Former Fast Company staff writer Rina Raphael takes a hatchet to the $4.4 trillion wellness industry and her willing participation in propagating its misinformation in The Gospel of Wellness (Holt, Sept.), which combines reportage, first-person narrative, and social critique. “I saw how the sausage was made,” she says. “I myself made mistakes.” Raphael spoke with PW about gender, the commodification of health, and America’s long history of snake oil salespeople.
How did the industry go awry?
I covered wellness from the business angle. What I thought was a well-intentioned industry—based around fitness, nutrition, stress relief, and spirituality—increasingly gave way to muddy waters: crystal-infused water bottles, detox cleanses, shady workplace wellness programs. After interviewing founders and trying every trend myself, I talked to hundreds of women at wellness festivals. I grew skeptical and out of curiosity, but also out of journalistic duty, I started doing my homework. The wellness industry is actually quite unwell. This book is the story of what I discovered.
How do you implicate yourself in this story?
I covered this industry because I was personally invested in it. I totally drank the Kool-Aid. I went to every boutique class. I went fully organic. I tried the detoxes, the whole shebang. You get sucked into this because of social media. There’s also so much misinformation in the media. Wellness is not treated like the health category. It’s treated like fashion. You’ll find it in the “Sunday Styles,” in all the women’s magazines. You have important health stories written by people who don’t have any science background and who didn’t reach out to any scientists or doctors. That’s how this industry is getting out of control; it’s not because women are stupid. I elevated so many of these companies to great heights, and then I realized that they weren’t what I thought they were.
How do gender and wellness intersect?
There are very specific reasons why American women gravitate toward wellness. Why are they rushing to boutique studios? Why are they downloading meditation apps and swapping milk for soaked almond water? They’re looking for solutions. Wellness tells them that they have the solutions. Women are told if they follow a certain protocol, eat right, meditate, buy all this stuff, they can manage what feels unruly or subpar in their lives. I spoke to an Italian academic who deals in self-care studies, and she said, “We get six weeks’ vacation; we take two-hour lunches; we have fresh food; we’re a communal society. We don’t need as much ‘self-care.’ ” The messaging around self-care is highly individualistic, when we need more communal solutions.
Why did you use the word gospel in the subtitle?
The messaging and marketing around this commodified bloated industry is similar to organized religion. It provides identity, meaning, community—things that are in short supply in America. At the same time, it also has its false idols and its cultish trends. I spoke to people who couldn’t live without their SoulCycle or near-worshiped influencers because they don’t trust other institutions.
After reading the book, what do you hope readers take away?
You think, “Wow, we’re really being taken for a ride here.” But this has happened before. In the 19th century, once germ theory pervaded the national consciousness, you had all these companies who terrified women: “If you don’t buy an ice box then your kids are going to die!” “If you don’t scrub with these certain disinfectants you’re going to be carrying your kid out in a tiny casket.” I hope that women can be a little more forgiving of themselves and just recognize that they are being targeted.