Holistic health care has never been more popular or more mainstream than it is today. You can purchase essential oils at Anthropologie, and your favorite YouTube star is touting the benefits of Reiki healing. Maybe your worldly caftan-wearing aunt couldn’t stop raving about her acupuncturist last Thanksgiving. Ten years ago, this vision might have left the average American scratching their heads, as though an alien language were being spoken. Today, depending on your social circles, “Bikram” is a conversational term.
The diaspora of holistic medicine can be attributed to a wealth of factors: Globalization and the appropriation of Asiatic cultures certainly provide a convincing argument for its present Western incarnation. Americans distrust medical professionals more than ever, and the questioning of long-standing treatments like chemotherapy and practices like vaccination has gained national attention. These findings function on a bell curve, with the very rich and the very poor harboring the greatest levels of suspicion. While the latter group would likely benefit greatly from the incorporation of holistic medicines into their lifestyles, the former has — perhaps unsurprisingly — co-opted this type of health care, reducing it to another indicator of 21st-century wealth.
Any debate about the values and uses of holistic medicine would fail to be complete without a mention of the lack of thorough Western research on many of these treatments. Here we have a double-edged sword in which anything that falls outside the bounds of the scientific method is rendered evil in the eyes of the medical community, but a failure to sufficiently research and validate many of these thousands-of-years-old treatments has the potential to foster malpractice (though people will continue to seek these treatments regardless) and the ongoing exotic perception and fetishization of what could realistically be more commonplace treatments.
Thus, alternative medical treatments seem to be in a constant deadlock with the postcolonial North American medical field. Devout believers on either side of this aisle love a good conspiracy theory involving the mysterious death of an Ivy League doctor or light healer or a cancer that suddenly disappeared with the use of intense chemical drugs or yoga. While this debate is one for another time, place, or sub-Reddit, there is no denying that for 28.2 million uninsured Americans, what is perceived as traditional medicine is simply not an option. Presently, the threat looms that this already astronomical figure will skyrocket at the will of the current political administration, and women, particularly those with preexisting conditions, are likely to be the foremost casualty of this large-scale shift.
Though the supposed simplicity and straightforward nature of holistic medicine would make it ideal for clients on a budget, in the United States such treatments have become staples at upscale spas and clinics in trendy New York and Los Angeles neighborhoods. As a result, those utilizing holistic medicine are actually more likely to be educated, wealthy, and insured. It’s a vicious cycle in which holistic treatments are glamorized, sold to the wealthy, and thus hyperconcentrated for moneymaking purposes. In 2017, living a holistic lifestyle is far removed from seeing an acupuncturist for chronic back pain. It’s a consummate, consumable way of being. It’s an identity that a certain kind of wealthy, anti-vaccination parent can perpetuate with glee. Rather than accessible, holistic medicine is now aspirational. Unsurprisingly, the targeted audience of these manufactured aspirations are women and mothers; ever the caretakers, ever the more likely to take care of themselves, ever the quickly convinced to buy a product that indirectly claims to remedy the collective trauma of womanhood itself.
Perhaps nowhere is this lifestyle more refined than at Goop. You may know Goop, the Gwyneth Paltrow–founded “wellness” blog and online store, as comedic fodder for the likes of Twitter, where attempts to sell 18-karat gold dumbbells and an Hermès mahjong set are met with well-placed puns. While the hilarity is evident to some, the dangers are very real to others.
In addition to encouraging its AmEx-holding fans to purchase a sterling-silver toothpaste squeezer, Goop regularly offers medical advice to its 3.7 million unique monthly visitors. Among its claims: Colon cleanses are essential for “toxin” removal, underwire bras give you breast cancer, and bee stings can help heal wounds. Most recently, the site — and Paltrow herself — found itself wrapped up in a pseudo-scandal only Silicon Valley could muster: Goop came under fire from multiple OB-GYNs for hawking a $66 vaginal egg — a piece of jade or quartz (depending on your yoni’s needs, of course) that is “scientifically proven to empower you and help you have better sex.”
Despite the repeated debunking of Goop’s claims, this sort of nouveau-holistic thinking continues to flourish among the very wealthy (and, likely, the very bored). Unfortunately, the type of person who touts the power of a juice cleanse is also the type of person who is likely to incorporate holistic medicine into their medical routine. If the financial factor is not enough of a deterrent, the social stigma of affiliating with this type of individual may very well be.
While perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to let one-percenters live in peace with their disturbing colonic fetishes, it’s the trickle-down that endangers those not living in Malibu. It’s what inspires the success of a Lululemon in a Pennsylvania mall; it’s what sells Tom’s toothpaste; it’s what encourages white twentysomethings to embark on “eye-opening” trips to Southeast Asia; it’s what drives us to consume anything else that touts youth and beauty, but in a more acceptable package (“It’s for my health!”).
The once workable middle ground where affordable, professional holistic health care existed seems all but blurred into obscurity. Were it not for this strange relationship between wealth and wellness, holistic medicine could provide a viable path for those left vulnerable by the massive gaps in the American health insurance system. It could play a role in remedying long-standing issues, such as the opioid crisis, by replacing cheap hyperaddictive pain management prescriptions with safer alternatives. It could help those in lower-paying, labor-focused jobs manage chronic pain — the top use of holistic therapies. It could allow marginalized groups to help grow concepts like “self-care” into something that isn’t reliant on an excess of free time and disposable income.
If health insurance, particularly in the form of Medicaid, is no longer available to millions of Americans, and holistic health care remains in the claws of the one percent, where does that leave everyone in between? Alas, it appears they will remain in the deadlock between the political future of health coverage and whatever whim the wealthy co-opt next.