Inside the Trillion-Dollar Wellness Industry
As a health-and-wellness-industry reporter for publications like Fast Company and The New York Times, Rina Raphael spent years covering fitness, food and far-out trends. (Crystal healing, anyone?) But by her mid-30s, she realized her obsession with health was making her feel worse, not better. These experiences were the catalyst for her book, The Gospel of Wellness: Gyms, Gurus, Goop, and the False Promise of Self-Care, which came out in September. In it, Raphael analyzes the US$4.4-trillion wellness industry, which includes everything from fitness and nutrition to vibrators and athleisure. While sometimes helpful, the industry puts pressure on women in particular, she says, to shop and sweat their way to happiness only to trap them on a treadmill of endless self-improvement.
First of all, what counts as “wellness”? It seems like there’s a lot under that umbrella.
A general definition is that wellness is everything that medicine and insurance don’t really touch. But the problem is that it’s evolved into a marketing term that can just as easily mean “charcoal toothpaste” as “meditation,” so it’s really ambiguous now. What I’m trying to do in the book is say “Okay, what is real wellness? And what is all the marketing gunk that is just trying to make a sale?”
When did wellness become such a huge industry?
There are several theories about how it grew. In part, 9/11 caused a lot of people to pause and ponder how they live their lives. Some historians say that when things feel out of control, we look for ways to get it back, and taking control of our health is one of those ways. In the years following 9/11, we saw an influx of boutique fitness gyms, and I also spoke with one crystal seller who told me crystals were flying off the shelves. The other times she sees that is when the stock market is in flux.
I don’t want to create a straight line, but women feel very dissatisfied right now. They’re overwhelmed by the double shift: They work, but they’re still doing the majority of the chores at home. And a lot of women turn to wellness because there aren’t enough solutions to women’s health conditions—there’s a lot of dissatisfaction with the medical industry.
Polls suggest that women spend far more on wellness than men do, and many have increased that spending since the start of the pandemic.
Well, it is a misogynistic industry in that a lot of the fear-mongering is directed at women: Your food is toxic, your pantry is toxic, your dildo is toxic. Women are more targeted by body culture. They’re also told they’re responsible for their children, so you see more women obsessing over clean eating and organic food.
What was your own breaking point with the industry?
I live in L.A., which is like ground zero for green-juice devotees. One reason I became a wellness-industry reporter is that I was steeped in the culture. I started realizing that a lot of things that were being sold to me weren’t making me better. They were making me obsessive. I was experiencing chemophobia (the irrational fear of chemicals), disordered eating, compulsive exercising. I was also just spending so much money. And the more I reported on this industry, the more I realized that not all of it was based in science. Those parts were really about selling an emotion to the consumer.
The industry is very good at making claims that sound pretty scientific.
I’ve written about science-washing, which is when products are dolled up in scientific lingo. There’s also a lack of consumer critical thinking. If you see something that says “clinically tested,” what does that even mean? It doesn’t mean it’s effective. I also find people all the time who talk about adrenal fatigue, which is not recognized by the greater medical community. Someone could be bypassing real therapeutic solutions to problems they have because they’ve self-diagnosed something that is, according to the current science, not a real medical condition.
So what does actually make us feel better?
I’ll go out on a limb here and say I think most people know what they should be doing for their health: They should be trying to exercise. They should be trying to eat less processed food and more fruits and vegetables. But there’s no money to be made from promoting common sense and moderation. So you have an industry that is overselling what you need to do—the accessories, the skin-care masks, the bath bombs—all these things that don’t necessarily have anything to do with your overall health.
You wrote recently about wellness products marketed for kids, including a mini Peloton-style bike. What are some of the wildest products you’ve seen in general?
I’m always impressed by the creativity around CBD. It feels like Mad Libs, where you can just put “CBD” in front of anything. We even have CBD toilet paper.