Written by Joanna Kuang.
Did you know that for less than $100, you can buy a one-month supply of “High School Genes,” multivitamins promising to return the slowing metabolisms of postmenopausal women to the fat-burning furnaces of youth? How about an $80 clear quartz water bottle that makes sipping water feel like “drinking in good vibes all day long” or a $27 bottle of psychic vampire repellent meant to be sprayed “around the aura to protect from psychic attack?”
It sounds funny, but this is no joke. These items (and more!) are sold on Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s luxury lifestyle website full of solutions to issues you did not even know you had. If this site is to be believed (spoiler alert: it’s not!), then the ticket to your ideal self lies just beyond the superfood powders for your smoothies and triple-digit athleisure for your wardrobe. And make no mistake: the market for this nonsense is huge, as evidenced by a global $4.2 trillion wellness industry.
“Wellness” is now a buzzword, a way to sell everything from vacation packages to bamboo toothbrushes to real estate. It purports to be analogous to health and appears inextricable from consumption. To be well, one must spend.
While the increased focus on taking care of our health might seem like a move in the right direction, its negative consequences are serious.
In a paper “Buying Health: The Costs of Commercialization and an Alternative Philosophy” published in the International Journal of Health Policy and Management, authors Larry Churchill and Shelley Churchill write that “the loss of individual discovery and observation as the most tried and true method of becoming healthy” is the single worst effect of this trend. Essentially, they are reminding us that the cost of the commercialization of wellness is the destruction of our ability to practice tuning in to our own unique needs. In the same way that medical prescriptions are tailored to each patient, wellness is not a one-size-fits-all approach—but capitalistic wellness gives everyone the same aspirational checklist of expensive goods and services to purchase.
For example, mass adoptions of gluten-free diets (especially relative to the proportion of the population who is actually gluten sensitive or intolerant), reflect the way in which large groups buy into commercial ideas of wellness without evaluating what is actually best for each individual’s body and lifestyle. Despite research showing no benefit of a gluten-free diet to those without celiac disease, it has now become an upper-class trend.
Keeping up with the next workout gadget (such as a $1,500 workout-streaming mirror) or the latest high-end spa treatments can be mentally draining. Justifying the purchase of new products and services as self-care is tempting, but such consumption does not guarantee health. On the contrary, obsessing over “healthy” foods can lead to orthorexia, a form of disordered eating characterized by an extreme fixation on clean eating (which as we’ve written previously, can get messy fast). By focusing on burning calories in the way that many pricey group fitness classes emphasize, exercise becomes a form of punishment and mirrors become a tool for self-hatred.
What does true wellness look like? Frankly, it’s a lot less glamorous than you might think. Maybe it’s packing your lunch rather than buying a $14 chopped salad. Or skipping cocktails with your friends to see your therapist instead. Perhaps it’s giving yourself an extra hour of sleep rather than attending a boutique spin class before sunrise and eliciting the envy of others. Sustainable lifestyle habits that are about true wellness are just that: routine, perhaps a little mundane, but ultimately good for you.
Wellness does not need to come with a high price tag, and it most definitely does not lie in small jars of mystery powders. No matter what companies market as the newest necessity for health, we already know the tools for true wellness: eat well (as defined by your body’s needs), sleep enough, and exercise in a way that makes you feel good. Surround yourself with people who inspire and support you. Practice active gratitude. Let go of socially prescribed notions of consumer wellness in favor of taking good care of yourself. And remember, true wellness need not break the bank.