Lifestyle

In Defense of “Wellness”

It's easy to roll our eyes at jade eggs, but the rampant backlash against self-care as a whole is actually classic misogyny.

From West L.A. to East Williamsburg, it’s virtually impossible to escape “wellness.” The concept has taken over, from eco-minimalist skincare lines to palo-santo-scented yoga classes to beverages made out of cordyceps and Shilajit resin and other ingredients you’ve never heard of. Marianne Williamson, a self-help guru turned presidential candidate, has taken wellness culture political. Gwyneth Paltrow, arguably the wellness queen, is the subject of seemingly bottomless fascination and derision. Wellness has simultaneously become a highly profitable industry and a readily mocked one. Even those of us who spend a lot of time in the yoga studio are quick to roll our eyes at its excesses. 

But has “wellness” really earned the backlash? 

Some of the critiques of wellness are fair: Wellness envoys have occasionally crossed the line into advice that is not only unscientific but potentially dangerous: the advertiser image of a “well” woman is a thin, rich white woman, and much of the wellness economy revolves around trying to sell consumers on overpriced unpronounceable products supposedly imbued with near-magical properties. Overall, though, the most pronounced shift has simply been toward taking better care of our minds and bodies. That is a good thing. We should embrace it — or at the very least, spend less time scoffing at the women who find value in it. 

As wellness culture has expanded, an increasing number of workplaces are folding it into office life, beyond just offering health insurance. These programs aren’t magic — they don’t transform employee health outcomes — but researchers have found that workers whose offices offer wellness programs exercise more and may have moderately better health indicators. This research, though, is often reported as “wellness programs don’t work” — because they don’t save employers money in health care costs. But perhaps that shouldn’t be the measure. Do they incentivize health-seeking behaviors? Do they push employers to make their workplaces saner so that employees have the time to exercise, get home in time to cook dinner, take vacations to de-stress and sick days to heal? Wellness programs aren’t a panacea, but they may tell us about the culture of a workplace — and the more workers internalize the message that their health matters, the more they may reject the American way of working yourself to death.

The more workers internalize the message that their health matters, the more they may reject the American way of working yourself to death.

“Wellness” itself is a broad category, encompassing everything from skincare to “clean eating” to essential oils to yoga classes to crystals. Centuries-old traditions, including traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda, animate the Western wellness space today, but for most of American history, “wellness” just meant the opposite of “illness.” By the 1950s, according to the Global Wellness Institute, a mostly-male cadre of health proponents were gaining traction, starting organic farms, publishing books, and hitting the lecture circuit. In 1979, Dan Rather did a “60 Minutes” segment on the hippie wellness trend, calling wellness “a word you don’t hear every day.” In the intervening 40 years, wellness has moved from the purview of tempeh-eating hippies in Berkley into the realm of luxury and exclusive branding, touching down in the mainstream along the way (even Walmart has an organic food section). That trajectory makes for an amorphous modern definition — I might mean buying seasonal produce, you might mean $125 CBD oil — which can make conversations about wellness complicated and fraught. But it’s certainly misleading and selective to brand “wellness” a luxury trend, or imply it’s primarily about jade rollers and Chaga mushrooms. Certain increasingly exotic and aspirational products make up the high end of wellness, but the vast middle is largely unremarkable and increasingly accessible. 

Underneath this big tent are indeed a handful of charlatans, and a larger number of idiots who make outlandish and quasi-medical claims based on little beyond their own intuition, what they’ve read online, and perhaps a weekend course in holistic medicine. Medical professionals, most notably Dr. Jen Guntner, have laudably taken on some of the most popular wellness peddlers when they make false, implausible or even dangerous claims. And wellness skepticism has caught on. Mocking goop has moved from funny to cliché. Op/eds and think pieces about the wellness industry as a pseudoscientific scam … a cover for eating disorders and fatphobia … for the privileged … glossy capitalist exploitation … grace the pages of women’s magazines, political websites and major newspapers. Use the term “wellness” in some circles and be prepared for raised eyebrows, as though you may be the kind of fool who would treat cancer with crystals and a Himalayan salt lamp.

It’s worthwhile to highlight scams and lies in the wellness world. But it can also be too easy to zero in on the most extreme examples to argue that women are being sold snake oil by the gallon. 

