Wellness Culture Is Toxic and Ableist, Preying On The Chronically Ill

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
Scary Mommy and Anna Efetova/Getty

They slide into my DMs, promising me they have the cure for my diseases. They can reverse my type 1 diabetes with essential oils, supplements, and dietary programs. I can have more energy, sleep like a baby, and strengthen my muscles. Brain fog will be a thing of the past. I will be Superwoman, and I will be healed of my autoimmune, chronic illnesses. Lucky me.

I scoff in disgust and delete their “hey, friend” messages. I don’t have the time, energy, or extra cash for their nonsense. (Plus, they DM’d me because they want to point out what is “wrong” with me and then oh-so-kindly offer to “help.”) The reality is, I’ve accepted my health status, while also working hard with real medical professionals — not MLM sales-reps and self-appointed health gurus — to manage my diseases. As resilient and educated as I am, I still find myself infuriated with toxic, ableist health culture. It turns out, I’m not alone.

A recent social media post caught my eye. Kat Inokai laid out how dangerous false teachings can be when aimed at those of us who live with chronic health conditions. Kat is a self-proclaimed “disabled mom of two” and “writer, content creator, advocate” who resides in Toronto. She shared with us her long list of diagnoses, which include autoimmune diseases, migraines, Osteoarthritis, Raynaud’s syndrome, and more. She uses mobility aids, including a cane and wheelchair, to move.

Many women I know who suffer from health woes like me are incredibly smart and excellent self-advocates, yet we can still fall prey to “get well now” rhetoric. Kat explains, “Because the medical ableism and gaslighting that feed so many our experiences, and that push us headlong into self-advocacy and research, also have the ability to expose us further to something that we are already vulnerable to every single day.”

What happens next? We see advertising for all sorts of plans and programs, such as how to detox or a revolutionary new supplement, in which popular wellness terms are used to persuade us of the benefits. We wonder if maybe, just maybe, they could help us. As Kat shares, we often have to wait months to see our medical specialists, and we may be tempted to give something new a try with the high hopes that we will experience symptom relief. In her words, we might think “Well, what do I have to lose?”

The psychology behind why we tempted by sometimes such obviously shady claims is interesting. There’s systemic ableism at play, and our bodies are valued based on “appearance” and “performance.” Do we, as the patients and consumers, (literally) buy into this, or do we reject it? Kat says, “We have to examine everything” while being “willing to learn and unlearn.” We have to do (even more) hard work and unpack “our own internalized ableism” and “reparent ourselves.”

No matter how accepted we’ve been by our family members, friends, and even society at large, we know we still aren’t the norm. The world isn’t made for the disabled, or differently-abled, or whatever term the person prefers. All of us have been made to feel, at one time or another, that we need to try harder, suck it up, or look sick (whatever that means) in order to be taken seriously. Those of us who are chronically ill are always having to prove ourselves, on top of managing our health. It’s exhausting. Then companies come along and promise to take away some of the burden. They swoop in when are at our most vulnerable, tempting us with their “science” and testimonials.

The other tactic used by ableist health companies is finger-pointing that, as Kat shares, “feeds internalized ableism and reinforces gaslighting.” She notes the “tough love” phrasing that companies use to lure “sick” consumers, such as “no more excuses” and “your health is in your hands.” These products can be dangerous and unhealthy for an able-bodied person, and especially for someone who has multiple diagnoses. The danger isn’t only to our physical health, but also our mental, emotional, and spiritual health. Kat notes that “the marketing can speak to a part of us that needs to feel validated.” After all, when our bodies are failing us, we feel like we are failures. If we would just do more, try harder, or be more disciplined, we would be healed.

Okay, so we understand that wellness culture and pseudoscience is toxic for us all, but even more so for those of us already living with chronic health issues. The question is, now what? I guess we could delete our social media accounts, never watch TV or listen to the radio, and avert our eyes from every single advertisement, but that’s not realistic. Enough has already been taken from us.

Kat shares that we have to absolutely take charge. We should “be aware of the media” and overhaul our social media. If an account is pushing a product or program that we know is ableist and unproven, we need to unfollow. We also need to spend more time doing the things we know will help us navigate our health challenges, including therapy, meditation, affirmations, time offline, and setting boundaries.

Instead of pretending like sneaky marketing doesn’t exist and trying to avoid it at all costs, we should call out when we see an ableist, gaslighting tactic and teach our families to do the same. If we find ourselves tempted by a pretty picture trying to see us a cure, we need to give ourselves some grace. Then ask why we were tempted. Is there an area of our health—pain level, mobility, internalized messages—that needs our attention?

She also urges us not to jump into any program or purchase any product. There’s no rush. Remember, the urgency is part of the marketing. Kat reminds us, if we’re truly interested in improving or exploring a certain area of our health, we need to pause, think on it, talk to our medical professionals who know us well, and made an educated choice. We also need to explore the mental and emotional aspects of health changes.

I’ve noticed that not only do MLM company reps (or “ambassadors”) use the “hey, friend” tactic, but also companies. Social media influencers are paid a lot of money to promote vitamins, food products, and diet programs on their followers, including those of us who have unique health needs. By using everyday women, companies are trying to use familiarity, warmth, and (faux) community to lure us into thinking we can be better, stronger, prettier, and more energetic.

Having multiple diagnoses is exhausting enough, and then having to deal with people and companies who relentlessly attempt to take advantage of my special needs requires even more of my energy. Kat and I agree that we have to be even more skeptical than the average consumer and reject the notion that we are less-than because we are differently-abled. Companies will stop at nothing to flirt with our insecurities, and it’s up to us to RSVP “no” to their invitations.

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