Thanks to money, celebrity, and enticing ads with unfulfilled promises, wellness and self-care have become dominant industries. Journalist Rina Raphael has written a compelling book about these ever-growing industries in The Gospel of Wellness. I asked Rina about how wellness can be about curiosity, how wellness depends on location, celebrities’ influence on wellness, and how wellness can spark better conversations about health.
[book content warning: mention of Holocaust, COVID-19, fertility]
What is your definition of feminism?
I am going to refer to Gloria Steinem, who said, “A feminist is anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men.”
How can wellness be about curiosity instead of capitalism?
Wellness is so highly individual that there is no uniform prescription; what works for me might not work for you. And it doesn’t need to center around pricey skincare products, boutique fitness classes, or constant self-optimization. Perhaps it’s taking a walk, spending time with friends, or simply setting boundaries. You need to figure out what best suits your particular needs.
But real wellness also requires examining the root causes of why we feel so stressed, lonely, or sick. It’s taking a hard look at big issues, many of which require systemic solutions. Instead, modern wellness discourse pushes individualistic remedies, many of them temporary Band-aids. But no amount of yoga can make up for a lack of adequate childcare policies, paltry maternity benefits, an unhealthy work-life balance, a dysfunctional healthcare industry, or little if any communal support.
My issue with the current messaging is that it essentially focuses on treating the symptoms with leisure activities and consumption. We should be curious about how we got here and which changes we collectively need to advocate for.
You mention that ‘wellness’ mostly feels like it is for Coastal Elites. How does wellness change by location?
Wellness “culture” is quite different from real wellness, and cultures differ around the U.S. While some upper-middle-class urban dwellers might define wellness by yoga classes or a Peloton workout, that might not resonate with those in more rural areas.
[Folks in different areas] might also have different challenges. As I note in the chapter on democratizing wellness, rural populations might not be able to easily access fitness because they’re more isolated — there are no nearby gyms or access to high-speed internet. They might not feel safe running outdoors where there aren’t any sidewalks or street lamps (and it’s freezing half the year).
Not to mention, if you’re working two jobs, financially struggling, and exhausted, it’s hard to prioritize sleep, movement, nutrition, or mental health. Wellness is simply unattainable to many Americans.
You are funny, as well as open, about your faith. What tone did you want to strike while writing this book?
I wanted to be honest and conversational, as if I was chatting with a friend over a dinner table.
More importantly, I tried to remind the reader that I’m no different from them: I felt unwell. I was looking for solutions. I fetishized the pursuit of health. I fell for pseudoscience because it was repeated everywhere (on Instagram, in the grocery aisle, and in media outlets). The consumer isn’t to blame. We need a lot more empathy for what many American women are going through and the way the wellness industry can capitalize on their legitimate complaints and vulnerabilities.
Celebrities selling an idea, mood, or “vibe” is nothing new. How has the fever pitch of celebrity impacted wellness?
We’ve always had unqualified spokespeople in health spaces, but as the wellness industry ballooned, so did celebrities’ interest. They’re business people as much as they are entertainers. There’s a lot of money to be made from supplements, restrictive diets (“cleanses” and “detoxes”), “clean beauty,” and associating wellness with an aspirational lifestyle.
They know they don’t need any expertise to sell their wares. And far too many publications give them a megaphone without fact-checking health claims.
But social media really took their influence to a new level. Celebrities can now directly reach audiences, sometimes several times a day. Consumers can even interact with and DM these charismatic stars or influencers. That’s not something they can do with their primary care physician or medical experts who generally don’t have the time for social media.
Why is a crisis, at times, a catalyst for wellness changes?
A crisis often inspires people to take stock of their habits and lifestyle — or, in the case of a medical crisis, search for new treatments out of pain and desperation.
Sometimes, a new fitness regimen, meditation program, or sleep hygiene protocol can work wonders. In cases where someone feels like their life is becoming out of control, wellness rituals can help them feel less helpless — it’s a way to reassert power.
There’s a lot of optimism when we start prioritizing our health. Even just the act of buying something makes us feel good and proactive, like we’re on the path to betterment. In some ways, that can be quite beneficial. The flip side of optimism, however, is gullibility; we might fall for alternative health quacks or scam treatments because we want to believe they’ll work. Or because we’re desperate for a cure.
How can wellness spark better conversations about health?
The pandemic put a spotlight on health and misinformation, so we’re seeing a stronger emphasis on evidence-based wellness. There’s also a slight uptick in certain demographics pausing before drinking the Kool-Aid on overhyped wellness products and pseudoscientific practices. As I recently wrote for the LA Times, younger groups are increasingly rejecting strict, one-size-fits-all wellness routines and heavy consumerism. Many opt for a gentler approach, putting wellness through a mental health lens.
I’m optimistic we’ll see more conversations about sharpening our critical thinking skills, especially when it comes to the complexity of what wellness means. There are rarely simple solutions, but that’s often what we’re sold.
What organization would you like to amplify to our audience?
One issue I cover in the book is how many women turn to alternative health because they aren’t finding answers — or being heard — in their doctor’s office. Medicine doesn’t have the answers for everything, but one reason physicians might shrug their shoulders is that women’s health conditions have been underfunded and under-researched. The Society for Women’s Health Research (SWHR) advocates for better representation of women in clinical research at the federal level and within various industries. That’s a hopeful start.
Click here to read Sam’s deeper dive into Raphael’s book, and into the wellness industry as a whole.