solution for the problems in women’s lives is not to give them have more tasks, not to tell them to problem solve more and strategize more.
It’s so true. A lot of people see the subtitle of the book and they’re quite offended. They say, “Well, what’s wrong with self-care? That seems like a toxic idea.” I say, no, it’s the way we’re being sold self-care, which is that instead of looking at the root issues of why we’re so stressed, we’re telling people that they’re stressed because they didn’t prioritize enough face masks or bubble baths.
“If you think you’re stressed because you’re not doing enough yoga, you’re fooling yourself.”
We’re masking the symptoms, which is exactly the issue that we have with the medical industry. People will tell you to go to wellness because medicine doesn’t look at the root issues, which is not true. That’s a trope. Then they’ll do the same exact thing with wellness. It’s becoming just as prescriptive as a medical industry. If you think you’re stressed because you’re not doing enough yoga, you’re fooling yourself. I’m not saying this is simple, but I give ideas like, go and collect your fellow coworkers and say, “We’re working too many hours, or stop emailing us after work hours.” Those are the solutions. But instead, we’re just telling women to self-medicate with all this stuff.
It doesn’t work in the long run. I think women are finally starting to realize it. In the same vein, I do see sometimes women use self-care as a cover. I give the example of a woman who tells her husband, “I need you to watch the kids because I’m going to go take it a bath for an hour.” He’ll be like, “Whoa, whoa.” But if she says, “Hey, I need to engage in self-care,” he’s like, “Oh, well, that’s mental health. Okay.” Sometimes I think these things can help us. But overall, they’re not the cure-all that we think they are, and that’s not what self-care really, really means. It’s so consumer driven and it’s so productivity connected.
I have been speaking to some adolescent psychologists and therapists who told me that they have all these teen girls who are stressed out that they’re not taking care of their self-care well enough. They’re like, “I’m not doing enough face masks. I’m not doing enough yoga.” They’re stressed about not taking care of their stress well enough. This is what I mean that the industry sometimes harms us in ways that we didn’t anticipate. At the same time, I’m not saying that this entire industry is screwed. I’m not saying that there’s not value with being told to take care of yourself and to prioritize fitness and nutrition. It’s just that the way it’s being sold to us is quite problematic.
They are absolutely proven benefits to prosocial behavior, to physical activity, to eating more fruits and vegetables and less processed food. It’s not bad to meditate. It’s not bad to take time for yourself. It’s not bad to unplug and detach and sleep. So what is the difference, and how has that been monetized and leveraged to the extent that it has exploded in the last decade?
There are a few things that really distinguish the U.S. version of wellness from other countries. Wellness is of course a global interest right now. But what we have in America is unlike anything else. It is not a phenomenon replicated in other ways. That’s because we have certain attributes in this country that prime us for the problems we have right now. One is the way we look at wellness as highly individualistic. It’s on you to fix if you’re stressed or not feeling well.
You don’t see this industry telling us to deal with communal solutions or to ask for more support from our government or city plans instead of saying, “No, it’s your problem.” You are stressed out, even though it could be because you don’t have childcare policies or because you’re stressed out about the news, Roe v .Wade, your husband doesn’t help, your work emails, whatever it is. Instead they say, “No, it’s your issue. You need to prioritize yoga.” That’s number one.
“America expresses itself through shopping. That’s never ever going to change.”
The second is it’s highly consumerist. Listen, America expresses itself through shopping. That’s never ever going to change, but this idea that you have to buy all this stuff to be well is just ridiculous. It’s leading to issues where it’s leaving out certain people, certain groups of people who can’t afford all this stuff. Not just afford it. They don’t have the time for it.
This is one of the conversations we have. “If we just give lower income people more access to vegetables then they can lead healthier lives.” Well, they don’t have time to prepare it. It takes a lot of time to prepare a fresh, nutritious meal. One of the reasons people like processed food is because it’s easy. If you’re working two jobs, you can’t do that. So to tell people, “If you don’t eat clean, you’re going to get sick, ” you’re leaving out whole groups of people.
