The Dangerous Side of Wellness: Don’t Take Advice From Gurus (Or Gwyneth Paltrow)

The wellness industry is a problematic, whitewashed, and pseudoscientific mess. Here’s why.

Austin Harvey
May 4 · 9 min read
Photo by Dollar Gill on Unsplash

Wellness is one of the trendiest buzzwords to be used in marketing, online branding, and content creation, reaching the peak of its popularity in March and April 2021, according to Google Trends data. It’s so popular, in fact, that millennials are called “the wellness generation.”

At its core, wellness is a fantastic thing: It’s the act of practicing healthy habits daily in order to achieve better physical and mental health outcomes. People want to be healthier and happier.

So now we’re hearing terms like mindfulness, mental clarity, and focus rather than hustle, grind, and workaholic. As people came to understand the toxicity of hustle culture, a group that once promoted things like “work hard, play hard” is now shifting to promote meditation, mindfulness, minimalism, and alternative medicine.

I generally like the idea of mindfulness, of being present in the moment. I do yoga and have recently started a meditation practice thanks to the Balance app. I’ve always been drawn towards minimalist aesthetics, but since my ADHD diagnosis, I’ve adopted minimalist principles in my life to help me avoid distraction.

The problem is, especially since the pandemic began, wellness has drifted from a philosophical concept rooted in Eastern philosophies such as Buddhism and Hinduism, with strong ties to Stoicism, to something else.

Each of these invokes the idea of being present in the moment, seeking happiness and fulfillment through the self rather than external measures.

But the wellness industry is an entirely different beast. Marketers, businesses, and influencers have muddled the philosophy all for the sake of selling a product. It’s an industry riddled with whitewashing and pseudoscience that leads people to believe that the only way to a happier, healthier life is by spending a ton of money.

Wellness Influencers and the Diet Industry

A self-care and wellness guru/influencer by the name Belle Gibson claimed to have cured her brain cancer using entirely natural remedies. Her story was so powerful that she launched a successful app called The Whole Pantry alongside a cookbook of the same name.

But there’s a reason Gibson’s story was so powerful: It was entirely made up. She never had terminal cancer. And the proceeds from her app, which she promised to donate to charity? She didn’t.

There are several factors that contributed to Gibson’s success, but I won’t waste time breaking them all down. The two biggest are the false authenticity of social media, and a rapidly growing distrust of large institutions, including big pharma and government. These two things in combination make it so that we are more inclined to trust someone who we see daily online posting before and after photos of their perceived success and offering unprofessional advice.

Their lack of professionalism, however, works to their advantage. After all, advertisers know how much we trust in testimonials, and what’s a better testimonial than one directly from the person selling the product?

Influencers promote diets that have worked for them as cure-alls — if they’re not blatantly lying about it — without conducting research, acknowledging the serendipitous nature of their situations, or factoring in the health risks. Let me be clear: The wellness industry is the diet industry rebranded, and the same issues of the diet industry perpetuate the wellness industry.

Author Jessica Knoll wrote for the New York Times, “The diet industry is a virus, and viruses are smart. It has survived all these decades by adapting, but it’s as dangerous as ever. In 2019, dieting presents itself as wellness and clean eating, duping modern feminists to participate under the guise of health.”

“Wellness,” she continues, “is a largely white, privileged enterprise catering to largely white, privileged, already thin and able-bodied women, promoting exercise only they have the time to do and Tuscan kale only they have the resources to buy.”

She makes a convincing argument, too. How many people of color have you seen represented in the wellness industry? How many times have you searched a yoga practice on YouTube and the only results are videos from young white women? Remember when Netflix released a docu-series about Goop?

Whitewashing in the Wellness Industry

Anita Bhagwandas, a British-born Indian and Hindu writer, expresses her personal distaste for the wellness industry in a piece from Glamour. “Even though we’re all aware that appropriating cornrows, feathered headdresses and bindis is abjectly wrong,” she says, “when appropriation veers into the wellness sphere, we just seem to care less.”

I, as a self-proclaimed fan of yoga, have felt the personal benefits of the practice, but I’ve never once spoken Sanskrit during it. I did once watch a morning yoga routine on YouTube, which ended with the creator — a young, white woman — declaring that we end with a long, “Om,” and I cringed a bit. The Sanskrit is most commonly used in Hindu prayers, and I’m a staunch atheist. I didn’t feel comfortable saying it because, to me, it is just a sound. It carries no spiritual weight.

Western practitioners often sterilize yoga by removing any sense of Indian/Hindu culture from the daily practice, yet there is a sharp influx of people buying mugs with “Om” Sanskrit on them or placing Buddha incense burners around their homes purely for aesthetic.

This is especially problematic when you consider that, as told by researcher Rina Deshpande, “it was perceived as threatening, ridiculed, and banned among its own people in its own land under British colonization.”

Photo by Manyu Varma on Unsplash

Nobody is saying, of course, that us white folk shouldn’t practice yoga, but that we should take time, as practitioners of the discipline, to learn its history and spiritual significance in Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism. There is a fine line between culturally appropriating a yoga practice and understanding the history of the discipline and adapting it to align with our personal beliefs.

Prinita Thevarajah, one founder of Studio Ãnanda, points out, “the commodification of wellness automatically detaches it from the goal of holistic spiritual health, as there is no ethical consumption or production through capitalism. Self-care and wellness is nothing if not ethical,” in an interview with Byrdie.

