Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and transport yourself mentally back in time to the year 2013. The actor and wellness entrepreneur Gwyneth Paltrow is making an appearance on The Dr. Oz Show to promote some “all-natural tricks to revitalizing your body from the inside out.” Paltrow has four things to recommend: daikon radish (“it’s got really high enzyme content”), oil of oregano (for colds), magnesium supplements (“they say it really calms the nervous system”), and colloidal silver, a tincture of tiny silver particles that she says “really keeps viruses away; it’s a real viral repellent.”
Dr. Oz is enthralled; silver was “the first antibiotic,” he adds, and in his family, they’re just crazy about “squirting it in our throat” as “a very smart way of killing off stuff.” (He seems to have forgotten the time in 2008 when he interviewed a man whose daily use of colloidal silver permanently turned his skin blue.)
This was, in many ways, a more innocent time. Paltrow hadn’t yet fully secured her reputation as a vagina-steaming, psychic-vampire-repelling, gold-painted woo-woo evangelist. Oz hadn’t yet been chastised by Congress for peddling “miracle” diet pills or humiliated himself in the vegetable aisle while running for Senate in Pennsylvania. Colloidal silver hadn’t yet been adopted as the COVID-19 paranoiac’s must-have accessory, touted by the televangelist Jim Bakker for its nonexistent abilities to “totally eliminate” and “deactivate” coronaviruses, and by the Infowars conspiracy-monger Alex Jones (in characteristically violent language) as a product that “kills the whole SARS-corona family at point-blank range.” The concept of “wellness,” as nebulous as a cloud, almost as profitable as a small G-7 economy, hadn’t yet sprawled into our workplaces, our homes, even our child-care centers. (My 2-year-old twins do yoga at day care; yesterday, when I picked them up, my daughter clapped her hands together and said a mushy approximation of “Namaste.”)
But in the Dr. Oz video, you can see a harbinger of what was about to happen. Paltrow, Oz says by way of introduction, his Wario eyebrows furiously waggling, “always seems to be in the know about the latest health trends and alternative health remedies. How do you keep up with all this stuff? I read what you’re doing, and that’s how I get a lot of ideas sometimes.” Paltrow seems oddly subdued, nervous, or possibly unnerved by the intensity of Oz’s gaze. “I read a lot as well. I do a lot of research,” she explains. She talks to people; she asks questions. “You’re a mom, so you actually have to use this stuff day in, day out,” Oz says.
You actually have to. Without knowing it, he’s encapsulating what’s since become a fundamental part of modern life, particularly modern parenting. The more overwhelmed and exhausted we get, the more we seemingly owe it to ourselves to pursue “wellness.” The more burdens we accumulate—children, aging parents, student loans, mortgages, anxiety disorders, bad backs, extra pounds—the more we’re urged to be well by way of still more effort: throwing out our plastic containers, cutting out lectins, practicing mindfulness, learning about environmental toxins, doing the research. “We live lives that demand too much of us,” Rina Raphael writes in her new book, The Gospel of Wellness. “Wellness, which spans both real groundbreaking solutions and total bunk, is the direct response to genuine complaints.” Somewhere along the way, though, the thing that was supposed to help us heal ourselves became yet another obligation. And the stresses of the coronavirus pandemic only exacerbated what was already happening—the slow, immensely lucrative poisoning of something supposed to be a cure.
Raphael is a reporter and newsletter writer who’s been covering health, wellness, and women’s lives for much of her career. The thesis of her book, a bubbly and engagingly thorough dissection of the modern wellness industry, is that the W-word, “in its current form, is almost an aspirational obsession for some and close to religious dogma for others.” Since 2014—the year some have pinpointed as when Paltrow’s website, Goop, evolved from a quirky, health-oriented recommendations site into a generation-defining purveyor of ferociously expensive knitwear, coffee enemas, and semiprecious sex aids—wellness has wormed its way into all of our lives. And, under the guise of its more approachable sibling, “self-care,” it’s infused our consumer choices, our leisure time, even our subconscious desires. The Calm app on my phone that my employer pays for? Wellness. The cookie I’m eating to spike my blood sugar enough to finish this essay? Self-care. Virtually anything can be curative if you think about it creatively enough, which is in part the quandary. “We have become a self-care nation,” Raphael writes, “though arguably one that still lacks the fundamentals of well-being.”
The Gospel of Wellness argues that the industry has mushroomed in such a way because it’s filling a void that many people, and especially women, feel. We used to live more communally; we used to see one another at church every Sunday; we used to draw on friends, family, and neighbors for help. As work has atomized Americans into tiny, self-sustaining units, the joy of collective experience has been lost. That’s why so many people now seek out a distinctly spiritual kind of succor via candlelit SoulCycle revivals or manifestation meetings—defined windows of expensive time that promise to return us briefly to the way things used to be.
