Wellness and woo

The concept of ‘wellness’ has been gaining ground in the US. It is a vague term and, as I understand it, it means taking proactive steps to maintain one’s health, such as eating healthily, getting exercise, avoiding harmful practices like smoking, getting enough rest, and so forth. The idea is that by doing so, one can stave off some of the ailments and illnesses that can affect one’s wellbeing.

An additional layer is laid on in the name of holistic’ approaches to health, with the idea that the mind and body are connected and that one should also try and maintain a healthy mindset. These could include practices like yoga, meditation, relaxation techniques, and other activities that seek to reduce stress, blood pressure, and the like.

All that is perfectly reasonable.

But sometimes along the way, there gets overlaid a third layer, a kind of mysticism that suggests that wellness practices are at a level of effectiveness such that people can dispense with modern medicine and science and instead follow largely or exclusively the advice of so-called ‘wellness gurus’.

Austin Harvey cautions that the ‘wellness industry’ has a dark side because some wellness gurus claim that one’s physical problems can be resolved by these alternative means, including taking ‘natural’ treatments made from herbs and such. At that point, people are moving from wellness to woo and that can be dangerous.

The problem is, especially since the pandemic began, wellness has drifted from a philosophical concept rooted in Eastern philosophies such as Buddhism and Hinduism, with strong ties to Stoicism, to something else.

Each of these invokes the idea of being present in the moment, seeking happiness and fulfillment through the self rather than external measures.

But the wellness industry is an entirely different beast. Marketers, businesses, and influencers have muddled the philosophy all for the sake of selling a product. It’s an industry riddled with whitewashing and pseudoscience that leads people to believe that the only way to a happier, healthier life is by spending a ton of money.

A self-care and wellness guru/influencer by the name Belle Gibson claimed to have cured her brain cancer using entirely natural remedies. Her story was so powerful that she launched a successful app called The Whole Pantry alongside a cookbook of the same name.

But there’s a reason Gibson’s story was so powerful: It was entirely made up. She never had terminal cancer. And the proceeds from her app, which she promised to donate to charity? She didn’t.

Influencers promote diets that have worked for them as cure-alls — if they’re not blatantly lying about it — without conducting research, acknowledging the serendipitous nature of their situations, or factoring in the health risks. Let me be clear: The wellness industry is the diet industry rebranded, and the same issues of the diet industry perpetuate the wellness industry.

Author Jessica Knoll wrote for the New York Times, “The diet industry is a virus, and viruses are smart. It has survived all these decades by adapting, but it’s as dangerous as ever. In 2019, dieting presents itself as wellness and clean eating, duping modern feminists to participate under the guise of health.”

“Wellness,” she continues, “is a largely white, privileged enterprise catering to largely white, privileged, already thin and able-bodied women, promoting exercise only they have the time to do and Tuscan kale only they have the resources to buy.”

“A summit convened by Gwyneth Paltrow,” says New Statesman writer Sophie McBain, “usually costs hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars to attend. This year it costs nothing to watch the events online.” Paltrow did not popularize yoga, but she has popularized the notion that wellness — a historically spiritual and natural practice — should cost a ton of money. To be your best self, you need to be rich — but don’t hustle!

Margaret McCartney, writer for The Guardian, describes this succinctly, saying, “the industry has created its own mythology. Well-being is presented as complicated, complex, difficult to achieve correctly and best when purchased — all while requiring gurus to access it.”

The other issue is that many of these approaches, especially those promoted by Paltrow, aren’t science-backed and could be detrimental to your health — the exact opposite of what they sell.

Take Steve Jobs, for example, who originally opted to forgo conventional surgery for his pancreatic cancer in favor of alternative medications like acupuncture, dietary supplements, and juices. According to his biographer, he regretted the choice, and by the time he had surgery, the cancer had spread and he couldn’t be saved.

Jobs is, in a sense, a martyr of the wellness syndrome: a cautionary tale that has been, unfortunately, widely ignored.

That kind of extreme wellness thinking seems to be found commonly among well-to-do people. The term ‘self care’ is also used a lot.

Jordan Klepper visited Southern California to talk to people who seem to think that the ‘wellness’ movement also involves not taking vaccines, so that this kind of delusional thinking is not limited to right-wing Republican Trump supporters. They even say some of the same things.


  1. moarscienceplz says

    Well, if it is true that Steve Jobs might be alive today if he hadn’t been a New Age nutjob as well as an asshole, then HURRAH for New Age nutjobbery!

  2. Katydid says

    The commodification of health goes back longer than Gwyneth Paltrow. About 20 years ago, after a heart attack, my father subscribed to Body & Soul magazine on the advice of the doctor. Back then, the magazine was overseen by a cardiac doctor and had a lot of articles about how to gett enough sleep, eating a variety of vegetables every day, and daily exercise according to ability (from walking through running/swimming/racquetball). At some point the magazine changed owners, and every month it had lists of things the readers simply had to buy in order to be well. Special shoes! Special toothpaste! Special outfits!

    I lost a friend to the wellness rabbit hole via (of all things) PBS; she watched a special about eating and lifestyle that started off sensibly enough (lots of veggies, get enough sleep, exercise every day) and went down into essential oils. Now she believes rubbing a “special proprietary blend” of essential oils on her stomach will control her diabetes (spoiler alert: it does not).

  3. says

    The Templeton foundation is also paying prizes for papers promoting holistic wellness (“feel good and it helps fight cancer”) in case you were wondering where those memes crawl out of. I’ve been meaning to do a post on that little abomination…

  4. springa73 says

    This seems like the latest version of a very old con -- the idea that someone can sell you a cure-all remedy or the secret to health and long life. That’s where the term “snake-oil salesman” originally comes from, after all. The “cures” change but the basic strategy of selling them doesn’t change much.

  5. Marja Erwin says

    It doesn’t help that a lot of people can’t afford modern medicine and/or don’t have access to it.

  6. John Morales says

    As usual:

    Video unavailable
    The uploader has not made this video available in your country.

    Yeah, I could easily watch it, did I care to go illegal for it… but why bother?

    Anyway, it’s par for the course. Most people are clueless, they operate on superstition and magical thinking. And authority figures.

    (The instant I see the word ‘detox’, for example, I know that’s what’s up; it’s dispositive)

  7. jrkrideau says

    This industry seems to simultaneously prey on the rich and stupid and the poor and desperate.

    Money is money.

  8. anat says

    I disagree that the wooey version of wellness is feminine-coded. There is a masculine version that emphasizes becoming more muscular. You also see it among enthusiasts of (some versions of) ketogenic diets, low-carb-high-fat diets, and paleo diets. The science denial comes in the form of those that insist that high LDL cholesterol is not an independent risk factor for poor cardiovascular health -- well, they agree that it may correlate with risk in the general population of people who eat other diets, but in the context of their special diet it does not apply, as long as they are negative for other measures of cardiovascular risk and especially as long as their HDL cholesterol is high and triglycerides are low. And over the course of the last year many of the ‘influencers’ in this area wandered into opposition to vaccinations against COVID19 and promotion of ‘alternative’ COVID19 treatments (what seems to have led them that way was the fact that obesity is a risk factor for poor COVID outcome -- it is, a bit, but nowhere like not being vaccinated).

  9. Mano Singham says

    anat @#11,

    For reasons that are not clear to me, your post got flagged as spam. I dug it out of there and approved it.

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