Illustration by Theo Lamar
For ages, the wellness industry has staked its flag in championing women and their health. Instead, it preys on them while pretending to listen.
I stopped working out at my fitness studio when they went full Goop.
The downtown pilates studio had announced that it would be participating in the brand’s upcoming Vancouver summit. To what capacity, I’m not sure. But, being Goop-averse as I am, it was all I needed to stage my silent one-woman walkout.
Associating with Goop isn’t exactly break-your-brand controversial, particularly if your audience is already predominantly female. Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle empire is essentially shorthand for the alternative-wellness movement that has invaded the collective consciousness so effectively, you’d think it was always there.
So what was my problem? I think Goop is an opportunistic, manipulative, and dangerous pillar of an industry that peddles pseudoscience as a viable alternative to modern medicine. It preys (and capitalizes) on the desperation of women born out of the misogyny of modern institutions, and makes them feel worse while pretending to listen.
“The wellness industry has appropriated the language of medicine and mixed it with feminism,” says Dr. Jen Gunter. “But they’re also using words like ‘pure’ and ‘clean’ — words that have been used to control women — and rebranding them as empowerment.”
Gunter, a Canadian obstetrician-gynecologist, has staked a reputation for her crusade against pseudoscience and the wellness industrial complex. Take a quick tour of her Twitter account on any given day and you’ll see her poking holes in all sorts of alternative medicine and wellness marketing claims. It’s entertaining to read her takedowns as she often squares off against Paltrow, Goop, and its various acolytes. But there is a grave seriousness to her crusade. Wellness products aren’t vehicles of altruism, yet people seem to be consuming them as such.
“You cannot get reliable information from people who are selling you the product [they’re informing you about],” Gunter says. “It’s very easy to use language to confuse people. [The] use of those words can be predatory. It’s the weaponization of language that’s ‘science-ish’.”
Using science-y language to sell products that promise a better life will be particularly familiar to women. Every shampoo commercial, skin cream, and cosmetic ad features vernacular that sounds as if it’s come from a lab. At the same time, western medicine is notoriously unhelpful (if not fully antagonistic) towards the needs of women thanks to the field being male-dominated for centuries, from research to practice. So is it any wonder that women, who are neglected by the medical community and already desensitized to (or, perhaps, primed for) “science-y” marketing are the wellness industry’s prime targets?
“These companies and brands, they do a very good job of marketing,” says Tim Caulfield, the University of Alberta law professor and host of The User’s Guide to Cheating Death, a Netflix documentary series that investigates pseudoscientific wellness practices and claims. “They make them sound legitimate. The other thing that’s happened is that it’s becoming more difficult to parse real from fake. I’ve been following it for a long time. It’s not being marketed as if it’s built on a different world view. It’s being marketed as if it works. As if it’s science-based. Quantum physics is used to justify homeopathy. You have this science-y language being used.”
“There’s an issue with trust,” Caulfield, who in 2015 authored a book called Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?, continues. “That makes room for these alternative voices, and it makes them seem more appealing”
On the surface, the alternative wellness industry seems designed for good in a way that traditional cosmetics and western medicine have not: additive-free cosmetics, feel-good focused exercise programs, and meditation programs aimed at improving mental health. All of these are a refreshing departure from programs that emphasize physical appearance over all else.
However, it’s key to consider the sources. Paltrow, often held up as the personification of the wellness industry for the industriousness with which she’s marketed Goop, is a wealthy actress and part of a Hollywood dynasty. She can afford to buy the $245 USD chrome-plated toothpaste squeezer on her website. The Kardashians, who routinely showcase their affinity for weight-loss teas, also have an army of stylists, nutritionists, and trainers at the ready. Miranda Kerr has an organic skincare line and gave birth naturally but she’s also a Victoria’s Secret model. It begs the question, what makes these celebrities more of an expert than, well, the experts?
Wellness seems nice but it’s no less aspirational than its chemical cousins. Regardless, there’s massive buy-in. By the end of 2017, the global wellness industry was valued at a whopping $4.2-trillion USD, according to the Global Wellness Institute. Science-y or not, this industry has found its recipe: a market base of vulnerable women, a dash of aspirational celebrities, and a sprinkle of social media-ready misinformation. Combine these ingredients and you’ve got a real moneymaker on your hands.
The problem, of course, is that this can become dangerous. “I think there has always been quackery, but the Internet has allowed nonsense to proliferate unchecked,” says Dr. Margaret McCartney, a Glasgow, Scotland-based doctor and advocate for evidence-based medicine. “I think there is a movement to counter this, but really the companies allowing anti-science on the internet have to invest in fact checkers and editors … it shouldn’t be left to volunteers to sort this out.”
Gunter agrees, and cites this illusory effect (that is, the more we see something repeated, the more we accept it as fact) as one of the most significant bolsters supporting the wellness industry. “I think that doctors have not learned how to counteract this in a way that speaks to patients,” she says. “When a doctor dismisses information, it can feel like they’ve [dismissed] you. If people don’t feel listened to, the best medicine in the world is useless.”
Indeed, when alternative health treatments are used as a last-ditch effort to ameliorate the failings of modern medicine, there are massive risks. And lawmakers are taking note: Goop recently settled a lawsuit in California stating the company is no longer allowed to make scientific health claims about the benefits of their jade eggs, a smooth stone meant to be inserted in the vagina for detoxification purposes.
For Caulfield, better communication is needed to restore faith in evidence-based medicine. “Dumping facts on people isn’t working,” he says. But also, better listening—where are people being failed? What do people need from their doctors that they aren’t getting? And specifically, how can we encourage and empower more women and non-binary individuals into medical fields, where their voices are essential?
Modern medicine has its shortcomings, absolutely. However, when it fails us, we shouldn’t be looking to alternative medicine and potentially dangerous “wellness” fads as a solution. The wellness industry is a predatory and misogynistic one that has carefully cultivated itself into a seductive solution to all our maladies. Instead, we need to demand institutional change, more research, and better services in order to shift the healthcare landscape to help us all, especially women.