And we are usually talking about women. Wellness is an industry that has been profoundly feminized, and subtle misogyny often creeps into the critiques. Part of the eye-rolling at “wellness” seems to stem less from the majority of “wellness” advice and more from a knee-jerk scorn for something branded as feminine. 

Perhaps the best evidence of this is the fact that some of the most egregious peddlers of harmful and anti-scientific “wellness” are men who don’t come under a sliver of the scrutiny laid upon far less extreme women. One example is Joe Rogan, who used a recent episode of his podcast to feature a guest who claimed certain mushrooms might cure, treat or prevent dementia, tuberculosis and HPV, and said one particular strain can reduce cancer (Rogan includes, of course, an affiliate link for purchase). Others include Drs. Oz and Andrew Weil, both of whom have skyrocketed to mainstream success despite many dubious claims. And there’s an entire universe of men, all of whom seem to have their own podcasts, whose particular bent on wellness is about longevity, driven by their desire to live forever.

By contrast, female-centric wellness largely promotes something quieter and simpler: To feel better in your own body and calmer in your own mind. In a capitalist country, some of that is prettily packaged and sold. But that is just the luxury tip of the wellness iceberg — there are also farmers’ markets that accept SNAP benefits; free YouTube yoga classes; mindful meditation sessions for incarcerated people; and more urban green spaces and bike lanes. To reject wellness as wholly or even mostly harmful, and to expend so much energy deriding it, perhaps misses the mark, and makes an undeserving example of what is mostly a positive social shift.

That doesn’t put wellness beyond critique, but it does ask that we keep it in perspective — just like we do with Western medicine, with which wellness overlaps, and which is far from immune from bad information and institutionalized bigotry. Given what we know about inequalities in medical care and the history of how the male-dominated medical establishment treats (and mistreats) female patients, it’s not woo-woo for a great many women to conclude that whole-body health doesn’t come from the doctor’s office alone. American-style medicine treats problems and rarely prevents them; American-style medical professionals are also systematically dismissive of women, and especially of women of color. When women seek medical help for pain, they are much more likely than men to be given sedatives rather than pain medication. American women generally, and black women especially, continue to die in astounding numbers during childbirth, often because health care workers ignore women’s self-reported pain and signs of distress. 

If we want to change our institutions, our workplaces, and our political policies, that typically requires social and cultural shifts.

One legitimate critique of wellness — that I’ve made myself — is that it puts the onus on individuals, instead of creating the big structural changes needed to make sure that every person has high-quality health care and access to fresh, affordable, nutritious foods. But that critique assumes wellness is a free-standing and uniquely powerful blob animated by master puppeteers who have decided to sell you stuff as a substitute for universal health care and income inequality — rather than a movement/industry/cultural phenomenon/catch-all term made up of people who all exist in a series of overlapping cultures. If we want to change our institutions, our workplaces and our political policies, that typically requires social and cultural shifts. Broader cultural understanding that, for example, stress is physically taxing on the body, or that a balanced and nutrient-rich diet is a key to disease prevention, isn’t just a demand for individual action — it sets the groundwork for political change. 

Wellness also affirms women’s experiences. The reflexive dismissal of women who are drawn to non-Western, non-medicalized health care perilously ignores the underlying motivations and the simple fact that Western medical treatment isn’t actually the end-all-be-all to health. Take meditation, something that was long written off as woo-woo, but that we now know can reduce stress and may even change the structure of the brain. That doesn’t mean there’s no place for anti-anxiety medication; it does mean that a more holistic approach to health, folding in food, exercise, social engagement and mindfulness, is more appealing to a great many women than treat-the-symptoms medicine alone. Spreading that message, and making all of these whole-body health tools more accessible, is a good thing. 

At its best, wellness also tells women that they matter — that it’s OK to take time solely in the service of ourselves, that we understand our own body’s cues, that we are worthy. These are not premises without complications, and of course experts should push back against the misleading and the truly dangerous. And we should all be skeptical any time something that should be a public good (like health) or a universal standard (like gender equality) is commodified. But if more people are eating leafy greens, drinking water instead of soda, taking deep yoga breaths when they feel stressed, and trying to meditate on occasion — even if they do it with some lavender essential oil dabbed behind their ears — well, I’d say that’s a net good. Perhaps more men should give it a try. 

Jill Filipovic is a journalist, lawyer and author of The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness.