How I discovered the wellness industry was rotten

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Kenkchow, Watermelon

This time two years ago, my daily activities followed a very healthy routine. Upon waking I opened my Headspace app for guided meditation, had breakfast consisting of a huge and disgusting concoction of green vegetables and superfood powders and then went to yoga. Throughout the day I worked from healthy cafes, met with nutritionists and wellness experts and in the evening did more yoga. The truth is I couldn’t really meditate, I hated kale and yoga was fun only until I had to lie on the floor for shavasana.

Yet wellness on the whole appealed to me. I had become a sucker for pretty pictures of raw food on Instagram, the thought of helping my chronic anxiety through yoga kept me going back for more and although I was fair-skinned and petite, I dreamed of being like one of those Californian girls with tan, toned bodies and shiny hair who could handstand and cure anything with vegan food. After years of trying to discover my true calling, it seemed like I had finally found my passion and as a true millennial who lived in a technology bubble, I wanted to turn it into a business. The wellness trend was booming in London and I embarked on a journey to convince people they needed to be health freaks too.

While the tech team was building a mobile app that would help people get access to top nutritionists and wellness experts at the tap of a finger, I was working to get those experts on the platform. In the beginning, it felt very exciting to meet the best names in wellness, pick their brains, get advice and learn more about the industry. Every day I carried my laptop from one healthy eatery to another across London and pitched my idea while convincing them to join our panel of experts or become part of the team. Over the summer I met more than two hundred nutritionists, holistic coaches, and yoga teachers and had three-thirds of them signed up on my app. In September 2014 the first version of the app was ready, but none of the investors I had pitched wanted to give us money to launch and take it to the next level. No matter how much effort and passion I put into my presentations, they didn’t seem to get it. At first, I was mad at them for not wanting to invest in wellness — something that could help people live longer, healthier and happier lives. Little did I know that later on, I would thank them for not believing in my idea.

Their constant rejection, however, wasn’t the reason behind my discouragement. I had done my homework and I knew the market for wellness was big and growing fast. I also knew people wanted to buy smoothies and try acupuncture because for the past year I had spent my time in health clubs, yoga studios, and cafes bursting with people who paid crazy amounts in order to feel well. But after having worked on market trends and numbers for a while, I had a crushing realisation that the wellness industry — just like any other — was all about money. On a certain level I had known this from the beginning, but while I was aware of the fact that we were not going to save lives, I kept telling myself we were doing something to help people. It felt too sad to admit that my “vision” was shallow and that the only thing we were going to help people with was encourage them to spend more money on things they didn’t need. And maybe this sad revelation wouldn’t have been enough to help me pull the trigger and kill my start-up, hadn’t there been another reality I discovered earlier but was still afraid to confront.

Even back when the excitement for my business model was still high, I couldn’t fight an uneasy feeling I kept having after each meeting with a wellness expert. I was sceptical about the industry yet I wanted to be part of it and this latent paradox became the foundation for my decision to get out. Every time I had a conversation with a nutritionist or health coach over a macrobiotic bowl, my trust in holistic health was eroding a little bit. It was becoming hard to believe a spoonful of baobab powder in your daily smoothie was the only way to stay healthy and that simply eating an apple or some salad wouldn’t have the same overall effect. But this type of advice came from “experts” who were mostly unqualified to tell people how to eat or how to treat different ailments. In an industry dominated by women, very often these pretty ladies who sold books and amassed huge numbers of loyal followers on social media hadn’t studied nutrition or had any medical training. The story of how they discovered wellness — usually as a result of suffering from some dubious disease — was so standardized that it soon became obvious most of them were simply capitalizing on a trend that had girls and women obsessed with new ways of eating and taking care of themselves.

The wellness narrative was not about dieting or being skinny, but about being healthy, strong and mindful. By replacing the ugly word, “diet”, with the cool one, “lifestyle”, obsessing over food was suddenly OK. Creating healthy recipes had become the hobby of so many bored girls that my social media feed was constantly flooded with pretty photos of over stylized kale. When meeting these health gurus in real life, however, and listening to them talk, I realised they spoke in aspirational clichés borrowed from their Instagram accounts and that shockingly, many of them not only lacked a proper background or education in the wellness area but were actually stupid. I kept wondering how was it possible to build such an audience and have people buy their books when some of them couldn’t even spell right. But then again, thirty-six million people follow Kim Kardashian on Instagram and it’s not because she’s smart. These wellness experts signed e-mails with “eternal gratitude”, “love & bliss”, “positive vibes” and other sorts of corny phrases, yet on many occasions I witnessed them being bitchy about each other’s success. One of them in particular, who overused the term “kindness”, replied to me saying she “didn’t have time for this” when I e-mailed to tell her about my idea. Apparently, she was too busy to even type “hello”.

