(The Cut) The Wellness Epidemic
Why are so many privileged people feeling so sick? Luckily, there’s no shortage of cures.
When Gwyneth Paltrow first launched Goop in 2008, it was a great place to find out where to eat the best tapas in Barcelona. It was straight-up celebrity-lifestyle voyeurism, and Paltrow, with her long blonde hair and aura of complete self-satisfaction, was irresistible. There’s the expression “living your best life,” and then there is Paltrow: best life manifest.
But then Goop’s focus started to shift. Paltrow began to describe in detail her exercise regimen with her trainer Tracy Anderson, who believes one should work out two hours a day, six days a week. Then she began providing information on a cleanse she does each January. The mission became less about revealing the trappings of the good life and more about the notion that the really good life is internal. Rich and beautiful people don’t just go to nicer places, their organs work better. They even know how to breathe better, with more oxygen per ounce. They’re not afraid to try fecal transplants, with really top-notch, vegan-only feces. Goop became less about hotels and restaurants and more about chakras and thyroids, with the implication that maybe what’s actually standing between you and your inner Gwyneth is some mysterious virus that your overextended, pharmaceutically corrupt doctor is too narrow-minded to address.
Goop began publishing long interviews with doctors, healers, and shamans. One of its most-shared pieces is an interview with Oscar Serrallach, an Australian doctor, about “postnatal depletion,” which suggested that women live in a depleted state for up to ten years after the birth of a child. Among the contributing factors: overwhelming stress, nutrient-poor food, and “electrosmog.” While Goop had traditionally done well selling products related to its content (spiralizers blew up after Paltrow’s recipe for “zucchini cacio e pepe” went live), what could it sell a woman who’s just received medical confirmation that the negative feelings simmering in her gut are not just in her mind? How about vitamins? Goop Wellness now offers four vitamin “protocols” (protocols and practice are words you’ll encounter a lot in this world) based on four common complaints: The Mother Load addresses postnatal depletion; High School Genes is for women who find it harder to lose weight as they age (i.e., all women); Why Am I So Effing Tired? is for the pernicious fatigue faced by do-it-all women; and Balls in the Air is similar, only more for the chronically stressed.
“It’s been overwhelming,” says Ashley Lewis, senior director of wellness at Goop. “We sold over $100,000 worth of vitamins on day one, and that trajectory has just continued.”
Wellness is a very broad idea, which is no small part of its marketing appeal. On the most basic level, it’s about making a conscious effort to attain health in both body and mind, to strive for unity and balance. And it’s not a new idea either. Homeopathy, which uses natural substances to promote the body’s ability to self-heal, was popularized in Germany in the late-18th century, and 50 years later, the YMCA set its mission as caring for the body, mind, and spirit. Dan Rather did a 60 Minutes segment on wellness in 1979, but it was approached more as a fringe phenomenon. “Wellness,” he said, “that’s not a word you hear every day.”
Diets, exercise, and various versions of self-care have been around forever: Antecedents are found at an Austrian spa still famous for its enemas and in 1970s L.A., where wheatgrass was just as popular as cocaine. The seeds were in the Jane Fonda workout and the Scarsdale diet, in the EST movement and the yoga craze that brought us Lululemon. In 1978, this magazine ran a cover story on “The Physical Elite,” the new class of people who had quit smoking and devoted themselves to working out. Some were known to make odd food demands, like requesting that an entire onion be concealed in an omelet.
Four decades later, wellness is not only a word you hear every day; it’s a global industry worth billions — one that includes wellness tourism, alternative medicine, and anti-aging treatments. The competition for a hunk of that market is intense: In Manhattan, two for-profit meditation studios are vying to become the SoulCycle of meditation, and Saks Fifth Avenue has temporarily converted its second floor into a “Wellery,” where you can experience aroma and light therapy in a glass booth filled with salt, or get plugged into a meditation app during a manicure. Every giant corporation has a wellness program: yoga at Goldman Sachs, communal sleep logs at JPMorgan Chase. A new magazine has debuted out on Long Island this summer, Hamptons Purist. (“Look around the city,” says its editor, Cristina Greeven, who came up with the idea on a surfboard in Costa Rica: “It used to be a butcher, a baker, and a hardware store. Now it’s SoulCycle, Juice Press, and a meditation place.”) It will have to compete with the Goop magazine, to be edited by Paltrow and published by Condé Nast, which this spring also announced the launch of Condé Nast Pharma, a division that offers “brand-safe” wellness-based content to pharmaceutical advertisers. The advertising giant Saatchi & Saatchi has its own wellness division, capitalizing on “women’s unmet wellness needs” in the marketplace.
Wellness is used to sell hotel rooms (“Stay well at Westin Hotels & Resorts, a place where together, we can rise”) and condos (Leonardo DiCaprio just sold his “wellness” condo, but Deepak Chopra still has one at the same address), and it has become a political movement, too. “Radical Self Care” seeks to heal wounds both recent (Trump) and systemic (trauma as a result of one’s race or gender), using the words of the poet Audre Lorde as a rallying cry: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
It can be easy to be cynical about wellness, about the $66 jade eggs that Gwyneth Paltrow suggests inserting in your “yoni.” There’s something grotesque about this industry’s emerging at the moment when the most basic health care is still being denied to so many in America and is at risk of being snatched away from millions more. But what’s perhaps most striking about wellness’s ascendancy is that it’s happening because, in our increasingly bifurcated world, even those who do have access to pretty good (and sometimes quite excellent, if quite expensive) traditional health care are left feeling, nonetheless, incredibly unwell.
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