The 'Wellness Community' Is A Major Misnomer These Days

by Elizabeth Broadbent
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You’ve seen her page. She’s a blonde, slim influencer in the wellness movement, and her Insta feed is full of artfully photographed yogic splits, organic smoothies, and spiritual(ish) quotes superimposed on ocean sunsets. She touts all things holistic, plant-based, and natural. She does not explain what those words mean. She posts pretty Buddhas, but she’s not Buddhist; she posts happy Ganeshas, but she’s not Hindu. She raves about all Eastern medicine, but don’t ask her what belief system Qi’s tied to. Her pretty bobblehead might explode.

And sneakily, in between those pretty sunsets and barely-clothed handstands, she posts pretty quotes about things like “choice” and “the great awakening.” She speaks about “keeping our bodies pure.” Keep on scrolling. She’s hosted anti-vax experts on her page. She pushes people to “question everything” — and that includes the Covid vaccine. But ask her, and she’ll say she’s not anti-anything. It’s about choice. It’s about freedom. It’s about questions.

Then she starts using the words “Big Pharma.”

She’s been red-pilled, and sneakily, she’s taking her wellness movement followers with her.

The Wellness Movement Has Some Inherent Issues…

The wellness movement — eat an organic, plant-based diet; get eight hours of sleep; do yoga; spend time in nature — has some inherent issues, like they reek of not only class privilege, but white privilege. Who has enough cash to nosh nothing but organic veggies and swap ancient grains for wheat? You’re in a higher-than-average tax bracket if you’re grabbing amaranth and quinoa from the shelves.

Scratch that. You get an automatic pay bump if you can correctly identify amaranth and use that word in a sentence which is not “Skinny white girls buy a lot of amaranth.”

Wellness movement gurus, in general, also ignore food deserts, which, according to the USDA, are “low-income tracts in which a substantial number or proportion of the population has low access to supermarkets or large grocery stores.” Food deserts create an environment in which it’s difficult to access fresh fruits, veggies, and meat, let alone organic stuff. And generally, BIPOC tend to populate them.

Very few Americans can manage eight hours of sleep. Raise your hand if you get it. If you raised your hand, stop lying. Those can swing enough sleep had best know the word “privilege.” Yoga classes generally cost money; there are issues of access. And clothing. And mats. Arguably people can practice yoga anywhere dressed in anything, but if you’re saying that, this essay probably isn’t about you. Moreover, no one would know that from looking at Organic Princess Purity’s Insta feed, anyway.

Don’t start on access to green space and free time to spend there. Just. Don’t. We all know who has it (well-off white people) who doesn’t (poor BIPOC). Those wellness movement peeps love to get all up in some nature, but they ignore issues of access for… oh, everyone else.

Some experts in the wellness movement understand that telling everyone to hold hands while skipping to the all-local organic farmer’s market after a sunrise yoga session is problematic. Most don’t. This world has got money. This world has got white skin. And that leads to some issues.

You Are Responsible For Your Health

Because the wellness movement has cash and privilege, they can make that hop-skip-jump from “Your decisions affect your health” to “You are responsible for your health.” There’s an assumption that people have choices (as if everyone wouldn’t eat all-organic if they could). That burden of choice becomes a burden of responsibility: if you can make enough choices, you’re ultimately responsible for your own health. That not only leads to hope of weight loss, healing, and a kind of spiritual freedom, but also a sort of victim-blaming: if you aren’t healthy, you made unhealthy choices.

Old news. We always blame fat people for being fat.

But wellness gurus drag this farther into the fringes, into the wilds of Eastern medicine, free radicals, and fluoride. They tell people to “eliminate pills and introduce plants,” like Tania the Herbalist. They rail against GMOs. They tout cardamom floss (no really, it’s a thing.) It’s by nature “alternative.” Natural things are pure. Man-made things are not-pure. And don’t squint too hard at that, because “natural” and “man-made” are ever-shifting, mutable labels that can change to suit any situation.

It’s very, very simple to slide into conspiracy theory about Big Pharma from there, and vaccine skepticism thereafter. Jessica Alix Hesser, for example, in between her Insta-rainbows and pretty pony pics, includes:

Of course, not everyone in the wellness movement is anti-vax, or an asshole who ignores their own privilege. But as The Washington Post points out, the community has long-standing ties to the anti-vax movement, and research shows anti-vax material is often reposted in parenting and wellness groups. When the pandemic started, influencers were already placed to spread their anti-vaccination agendas.

When we think of vaccine misinformation, we think of people like RFK Jr. and Dr. Mercola — but it’s no coincidence that Mercola, who’s now raking it in with his tinfoil hat book about the end of the world as we know it, used to throw pictures of antioxidant blueberries in between his Instagram rants about Bill Gates.

“If you decide not to take the vaccine, you’re taking responsibility for your own health,” Jen Stoeckert told Harper’s Bazaar. “I’d personally rather take responsibility for my own health versus, like, the government.” When the interviewer pointed out that vaccine refusal could lead to unintentionally making someone else sick and killing them, she replied, “That’s like asking me to light my child on fire to save yours,” a common saying among anti-vaxxers, which somehow manages to induce both head-shaking despair and rage. Mostly rage.

There’s Orientalism In That There Anti-Vax Crap

Many members of the wellness movement mishmash their foodie purity with yoga. Cultural historian Matthew Remski argues that yoga has always been a bulwark against traditional western medicine driven by “charismatic leaders,” and that “social media influencers are the natural successors of this tradition.”

No, not all yoga is anti-vax. Let’s keep going.

Yoga, he says, emphasizes “self-care and self-discovery,” which vibes with people who feel “abandoned by government and healthcare institutions.” Moreover, it shares three core beliefs that underpin every single conspiracy theory ever: “everything is connected, nothing happens without a reason, and nothing is as it appears.”

No, you don’t red-pill by doing yoga at the YMCA. Keep going.

Those same ideas underpin any of New Age-y Asian import spirituality — Gua Sha, Ayurveda, Traditional Chinese Medicine — which has been ripped from its cultural context and repackaged as a health commodity served up to white Western audiences. Shreena Gandhi, an assistant professor of religion at Michigan State University, explains that, “The thing about the spiritual ‘East’ or the ‘Orient’ is that there’s a history of Westerners cherry-picking customs, traditions, and practices to serve their needs, that they can tie to a particular political agenda.”

And what some have cherrypicked: “Your body is divine, but it’s under attack.” In other words: you have to keep it pure. And that meshes neatly with an anti-vax agenda. Moreover, the emphasis on those three core beliefs make it very easy to slide into “question everything” and “it’s my choice.”

They aren’t anti-vax. They’re pro-question. Duh.

And that’s what’s so insidious about these wellness movement people spreading anti-vax nonsense. They’re hiding under a veil of choice and questioning and peace and love and purity. There are rainbows in between those anti-vax memes (like, literally). But every rainbow’s underpinned with white privilege, classism, and orientalism.

You think you’re getting an organic smoothie, then someone’s talking about The Great Awakening and #savethechildren, and your brain’s going, “Isn’t that a little Q-Anon-y?” And yes, yes it is. You’re not imagining it. The wellness movement has an anti-vax problem.

It’s true that you probably shouldn’t munch those Monsanto veggies.

But get your goddamn vaccine.