Raphael incisively lays out how wellness got inevitably corrupted by the big, big business it begot: how frequently it gussied up what was simply “weight loss” in dusty-pink packaging, (in 2018, Weight Watchers rebranded itself as WW, which the company said stood for “Wellness that Works.”), how companies such as Goop popularized pseudoscientific ideas to people who felt failed or dismissed by conventional medicine, how platforms such as Instagram turned wellness into an aesthetic ideal rather than a holistic one. (From 2000 to 2018, Raphael writes, the prevalence of eating disorders in the United States doubled.)
Wellness puts the onus on the consumer to make up for everything modern society can’t or won’t provide; it extends the illusion of control. “Women are promised they can manage the chaos ruling their life by following a laid-out plan: eat right, exercise, meditate, then buy or do all this stuff,” Raphael writes:
This mass consumerism is a vehicle for harnessing everything that feels turbulent in their lives … Fitfluencers transform the sluggish to masterful. Spiritual influencers hawk crystals to snag a coveted job promotion. ‘Clean’ snacks dangle a disease-free future. Woven throughout lies the message that you can manipulate what is unruly, misbehaving, or standing in the way of progress.
Modern wellness, at its core, is a self-sustaining doom loop of precautionary, aspirational consumption: Buy to be better to buy more to be better still. Which is why, despite Raphael’s arguments, I don’t fully buy that wellness has taken on the role of religion. Instead, in classically entrepreneurial American fashion, it’s become extra unpaid work—the very thing we don’t need more of and truly don’t have time for.
“To be a woman today,” Raphael writes, “is to be a military commander of unyielding errands.” Before the pandemic began, I was a writer with no children. I cannot tell you, cannot communicate in simple English words, how different my life was. I had money to spend on myself. I had time—great, puffy expanses of time in which to exercise or shop online or get my nails done or see friends or creatively cook vegetables for dinner. These are all things, I’m regularly told by the internet, that qualify as “self-care.”
In the summer of 2020, I had twins and inadvertently took on a second job as the project manager of a four-person unincorporated company: my family. What I’m writing now still fails to convey what it felt like—how my brain, which had previously held two or maybe three zones of focus, suddenly had hundreds of different pockets of obligation: baby clothes to buy; baby clothes to wash; too-small baby clothes to sort and donate; doctors’ appointments; day-care tours; day-care emails regarding tours; video visits; different kinds of nontoxic food to research, buy, and then prepare; mental lists of which allergens to expose the babies to and which allergens they’ve already tolerated; online sleep seminars; sleep logs; sleep-training research; sleep-training preparation; sleep training; age-appropriate educational toys to acquire; non-age-appropriate toys to photograph and post for donation online so they don’t end up in a landfill. Birthday lists. Christmas lists. Thank-you cards. Photos for holiday cards. Diapers to buy because twins go through 24 a day. Playdates. Trying to get my body to even vaguely look and feel like it did before so I don’t feel so disassociated from myself. Trying to meditate so I don’t explode. Trying to do yoga so my back doesn’t hurt every minute. Trying not to get COVID. Making sure we have enough COVID tests to see if the babies with runny noses can go back to day care and I can try to do my job, the only thing I love to do, the only thing I ever used to be obligated to do before I became the inadvertent project manager of a four-person unincorporated company, my family.
This is all absurd, I can hear you thinking. No one needs to do all this stuff. But the thing is, if you don’t do all of it, it’s even worse. Then you have a baby (or two) who wakes up four times a night screaming, the sleepless anxiety of potentially life-threatening allergies that will be all your fault, a back that screams when you walk the 200 feet to the post office. We do the things we do just so we can make it through without falling apart. It’s a paradox, but it’s true.
Possibly, this is why the gambit of wellness is so seductive—it’s a familiar bargain with a familiarly vague payout. Do more so you can get by. Pay money for the promise of relief, if not release. We’re so inured to the idea that we can win by just working a little harder, when what we really need are radical structural overhauls that might make having children, demanding jobs, and elderly relatives less of an all-consuming load. But in the (likely) absence of mass societal change, it’s worth at least questioning anything that requires money and time and offers nothing specific in return. Maybe the combination of things we need to actually be and feel well—conventional medicine when we’re sick, alternative therapies when we’re exhausted or run down, fresh food, exercise, love, hope, someone to care for us as much as we care for others—is impossible to prescribe. But it’s oh-so-easy to exploit.
One Saturday, a few weeks ago, I had to take my twins for an emergency polio booster because researchers, deep in the bowels of subterranean London, found evidence of polio transmission in the northeast of the city. My daughter is usually fairly stoic at the doctor, but she started crying the minute I parked the stroller outside and screamed when the kind nurse jabbed the needle in her thigh. She cried and cried. I gave her a chocolate coin. She stuffed it in her mouth and carried on crying, gummily, through chocolate. I carried her outside and held her until she stopped wailing, stroking her hair and murmuring soothing nothings. The “doctor lady,” she told me on the street, sniffling, “hurt my bottom, and I cry all the day long.” I held her the whole walk home, periodically wiping her eyes and her runny nose, as my lower back thrummed with a growing ache. When we got inside the house, she curled up on my lap and looked up at me with a kind of sadder, wiser contentment. “I better,” she said. “All better.”