I Helped Turn Wellness Into a Luxury Good. Now It’s Out of Control
I’m hosting an herbal elixir bar at a meditation studio’s opening party. The mixers are made with Amazonian plant extracts intended to open chakras and beautify. There’s a red carpet (except it’s green), a plant wall, and scheduled celebrity appearances, though, rather than models, they’re personal trainers, gurus under 30, and a shaman on leave from a rainforest. There’s product placement (natural home-cleaning supplies), catering (raw, vegan, gluten-free, plant-based, and local) and, if you know who to ask, weed tinctures, psilocybin microdoses, and DMT — a natural psychedelic substance that’s recently come into vogue. The topic of whispered conversation — aside from who designed the meditation cushions — is last weekend’s “ceremony,” which is code for “ayahuasca.” (The frog venom events are less popular, though gaining popularity). The “medicine” (as we call medicinal plants) was paired with a sound meditation, and every spot in the yoga barn — where guests spend all night on the floor, journeying — had sold out. The cost of the event was more than my monthly rent.
Instead of planning fashion shows, we produce cacao ceremonies at Saks Fifth Avenue. The ticket to have is for an ayahuasca experience in a Soho loft.
The wellness industry today looks like a coast-to-coast catwalk led by the new supermodels: self-anointed sages sipping perfectly packaged green powders, and companies jostling to commoditize the simple act of caring for ourselves. This is more than a metaphor: The fashion world is largely responsible for the luxury wellness movement. I know this because I was part of it. During my seven years in fashion and luxury marketing, we were the first to drink green juices, compare colonics, and try any and every immortality-promoting substance, legal or not. Many of the current health cliques are “ex-fashion” (which is actually how we refer to each other), and many of the clans remain intact. One such group of impeccable stylists and models — who were some of my first friends in New York and with whom I acquired plenty of liver damage — scattered to India, L.A. and health-coaching school when it became clear that breakfast-bowl ingredients were becoming more popular on social media than handbags. The fashionistas returned with bright eyes, renewed purpose, certifications, and just as much style, albeit no black in sight. Now, instead of planning fashion shows, we produce cacao ceremonies at Saks Fifth Avenue. The ticket to have is for an ayahuasca experience in a Soho loft.
I’ve been hesitant to write about this for some time because I still work in the industry I’m scolding. As a marketing consultant for health-focused brands, my jobs look increasingly like they did when I worked in fashion. I see healing sessions staged for the photo-op. I listen to supplement retailers position their wares with promises instead of information (“Calm”, “Youth Water”, “Meditation Tonic”). And, at the boardroom tables of so many companies, I hear how they want their products to represent “a movement,” be “a lifestyle,” and “empower” people. But I believe there’s nothing empowering about selling detox waters, vitamins we can’t absorb, or overpriced herbs without giving people the tools they need to create real, lasting change.
Thankfully, I’ve been able to turn down work with companies whose ethics I don’t trust, but I still find myself at events like the glitzy wellness studio party. I see how wellness has become another way to display wealth, and commodifying health is more dangerous than fetishizing clothes. I see how it thrives on inventing new ailments, creating social pressure to cure them, and selling snake oil for how to do it. I see how, by embracing the idea that well-being must be bought, we’re becoming more and more distant from ourselves — our bodies, our minds, and our health.
I also work as a private holistic health coach, with groups and one-on-one. When I work with clients directly, it’s striking how often the same issues arise from imbalances in our relationships between mind and body; society and self; control, love, and fear. Many of my clients come to me because they’ve heard about the new exotic herb “everyone” seems to be taking. But eventually, they admit that all they really want is to be healthy. Most often, their health struggles seem to stem from them missing the basics of self-care. My new clients regularly confess that they don’t know how to make simple meals for themselves, how to get to bed on time, how to fall asleep without medication, or how to make time to work out. They can buy the potion, but they can’t buy the time to mix it into a smoothie (or a glass of water for that matter). These issues are serious, and correcting them is so much more important and effective than any supplement.
As a practitioner making a living in the wellness industry, I’ve become hyper-aware of my own complicity. I’m opening an herbal pharmacy in NYC in a couple weeks, where I’ll offer health services in the best way I know how: with personalized consultations and thoughtful, fairly priced products. I’ve come to believe that the best way to do this work is to make wellness accessible, and to equip people with education and practical skills that they’re able to use right away, without spending much — if any — money on products. “Practical” doesn’t sound very sexy, but it’s what results in real life changes.
So, from within the industry and with everyone’s wellbeing in mind, these are some of the ways I’ve learned to find health in more of the right places:
Try food first
As someone who has studied herbal medicine for many years, I firmly believe that food can do more good (or harm) to my body than any potion or pill. I believe that simply eating more vegetables can nix the perceived need for fancy remedies for most people, and produce is a hell of a lot cheaper too. Those “basic” foods you can find at most grocery stores often have fewer ecological and socioeconomic side-effects than so-called superfoods. By basic, I mean things like lettuce, carrots, garlic, and apples. And the more local, the better. As long as I’m mindful of my consumption, I’m on the right track.
Question products (and my motives)
While most of the wellness products on the market today aren’t inherently bad, details — such as quality, ingredients, and intent — really do matter. Before I buy a product, I ask myself: “Is this a shortcut that’s going to handicap me in the long run?” “Is the intent to make me dependent on something rather than capable of caring for myself?” I read ingredient labels — not the marketing messages. I do research, check reviews, and get referrals from people I trust. And obviously, I question my sources. Searching terms like “the benefits of” is a sure way to get some confirmation bias. Need proof? Google “the benefits of Twinkies.”
Not everyone needs a healer and a supplement regimen
Perfect-health potions are a perpetual obsession of our species. I resist peer-pressure to have a healer, an astrologer, and a 12-ingredient daily smoothie. Or any unconsidered supplements in my life. (Unless it’s really good-quality probiotics. Just kidding, kind of.) If I’m taking supplements, I reality-check them once in awhile. Am I truly feeling better? Is it really worth the money? Nothing can counteract the effects of a poor diet or imbalanced lifestyle; if that were possible, we’d have a hangover cure by now.
Mind the social media
Today, every person can be a brand, and every brand can seem like a person; social media is full of blurred lines. So it’s on all of us to think about what we post, like, and share. It may be harmless to overshare over-styled smoothie bowls, but it can be harmful when celebrities endorse overpriced and untested products that none of us fully understand. (I recently suggested that a woman stop taking maca — which she’d tried after seeing it in her Instagram feed — in the evenings. Maca is known for increasing energy, and she was suffering from insomnia.)
Vegetables, sleep, exercise
Vegetables, sleep, and exercise remain the unchanging foundations of wellness. I try to avoid today’s conveniences that pardon me from focusing on those basics. If delivery meals means forgetting how to prepare a meal, or breathing apps distance me from my ability to know when I need to stop and breathe, they may not be worth it.
My health is my own
My wellbeing is my responsibility, but it’s also my adventure. It should be a source of happiness, not anxiety. How I feel, what my medical test results show, and the way I’m able to live my life matter far more than being on the latest superfood bandwagon.
Originally published at www.bonappetit.com.