By spending time in trendy cafes where people came to eat avocado on toast and discuss their chakras, I could observe certain behaviours and attitudes that led me to believe the wellness industry was not about a healthy lifestyle but about status. It was about carrying a yoga mat and showing you could take care of yourself because your wealth allowed you to and you could afford all the Lululemon leggings and the superfood smoothies in the same way you could afford Louboutins. It was about being part of a clique created by good-looking girls, for (aspiring) good-looking girls with a lot of time on their hands and the desire to fit in both literally and metaphorically. It wasn’t the adepts of this fad, but the preachers who were to blame for an approach to health that focused so much on the shallow aspects of self-care and self-love. I had personally been shamed for not being strict enough with my unprocessed diet or for not being able to do a certain pose in yoga — both attitudes that were hugely contradictory to the whole kindness and compassion façade practiced by so many people in the industry. I remember being in yoga class this one time and looking at the teacher while she adjusted a long-limbed student. Although the girl looked good in leggings, she was less flexible than a wooden plank and when she couldn’t twist her body, the teacher rolled her eyes. When the same teacher told me “love you, babe” after class, I decided to stop going because this level of hypocrisy did not deserve to be paid for.

I also encountered this type of deceitful behaviour when talking to nutritionists who claimed they used to suffer from eating disorders but their new lifestyle had brought them back to a healthy relationship with food. What they didn’t know, however, was that I too used to suffer from an eating disorder and could spot the signs of someone who still struggles with food and when I saw them eating minuscule portions of food or pushing kale leaves on their plates, I knew they were as obsessed with being skinny as almost any other woman on this planet. Covering up the desire to look good and be a certain size by promoting healthy food was just as wrong as telling people to diet and my suspicions were confirmed earlier this year when the famous wellness blogger Belle Gibson became the subject of a huge scandal. Having suffered from brain cancer, she allegedly managed to get well by following a healthy diet and drinking lots of green juice and was now helping other people on their journey to better health. Based on her touching story, she had built a large audience who bought her book and app and who followed her religiously. Yet, as it turned out, she didn’t cure her cancer with kale juice because she didn’t have cancer to begin with. What shocked me about this story was not the fact that so many people took her advice, but the fact that I had contacted Belle to ask her to be part of my panel of wellness experts. The thought of asking people to pay in order to get advice from such people made me realise that I had made the right decision by killing my start-up and that I didn’t want to be part of this industry in any other way.

Before spending nearly one year trying to build a start-up in wellness, I had already spent a few more being an advocate. I read books, drank lots of smoothies and took so many supplements that when I travelled I needed an entire case just to carry my tinctures and pills. I was also exercising daily, doing everything from ballet to yoga, high intensity interval training, and swimming. I was more afraid of sugar and processed foods than death itself and was spending a fortune at Whole Foods every day. This year, however, I have stopped caring about whether my tomatoes are organic or whether I’m eating too much dairy. I eat what I feel like eating and my only “rule” is to try and avoid crap. But I do have burgers and chocolate and I take zero supplements. Have I become fatter or been feeling sick these past six months? Not at all. The only thing that has changed is that now I have more time to read The New Yorker and enjoy food even when it has too much butter or salt.

A while back I met a sought-after nutritionist and confessed I still liked to indulge in a croissant whenever I went to Paris. She said I would eventually outgrow that craving once I had fully understood having nice skin was more important than a croissant. That will never happen because I know eating delicious French pastry won’t ruin my skin, but refraining from it will turn me into a mad woman who gives people stupid advice. And there is really no need to spend money on books, courses or follow wellness experts on social media because, in order to be healthy, all you need to do is use your common sense. Don’t eat crap, move your ass and be nice to people. Avoid popping pills for any minor headache but don’t expect alternative medicine to cure cancer. And while meditation might be great for de-stressing, don’t fret if you can’t do it. Gardening is just as relaxing and so is reading a good book for that matter.