(RNS) — Last week, novelist Jessica Knoll wrote a scorching op-ed in the New York Times devoted to taking down the wellness industry.
Reflecting on a lifetime of “counting macros, replacing rice with cauliflower pellets, 13-day cleanses, intermittent fasting and an elimination diet that barred sugar, dairy and nightshades like potatoes,” Knoll argued that wellness at its core is simply a purification of our collective obsession with feminine aesthetics: diet culture and vanity repurposed as moral axioms.
After all, Knoll wrote, so often wellness culture boils down to one simple, inconvenient truth: “Thin is healthy and healthy is thin.”
Certainly, wellness culture's $4.2 trillion market — fun fact: globally, we spend half as much on wellness as we do on actual health care — is largely the province of women, and the rhetoric of functional self-improvement is inextricable from its concern with aesthetics.
But to talk about wellness exclusively as a code-word for diet is to overlook wellness culture's provenance not just in old-school beauty tips, but in old-school spirituality. The language of wellness isn’t just coded diet culture. It’s also encoded with religious promise.
Wellness culture may not have an established creed, but it has an implicit metaphysic. Energy — nebulously defined — runs through all things. This energy can be good or bad, depending on a variety of factors, but it’s definitely more than a little supernatural.
Just look at (where else?) Goop, actress and haute-wellness pioneer Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness empire. Many of Goop’s projects seem designed not just to improve physical health (or appearance), but to tap into this wider network of “good” versus “bad” energy.
In recent years, for example, Goop has promoted a $185 Nepalese singing bowl, traditionally a meditation aid; a $175 “Bel Ritual Candle” that chimes as it melts and offers "a grounding, energy clearing experience; $40 Tarot cards; and a $27 elixir that calls itself “Psychic Vampire Repellent” not for real vampires, but those who drain your positive energy. (Among its ingredients are "a unique and complex blend of gem elixirs," as well as reiki, sound waves, moonlight, love, (and) reiki charged crystals, according to its labeling.
Goop’s hardly an outlier here. Wellness culture is about more than beauty. It’s about something even more complicated: purity.
In her 1966 book, "Purity and Danger," anthropologist Mary Douglas explores what she sees as the fundamental human root of religious observance: the separation of the “pure” from the “impure,” and in particular the establishing of clear and fundamental categories for human cognition: this goes here, this goes there. What is dirt, after all, she famously posits, but matter out of place?
The sacred and the taboo occupy an interesting, if uncomfortable, place in this paradigm. Things that are sacred don't fit into any part of “normal” life (the Hebrew root word for holy is literally set-apart); things that are taboo also address realities our society doesn’t have ready language for.
Wellness culture, in our increasingly fractured age, takes up some of the burden of defining categories that seem ever more uncertain. At a time when we're not sure whether technology, genetic modification or even the chemicals in our face cream are advancements or ruinous, wellness culture steps in with its framework of purity and pollution to pronounce them bad or good. It tells us not just how to look; it tells us how to live meaningfully.
In his 1958 "Structural Anthropology," Levi-Strauss gives the example of a South American shaman who sits at the bedside of a pregnant woman. While she struggles with labor pains, the shaman recites an old myth — known to the woman — of warring gods in her belly, shadow and light fighting for dominance. Once the woman’s pain is put in terms that she can understand, Levi-Strauss argues, she suffers less.
On the Goop website, Paltrow-approved specialist Dr. Alejandro Junger, founder of the Clean Program and bestselling author of "Clean," provides us with a similar modern myth.
“There is another “inconvenient truth” still hidden from popular awareness,” he writes. “Global warming is just a symptom. At the root of it is global toxicity, the build-up of chemicals that is threatening all life on earth. The air we breathe, the water we drink and shower with, the buildings we live and work in, and most of all, the foods we eat, are loaded with chemicals that alone or in combination cause irritation, inflammation, sickness and, ultimately, death."
The solution Junger holds out is a detox plan that will help our overwhelmed systems right themselves when combined with “skin brushing,” meditation, saunas and sunshine.
It’s a cure any one of us can buy into. And it’s a story that just might take away some of our pain.