This is the main issue with the wellness industry. By being an industry, it is, by nature, going against the core values it tries to sell to you. In removing specific cultural elements, rather than informing you of and honoring their history, they sterilize the original intention of the practice. Through knowledge comes understanding, and through understanding comes acceptance. The world is interconnected and cultures have been and will be mixed and shared, but erasing the history of them benefits nobody. But we’ll keep marketing it in a sterile, Westernized form because it’s making money.

“Most spokespeople fit the ‘wellness white girl’ stereotype, too,” Bhagwandas continues. “They’re embodied by women such as Gwyneth [Paltrow].”

Goop, Gurus, and ‘God Almighty, Can’t This Be Over With?’

“You never know when someone’s going to dump some shit into your head that’s going to ruin your life, or at least change it for months,” says comedian Marc Maron in his special End Times Fun. This is a condensed version of the dialogue exchange that prompted his bit:

“You taking turmeric?”
“What? Turmeric, the spice?”
“Yeah, man. You gotta take that.”
“For what?”
“Inflammation. It’s the new bad thing that causes all the other bad things.”

“So anyway,” Maron concludes, “I take turmeric now.” While Maron is obviously good at his job and wrote a funny bit, it does highlight one of the strangest, most prominent parts of the wellness craze:

What are we doing to our bodies and why?

Some random person asks about turmeric, and suddenly you’re worried if parts of your body are inflamed and you’ve been unaware. Someone tells you Tim Cook gets up at 3:45 in the morning, and you believe the idea that success is only for early risers. Gwyneth Paltrow says getting stung by bees, like turmeric, reduces inflammation, but damn it, I’m allergic to bees!

And Gwyneth Paltrow, once loved for her roles in Seven and Shakespeare in Love, is now the face of the wellness movement in America, but not for good reason. Whether it’s claiming she popularized yoga or selling a candle that smells like her vagina (marketed as bougie parfumée), Paltrow is the embodiment of all things wrong with wellness. Wellness, to the Goop founder, is for people that look like her: paper-thin, blonde, beautiful, white.

“A summit convened by Gwyneth Paltrow,” says New Statesman writer Sophie McBain, “usually costs hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars to attend. This year it costs nothing to watch the events online.” Paltrow did not popularize yoga, but she has popularized the notion that wellness — a historically spiritual and natural practice — should cost a ton of money. To be your best self, you need to be rich — but don’t hustle!

Margaret McCartney, writer for The Guardian, describes this succinctly, saying, “the industry has created its own mythology. Well-being is presented as complicated, complex, difficult to achieve correctly and best when purchased — all while requiring gurus to access it.

The other issue is that many of these approaches, especially those promoted by Paltrow, aren’t science-backed and could be detrimental to your health — the exact opposite of what they sell.

Take Steve Jobs, for example, who originally opted to forgo conventional surgery for his pancreatic cancer in favor of alternative medications like acupuncture, dietary supplements, and juices. According to his biographer, he regretted the choice, and by the time he had surgery, the cancer had spread and he couldn’t be saved.

Jobs is, in a sense, a martyr of the wellness syndrome: a cautionary tale that has been, unfortunately, widely ignored.

That’s not to say that your diet, the number of vitamins you intake, and the way you treat your body have nothing to do with your health; of course they do! But when faced with two potentials — a surgery that involved years of study and disciplined practice or a little more B12 — you should probably take the one that has science behind it.

And there are resources that combine well-being and science. After all, many of the things associated with wellness — gratitude, kindness towards yourself and others, healthy eating, and meditation — have proven scientific benefits. These can all be beneficial for your mental health, as long as you’re not letting it divulge into obsession.

How to Practice Wellness Safely

I know a girl who went to a commune for a few months, came back home, and told people she was offering a “mindfulness, meditation, and manifestation course” to share her knowledge and, of course, make a little income. To be fair to her, she was upfront about wanting money for it.

That being said, absolutely nobody should pay her for it. She has no certifications, no teaching experience, and nothing that qualifies her to be giving people wellness advice — just like influencers such as Belle Gibson. Offering unsolicited, holistic advice with claims based purely on testimonials and circumstantial evidence without having the necessary qualifications to give such advice is exactly how someone gets fined $500,000.

If you’re trying to live a happier, healthier life, that’s a wonderful thing. It’s admirable. But don’t let yourself be fooled by a placebo effect masquerading as alternative therapy. Gemstones make beautiful pieces of jewelry, but they won’t cure your depression. Believing in yourself and approaching situations with confidence will help you achieve your goals, but you won’t manifest the perfect partner into existing.

Practicing positive self-talk, meditating, and deep-breathing exercises, however, have been scientifically shown to ease symptoms of anxiety and depression. If you’re trying to lose weight, strange fad diets rebranded as “cleanses” and “detoxes” won’t help you long-term. Science-backed approaches like intermittent fasting, protein for breakfast, and sleeping well will help you establish better habits and reach your fitness goals.

There are — and here’s that word again — mindful ways to approach your physical and mental health, and they’re going to be different for each person. Wellness isn’t about fad diets, juice cleanses, water fasts, coffee enemas, or 18k gold dumbbells; it’s about establishing positive habits that help you, the individual, be a happier and healthier person.

If your approach to wellness ultimately leaves you feeling worse about yourself, then perhaps the fault isn’t with you but with your approach.

If you find yourself feeling bad, we can always blame Gwyneth Paltrow.

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Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

Austin Harvey

Written by

Writer, musician, rock climber, and human trying his best. Get in touch:

Mind Cafe

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

Austin Harvey

Written by

Writer, musician, rock climber, and human trying his best. Get in touch:

Mind Cafe

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

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