Productivity pressures is the third. Being told you have to do all this stuff is stressing people out. It’s inciting guilt when they’re not able to do all this work to be well. It’s also to some degree fetishizing health. It’s not just ingrained into your life. It’s this thing you have to do when it’s this ultimate mission and it becomes your identity. It’s going too far. That is partially because as Americans, we’re strivers. It’s spread out the old church and work ethic. We will work so hard for things.
This is what makes America successful. The drawback is that sometimes we apply that productivity ethos to other things in our lives, which can hurt us. Then I’d say the last is that, we’re dreamers. We’re the nation that put the man on the moon. Our ancestors ventured out west secure their fortunes. We grew up on these happy Disney endings. We want to believe in the fantastical and the aspirational and unbelievable, including easy fixes in a bottle.
We are the country that can build Hollywood, Silicon Valley. That also means we’re more susceptible to fantasies and sometimes not in the best way. So we will believe a Goop. We will believe some fad diet because we’re such a highly optimistic country, but the drawback, or the flip side, of optimism is gullibility.
Let’s just get into Gwyneth. She is the white hot mass of fiery snake oil in the center of all of this. It’s not all on her, but she really is the template. And yet, I have one of her cookbooks.
The cookbooks are great. I have one too. I love a Goop sale. Listen, some things Goop does right. I’m the first to admit that.
Who’s to argue? You look on your site and you’re like, I’d like to sleep in classy sheets. I’d like to take a bath in something called “the martini.” That sounds wonderful. But we know she’s full of it. Why is she still so successful? She’s still able to pivot to “intuitive eating,” “intuitive fasts.”
She’s clever as f**k. You cannot deny that she has charm. She really understands her audience. She told Harvard business students she wants to be aspirational. It’s making health aspirational. She’s really clued into a lifestyle. She’s very, very smart. She knows exactly what her buyer wants and she gives it to them. And we trust people that we are familiar with more than other people, which is why there are no doctors leading these sort of trends. Gwyneth is an Oscar winner. She’s beautiful. She lives on the west coast and has this idyllic life. We believe if we follow the things that she consumes on the inside, we will have what she has on the outside — even though, I assure you, half of that is just genetics.
There’s part of that. I also think there’s sometimes a misunderstanding about Goop shoppers. I say this from having gone, I think, to four of their conferences and doing a lot of research with people who are fans of Goop. They don’t take her that seriously. They really prefer stuff like her cookbooks and her beauty stuff. And like you said, her sheets. She’s partially entertainment to them, in the same way that medical road shows back in the day had snake oil salesmen. The people who used to attend the snake oil salesman shows knew that he was basically full of it. Some people bought into it, but a lot of people knew it — it was their version of dinner and a movie.
It’s the same thing with Gwyneth. People know she’s ridiculous, but it’s fun. I’m not defending it because there is some danger to looking at health as fun and seeing it as entertainment. But I think people give her more credit than she should have, because if you speak to most Goop followers, they’re like, “Well, I still go to my doctor. I’m not going to Gwyneth for health advice. Come on. I’m here to buy her beauty creams.”
But she does legitimize certain problematic ideas. Adrenal fatigue is one example I give in the book that’s really, really problematic. And because wellness is being treated like fashion by the media, when she publicizes an idea, a whole bunch of 26-year-old underpaid magazine writers take that and then they publicize it. She does have an influence effect. That’s the problem with Gwyneth.
Where do we go from here? You end the book by talking about a more democratization of wellness. These concepts are important and especially in a very polarized country where what I put on my face is my identity.
In terms of the industry, it’s already changing. Of course there’s misinformation online, and of course companies are always going to target the elderly or parents of sick children. There are always vulnerable populations that are going to be more targeted than the average consumer. But you’re not seeing things like CBD leggings anymore or CBD toilet paper, which are actual products and got a lot of press coverage.
There are two reasons why. One, the consumers are sick of it. The average consumer has too many CBD products lining up on their bathroom counter that didn’t work. They’re a little bit more critical and they’re like, “I’m not buying in to the marketing thing any more.”
