Why This Wellness Journalist Wants You To Be More Skeptical of Health-Promoting Products That Are Too Good To Be True
When it comes to navigating the many offerings put forth by the wellness industry: "We're getting misinformation or information that's not high-quality from social media, from media, from your friends," she said. When you're feeling unwell, it's so easy to be persuaded by cure-all claims—which are all too common in this space. "This is why I make the point that no one should blame themselves if they feel like they've been duped."
Raphael began reporting on wellness while working as a staff reporter at Fast Company, and today you can find her writing in The New York Times, The L.A. Times, and in her own Well To Do newsletter. In her recently released book The Gospel of Wellness: Gyms, Gurus, Goop, and the False Promise of Self Care, Raphael holds a magnifying glass up to the wellness industry, applying a level of scrutiny to its practices and products that she told me she didn't know enough to employ earlier in her career.
"I was a bit more naive, and I didn't know where the industry was going: the productivity pressures, the consumerism," she said. Referring to the way the wellness industry has ballooned over the past few years to the $4.4 trillion behemoth it is now, she drew an apt parallel: "People who reported on Facebook 15 years ago couldn't foresee what we would have today."
But Raphael was quick to clarify that she's not a hater. Her analysis offered in The Gospel of Wellness comes from a place of appreciation for what wellness can offer people, particularly those who feel disenfranchised by parts of the American medical system. "I get a lot of people who are like, 'Oh, so you're just trashing the wellness industry...you hate all of it, right?' I'm like, 'No, I still use all these face masks. I love The Class.' You wouldn't hear me trash that in the book. I just don't take [what the wellness industry is peddling] as face value as much as before," Raphael said.
As we chatted for the better part of an hour, Raphael and I dove deep into the marketing tactics that are used to get you to buy into what wellness brands are selling, the misogyny at the heart of this increased pressure put on women to "fix themselves," and how we can all be savvier consumers. Check it out below.
Well+Good: What was your goal in writing this book—or did you have one, initially?
Rina Raphael: My transformation was two-fold. It was from a personal standpoint and then from a professional standpoint. From a professional standpoint, I was such a rah-rah cheerleader [of wellness]. I was the go-to reporter if you had a startup or an announcement in the wellness world. I was writing about it from a business perspective… I wasn't necessarily going into health claims, but one of the reasons I didn't really investigate a lot of health claims is because they just sounded right. Clean beauty, that sounds right. I'm not saying there isn't merit to clean beauty, but a lot of the marketing is exaggerated and it makes people really, really fearful, like I write in the book, of their body wash.
So I just didn't look into it, and what ended up happening is that I would write stories and get called out on Twitter by scientists and toxicologists being like, "This is incorrect. Did you check with a toxicologist before you wrote this?"
… Then from a personal standpoint, there were a lot of things I was excited about, but I realized that the framing and the language that was being used around some of these wellness practices, everything from exercise, to supplements, to green juice, was so infused with productivity pressures that I started getting obsessed. I would go visit my family and if there were a bunch of activities over a holiday and I couldn't exercise, I'd be like, “Well then I can't have dinner.” I would punish myself…
So this is what inspired me to want to write this book. I’m not writing off the entire wellness industry or all the practices. I just think that there needs to be a little bit more semblance of moderation than there is right now.
W+G: Can you share how people within wellness have responded to your book?
RR: It is very interesting to get the reaction from women who read this book. And there’s two reactions.
One is the reaction I had the more I spoke to scientists and medical experts, which is: "Oh, I can relax." I still buy Beautycounter. I love their products, but I'm not terrified if I accidentally use Neutrogena or I travel and I have to use some other shampoo or whatever it is… So there are people who feel that way who are like, "Oh, I'm so relieved I don't have to be so worried about GMOs." Or whatever it is.
Then there's another reaction, which is that [my book] feels like a personal attack on people. Because we put so much into our health. Let's take the example of food. You eat food three times a day. It's very emotional, especially when it comes to mothers who feed their children. It becomes almost like a value. So when someone presents information that's contradictory to how you live your life, you take it as an attack on your personal value, your self-worth, the way you live and produce your life, and that can be very, very painful.
I hope that people don't take it as a personal attack. I am not attacking women. I'm attacking the marketing.
W+G: One of the biggest issues within the wellness industry that you really laid bare in the book is the shifting that brands do in their marketing of making health an individual problem, when so much of why we’re unhealthy are big systemic problems. Can you talk a little bit about the implications that has for women?
RR: I think one of the issues that I saw within the wellness industry as time went on was that they were adopting [marketing] strategies from the diet, fashion, and beauty industry. I'm a former fashion reporter, a lot of the people who used to pitch me fashion brands and restaurants were now working for the wellness industry.
In terms of self care, that's kind of complicated and it is nuanced. I'm not saying you shouldn't take a bubble bath, have a relaxation strategy, do whatever it is that makes you feel good. It's obviously very important. But the messaging within this industry is that it's on you to fix if you're stressed, if you're anxious, if you're angry, as if there's something wrong with you. And it's usually dependent on a purchase, like some sort of bath bomb. [It’s] rather insidious because it puts the blame on you. Then when you're not able to be zen, if you're a mom who doesn't have any work-life balance, who doesn't have any child-care policies, whose job keeps emailing her after 6:00 p.m., if you are not zen enough, you say, "Oh, I didn't work hard enough on my self-care." …There is this growing sentiment that you have to take responsibility for everything, and we excuse everything else.
