The Gospel of Wellness by Rina Raphael

Gyms, Gurus, Goop, and the False Promise of Self-Care

“Wellness will continue to grow because the inherent sentiment remains the same: the status quo isn’t cutting it. We shop at farmers’ markets to cut back on overprocessed food. We wear a Fitbit because we recognize our lives are too sedentary. We go to yoga because we need a moment to slow down. Those activities in turn help define us—and what we want our lives to be.”

THE GOSPEL OF WELLNESS

Whether it’s juicing, biohacking, clutching crystals, or sipping collagen, today there is something for everyone, as the wellness industry has grown from modest roots into a $4.4 trillion entity and a full-blown movement promising health and vitality in the most fashionable package. But why suddenly are we all feeling so unwell?

The truth is that deep within the underbelly of self-care—hidden beneath layers of clever marketing—wellness beckons with a far stronger, more seductive message than health alone. It promises women the one thing they desperately desire: control.

Women are told they can manage the chaos ruling their life by following a laid-out plan: eat right, exercise, meditate, then buy or do all this stuff. And while wellness may have sprung from good intentions, we are now relentlessly flooded with exploitative offerings, questionable ideas, and a mounting pressure to stay devoted to the divine doctrine of wellness. What happens when the cure becomes as bad as the disease?


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What makes wellness so alluring? Why do we buy into it, even when we might know it’s not going to fix us? 

That’s one question I’ve been trying to find the answer to since I started my own “health journey” almost two decades ago.

It might have been the Master Cleanse at around age thirteen, resurfaced and made popular by BeyoncĂ© that marked the consumption of ingredients I couldn’t conveniently source at my local supermarket and therefore had to beg my friends who had access to their parents’ credit cards to order online. This cleanse called for a specific kind of maple syrup that wasn’t available where I lived. Pure only.

The publications I read led me to believe I could cleanse my system, rid it of its toxins and lose twenty pounds. 

Fast-forward some sixteen years, and here we are as a society, at a pivotal moment where suddenly everything we eat, drink, clean ourselves with, and clean our homes with, is under constant scrutiny.

In an expertly investigated and well-written new book, Los Angeles-based journalist Rina Raphael lays out the facts about the $4.4 trillion wellness economy.

What is wellness exactly? “At its most basic level, it's the active pursuit of well-being outside the realm of medicine,” Raphael writes.

Essentially, what do we do as a society when we can’t find the answers to our ailments in traditional medicine? Many of us, or those we know, turn to the wellness industry. 

Raphael states that “entire industries have suddenly popped up around the desire to get healthier and live longer.” They offer eye-catching pre-packaged and well-marketed “miraculous cure-alls” in the form of powders, pills, yoga, meditation, cannabis, CBD, workshops, and on and on, typically with a hefty price tag.

Bogged down by stressful workdays in a 24/7 newsroom environment with fears of aging and losing her job, Raphael found herself seeking an alternative lifestyle. “Wellness promised me food that could deliver more energy and keep me thin. Supplements dangled better sleep when I lay awake wondering whether I’d die alone. A fitness class hinted I didn’t need to make plans to see friends–they’d just be there… Wellness said it could fix me.” 

I believed this new pursuit of health could fix me too, following my attempted Master Cleanse, I then became obsessed with drinking only carrot juice while gorging on documentaries that promoted this as an alternative to chemotherapy. I didn’t have cancer, but my consumption of media led me to believe if I ever got it that carrot juice was the only cure.

Then came the raw food diet boasted by FullyRaw Kristina. That’s before the thousands of dollars spent on supplements, yoga, gym classes, skincare, an Apple Watch and the eventual hospitalizations for anorexia where I learned my body was so depleted of essential nutrients.

As Raphael continued her research for Fast Company, she admits that “as a reporter, I had to admit the obvious: the wellness industry isn’t well.”

Neither was I, it seemed. 

Raphael then shares her fact-driven findings, taking readers through the pillars of wellness; from self-care to dieting, and clean beauty to supplements. These chapters are fascinating, and sure to appeal to anyone who has bought into Big Well; so most likely you, or someone you know.

While the book addresses women, she writes, “this is not to say men aren’t also participating, just that women are more heavily represented, for reasons such as gender equity gaps and the specific roles of women in society.”

When Raphael discusses natural and organic foods, and clean eating, she does so with clarity, and it’s another reminder that the moral language we use around food impacts our relationship with our bodies. “Clean eating doesn’t automatically lead to eating disorders, but the way we discuss and treat food can lead to an unhealthy fixation with what we consume.” Raphael also discusses intuitive eating and the deeply flawed BMI chart; an ancient indicator of health used by global practitioners. 

She breaks down each individual area of wellness in a way that’s easy to understand for any reader. Key points on every page will leave readers deep in thought over choices they have made, targeted ads they’re seeing on social media, or products in the grocery aisle. 

So, why do we keep falling for all this pseudoscience? “Perhaps because we are a pathologically optimistic nation, forever clinging to hope and exceptionalism in the face of crude reality.”

Beyond that, there is a tremendous amount of conflicting information. A social media influencer with one million Instagram followers touting information about a gluten-free, sugar-free, dairy-free, restrictive diet is going to be more accessible than a $200 visit to a registered dietitian. We live in a drive through world, where the consumption of a one-minute video reel is sure to grab our attention. And if she’s svelte, blonde, beautiful, and has more than a million followers, who are we to doubt her?

As someone who takes a daily multivitamin, technically part of the dietary supplement industry, to bridge the gap nutritionally, as recommended by my dietitian, I believe there are some parts of wellness that we can benefit from. As Raphael points out, there are also those seeking community and answers who have been let down by their traditional healthcare providers.

However, there still exists this major grey area and I believe we're being tricked as consumers, which is discussed in The Gospel of Wellness.

As a whole, this book was a compelling and insightful look at the entire industry. Rina Raphael did an incredible job. Bravo. 

Rina Raphael courtesy of Macmillan

Rina Raphael is a journalist who specializes in health, wellness, tech, and women’s issues. She was a features contributor for Fast Company magazine and has also written for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, CBS, NBC News, and Medium’s Elemental, among other publications. Her wellness industry newsletter, Well To Do, covers trends and news and offers market analysis. Raphael has spoken on the wellness industry at national conferences such as the Global Wellness Summit and the Fast Company Innovation Festival. Previously, she served as a senior producer and lifestyle editor at TODAY.com and NBCNews.com.

The Gospel of Wellness is available for purchase in hardcover or audiobook format. Check Indiebound to support an independent bookstore near you.

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