The pandemic also had people reassess the way they tend to their health, what they’re doing, and also their health information. We have a consumer that’s a little bit more jaded. Also, a lot of the things that we depended on that we were obsessed with, like the boutique fitness classes and the green juice, got thrown out during the pandemic. People realized, “I don’t really need these things.”
And it’s the influence of Gen Z. Gen Z is not as impressed with Gwyneth. They are not impressed with celebrities. They care more about the experts, and they are rebelling against this Millennial focused productivity mandate where everything has to work so hard and everything has to be picture perfect, the Millennial peak, pink perfection, everything perfectly positioned on your Instagram. They hate that stuff.
They’re putting their own spin on it where they’re like, “If I want to have Kraft mac and cheese, I’m going to have Kraft mac and cheese. Everything’s going to be A-OK. Stop that, Millennial.” That’s how they’re reacting, and the industry is taking note.
You’re seeing a waning off of the more ridiculous wellness trends. I’m not saying wellness is going away, but the more ridiculous aspects are basically winding down. What’s really interesting is that no one showed up to the Goop cruise. A few months ago, Goop had a cruise. I’ve been to Goop’s conferences and they are packed. I think a handful of people showed up. Goop, I think, is in trouble down the line, and that more ridiculous model is on its way out.
How much of that also intersects with our deepening understanding of diversity, our deepening exhaustion with white supremacy? A lot of this movement symbolizes something that feels even moreoffensive and privileged at a moment in our history where we have to look very hard and long at these issues of who has a seat at the table and who doesn’t.
That’s something people have really wised up to. It’s the same thing with people being vocal on social media about how these trends affect them. You see the same thing with science. The influencers used to be Gwyneth and Vani Hari. Now you’re seeing doctors, physicians, scientists become influencers in their own right. They’re saying, “Hey, what you guys all thought was right or clean or whatever, that’s really problematic. That’s not the truth.” The same thing is also happening in terms of the diversity discussion, where people are coming forward and saying, “You know what? I feel left out. What you guys are all obsessed with doesn’t help my community.” There have definitely been more vocal individuals about the issues inherent within all of this.
You end the book giving some advice we can take with us when we are lured into that aisle of our local Target, that promises some gummies that are going to change our lives. What should we be mindful of? I’m using wellness words. What we should be thinking about?
There’s nothing wrong with the word “mindful.” Just because it’s been co-opted by an industry of apps doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use that word.
Number one, I wish people would evaluate their root stressors first. Why are you stressed out? Why are you unhappy? Of course we can’t control everything. We can’t control traffic. We can’t control a whole bunch of stuff. But if people address that more than trying to mask it with a whole bunch of products, that would be beneficial. The second is to really evaluate who you’re following and who you’re taking health information from. Is this an expert in their specific field?
If you’re worried about toxicology and ingredients, then maybe you should follow toxicologist. Don’t follow a beauty founder or maybe a dermatologist who may not be as versed in those issues. So really follow someone who knows what they’re talking about. Is this a person who other experts in their field recommend? Is this someone who is trusted? If you are following someone like Vani Hari and a strong portion of the nutrition industry says this person is problematic, maybe look into that. So I see a lot of people taking advice from celebrities and founders and these people don’t know anything that they’re talking about.
Just because you were good in a movie doesn’t make you smarter than a doctor. But it’s very seductive. Especially when we are tired and vulnerable and stressed.
The last thing is just how misogynistic this industry is. How come men aren’t being forced to eat “clean”? My husband doesn’t care about his Mitchum deodorant. Why is that? Why do I care? Why am I terrified? Men, because they’re not exposed to it, are like, “Yeah, I’m not doing that.”
A lot of this industry is based on belief and hope. We take this thing and we think it’s going to transport us to a pure air or we’re going to be happier and healthier and look pretty. Analyze why you’re doing something and what you want to get out of it, and if it’s really going to make you feel better. By the way, I grew up on W magazine and Vogue. I get it. I’m not lambasting women who want certain things that are told to them by society. But really look at something and wonder if it’s really health and wellness, or if it’s just sucking you back into the cult of productivity or self-improvement.
about the wellness industry
Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of “A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles.”
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