Now, the reaction to that is always, “What do you want us to do? None of us have time to go out in the streets and fight and demand systemic and political change.” Definitely, but the problem is that self care is really being used as a distraction and it does put the onus on you. That's something that really bothers me.
W+G: It happens with physical health too, right? It’s in the self-care realm, but it’s also, “Oh, you have GI issues, it must be something you’re eating wrong,” or “If you can’t sleep, you’re not exercising enough.” It really comes back to that individual onus, which you get at in the book.
RR: It feels very misogynistic to me. Because I don’t see men being pushed the same messaging.
I give the example [in the book] of, “I don't see men freaking out about if there's toxins in their body wash.” This is a female thing. More women do meditation, more women are buying organic food. Women are given these sort of directives that they have to fix everything that's wrong with them. They have to keep getting to this glittering ideal of “well enough,” even though how do you even define what's well and what's healthy enough? A lot of this is subjective.
That's where I feel like it's unfair and dangerous. Also it serves as an extension of the self-help industry. The self-help industry targeted women, and we're kind of seeing the same thing with wellness.
W+G: You talk quite a bit in the book about the language around wellness that evokes a sense of morality and good or bad, things like “clean” versus “toxic.” What are the ways that these buzzwords are used to make people feel a certain way about themselves—when really there’s not a clear definition of what they even mean?
RR: Clean eating was really synonymous with virtue. You got your clean foods, and then you have your dirty foods. Things like clean or natural are synonymous with goodness and plant-based, all these very positive terms. Then when it comes to things like chemicals—even though that's ridiculous, everything is made of a chemical—[the connotations are] always man-made, and toxic, and synthetic, and it was always very, very negative. All of us have fallen for it because when you see it over and over and over again, it's just taken at face value, and so you don't know the difference.
…This idea that natural is always better, that if you value yourself, you make time for self care, even though some people are prohibited from it, they don't have the time, access, whatever it is. It's really making value judgments about what people devote to their lifestyle or their routine. It's a bit of healthism that certain people invest in their health and they're better than others, and it's just not true, number one. And secondly, I think we're leaving out whole groups of people who don't have access to this.
W+G: There’s a really interesting part of your book where you talk about how people are professionalizing the giving of advice and they’re going to their instructors or doctors instead of going to their friends, families, or communities. Would love for you to expand upon that idea a little more.
RR: We've commodified every basic human need, and loneliness and friendship is one of them now. I understand the need for it, I'm not blaming people for it. But look around and everyone is so busy. Just even getting your girlfriend on the phone, you have to schedule that in advance. Trying to get people over for dinner or to go out, it's like herding cats for a lot of women.
So you can't blame them if they start going to their fitness instructor for help or someone to lean on, because we are dealing with a loneliness epidemic. We have all of our friends at our fingertips, but we just don't necessarily have the ability to spend quality time with them. I think that's one of the main pillars of wellness that really is undercut right now. We focus on everything else but we don't really focus on community and the need for social support… It is so hyper individual about what you specifically need to be well. You're sold a whole bunch of things from bubble baths to SoulCycle classes and it may not work for you. You might really need to just be with your community or be with a friend.
W+G: While you were reporting out the book, was there anything that surprised you, or that you didn’t expect to find?
One thing that I realized that I didn't notice in the first few years—maybe seven, eight years ago—was how much wellness is being treated like fashion. When I started [covering wellness], it was all about bone broth. Everyone was into bone broth. Then the next year it was coconut water. Then after that it was green juice, then it was functional elixirs, then it was kombucha. Then it was CBD seltzer. It just keeps moving.
I love fashion, but there's something almost dangerous about treating health like fashion. I think that then it makes consumers not take us as seriously when every six months there's some new miraculous cure-all thing… We put so much hope and promise into these things, then we move on because we get so sick of it or because we don't see the results that we want. I think if everyone took a step back…they'd be surprised at what fads they got into.
W+G: Where do you think the wellness industry is heading in the future?
RR: I see a lot more women saying, “I'm going to wait on that trend,” or “I'm going to try to see what experts say about it.” …After years of purchasing certain products, people are analyzing cure-all claims. That doesn't mean that those specific products don't work. But CBD is a really great example where it might work for some people, it might not work for others… So people are taking a more tailored approach and not drinking the Kool-Aid as much.
I think that has to do with coming out of the pandemic and prioritizing science, and also just feeling really exhausted. This is throughout our culture right now, people saying, "I'm tired of burnout, I'm tired of being told what to do, how to eat, how to exercise, what to buy.” In addition to the focus on mental health, you see people taking a more critical eye to the wellness industry.
That's really exciting because that doesn't mean that innovation is dead and doesn't mean that this industry is over. I think that just means that we're going to shift it into a better, more mature, more scientific industry… That doesn't mean that there isn't bunk being sold, that doesn't mean that the Goops of the world aren't flooding us with misinformation. But I do see a little bit of positive change, and for that I'm really excited.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
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