Blog, Book Reviews, Social Justice

A Healthy Disbelief in the Gospel of Wellness

A hand lighting a candle surrounded by essential oils and salt

In The Gospel of Wellness: Gyms, Gurus, Goop, and the False Promise of Self-Care, Rina Raphael takes an in-depth look at the myriad ways wellness has infiltrated contemporary American life and how women, in particular, are under immense pressure to subscribe to ever-evolving and expanding definitions of “healthy” and “well.”

People turn to this giant category of what has come to be called wellness for so many reasons. It can seem to fill voids in our lives where community or religion increasingly aren’t. Instead of taking time for deep, meaningful connections with family and friends, we engage in text-message therapy and parasocial relationships with Peloton instructors. Instead of an optimally functioning healthcare system, access to healthy food, and lifestyles that allow time for good habits, we are forced to navigate an unregulated sea of products that claim to make us feel better — or even to live better… or longer.

The Gospel of Wellness critically assesses many of the ways this idea of “wellness” has infiltrated so many aspects of everyday life, and how it has come to mean so many different things to so many people.

Fitness as Worship

Group exercise, Raphael explains, with its charismatic leaders and the camaraderie and closeness to be found in the spaces in which it takes place, makes classes feel almost like a religious experience. Like Raphael, I have gone to these places, sweated at SoulCycle, felt a buzzy relief after a sweat-filled hour followed by a shower in their fancy locker rooms with their sweet-smelling soap. Nothing has been transformed or fixed, but I understand how these classes really do make you feel better — at least briefly.

But fitness studios aren’t churches and, while they may help people forge connections and create community, they are — like much of what Raphael ultimately describes in her book — somewhat hollow.

When Raphael’s father passed away, turning to fitness for consolation felt ridiculous. But better options aren’t as easy to find. As a society, we are bad at dealing with grief. People don’t know what to say to the grieving, or how to support them in the weeks and months afterward. Workplaces offer little to no time for bereavement. And as we have become a less religious society, without the associated rituals of mourning, grief can be an even more isolating and strange experience.

Raphael ultimately found solace in her synagogue.

A counterpoint: In the same situation, I… signed up for a race. Finding success at work… earning a degree… achievements like these take a large amount of time and effort. You have to map your own way and navigate many challenges. Training for a race is condensed. You just have to increase the number of miles you are able to run over the course of about four months, following a plan that someone else has prescribed. It didn’t solve any of my problems but, again, it did make me feel better.

Still, better, cheaper, and destigmatized access to grief counseling, more developed communal practices of remembrance, and more community support would be preferable.

It’s important to also acknowledge that it is a privilege to have the time and money to be able to take part in this kind of culture. Raphael understands this, and it is a theme throughout The Gospel of Wellness. We need systemic systems of support. We need community. We need coping mechanisms. And these things need to be accessible across lines of class and race.

Trying to fill a God-shaped hole with a spin class or a training plan is, in the end, absurd.

Goop as Alternative Healthcare

Speaking of absurd, I find Goop, its founder, and its adherents with their ridiculously expensive creams and powders and their yoni eggs to border on the surreal, and Raphael shares my skepticism. But The Gospel of Wellness also framed its relevance: Goop and other kinds of alternative medicine, and their popularity, indicates that people — most of them women — are seeking something outside of healthcare systems that are difficult to navigate, particularly if you are not in a white, thin, healthy body.

Just as, societally, we are not adept at navigating others’ long-term grief, we are also not adept at responding to long-term illness. When regular medicine fails us, we are forced to look elsewhere and forced to navigate our health on our own.

Companies touting “clean” and “natural” consumer goods target women and mothers who have been tasked with making household decisions. These terms, although they are not subject to any kind of verification or regulation, imbue their products with a kind of “health halo,” implying that products without them are unclean and unhealthy. That leaves the consumer with the task of reading labels, doing research, and trying to adhere to whatever is being sold as healthy today.

There is so much distrust of the regulatory bodies that are supposed to help keep us safe and well. As a result, people turn to even less regulated and verifiable places like wellness influencers with questionable credentials or supplements with claims that have not been verified. Buying into these myths and purchasing their wares can provide an illusion of control over our lives, where we are otherwise lacking time, community, and systems that could support actual wellness: access to nutritious food, doctors with time and expertise, adequate rest, and connection with others.

The Cycle of Buying In

The things being sold to us as wellness products and services are often expensive and aspirational. They are inaccessible to those who most need real health support, such as people who live in food deserts, and those who are unable to make time or find funds for expensive boutique fitness. We are told we need money to feel better, but our jobs often make us feel worse.

This is a conundrum Jessica DeFino often revisits in her newsletter The Unpublishable. One recent headline promises to explain, “how the beauty industry convinces overtired, overworked customers to spend the money they make from the work that makes them tired on eye cream.”

DeFino likes to point out this type of marketing in the context of skincare and beauty culture… how we are taught to buy products that do what our skin is largely capable of doing on its own. Similarly, detoxifying products are also marketed to us, though our internal organs have been doing this work unassisted our entire lives. We know these things, and yet it is so easy to buy into the hype and call it self-care. And when we don’t buy in, we feel like we are doing ourselves a disservice.

DeFino also often talks about something that is surprisingly not at the center of The Wellness Gospel: the pressure on women to look young. It is more overt in DeFino’s beat of beauty culture, but it is not absent in the wellness industry as a whole. Raphael focuses more on the illusion of control wellness provides, but in a society that values youth and beauty, it is easy to see why someone would go to great lengths to maintain their appearance.

An Agnostic Approach

DeFino is a proponent of opting out, ditching the skincare products we have been conditioned to think we need.

Raphael takes a more nuanced approach. She understands that some of the things that fall under the label of wellness can be good or helpful or necessary. She also understands that we need and deserve more.

It can be disheartening to look at the wellness industry this closely. I felt so stupid when I read that the Dirty Dozen list of foods with the greatest pesticide exposure risk was probably not worth paying attention to. It is so easy to be swindled by good marketing — in this instance, by a group funded by the organic farming industry. I hadn’t bought a grape in a year.

Reading this helped me to look at my own practices and the information and marketing around them more critically. In addition to working toward lives and systems that help us to be truly cared for, that might be the way to actually feel good.

Click here to read Ashley’s interview with Gospel of Wellness author Rina Raphael.

Sam is a writer based in Brooklyn. An ex-bicycle messenger and a marathoner, she is a lover of adventure. She is an avid reader of literary fiction and nonfiction in all forms–but has a special love for the weird and the dystopian.

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