Women are flocking to wellness because modern medicine still doesn’t take them seriously

Visitors enjoy a drink in the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa in Grindavik, Iceland, May 25, 2016.
Visitors enjoy a drink in the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa in Grindavik, Iceland, May 25, 2016.
Image: Reuters/Gwladys Fouche
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The wellness movement is having a moment. The more luxurious aspects of it were on full display last weekend at the inaugural summit of Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle brand Goop, from crystal therapy to $66 jade eggs meant to be worn in the vagina. Meanwhile, juice cleanses, “clean eating,” and hand-carved lamps made of pink Himalayan salt have all gone decidedly mainstream. I myself will cop to having participated in a sound bath—basically meditating for 90 minutes in a dark room while listening to gongs and singing bowls. (I felt amazingly weird afterward, in the best possible way.)

It seems that privileged women in the US have created their own alternative health-care system—with few of its treatments having been tested for efficacy, or even basic safety. It’s easy to laugh at the dubious claims of the wellness industrial complex, and reasonable to worry about the health risks involved. But the forces behind the rise of oxygen bars and detox diets are worth taking seriously—because the success of the wellness industry is a direct response to a mainstream medical establishment that frequently dismisses and dehumanizes women.

To be fair, the American health-care system is generally unpleasant for everyone: impersonal, harried, and incredibly expensive. “The doctor-patient relationship has been slowly eroding, not only with specialization and the fact that people now see panels of doctors, but because emergency rooms are slammed, there are insurance-coverage problems, et cetera,” Travis A. Weisse, a science historian at the University of Wisconsin, told Taffy Brodesser-Akner in an article for Outside magazine. “It can make a patient feel devalued.”

The medical system is even more terrible for women, whose experience of pain is routinely minimized by health practitioners. In the emergency room, women routinely wait longer than men to receive medication for acute pain. At the gynecologist’s office, severe period-related pain is often dismissed or underestimated. Ingrained sexism means that doctors may regard women as either earth mothers or hypochondriacs; that is, either women possess deep wellspring of internal pain control that they ought to be able to channel during childbirth, or their pain is psychological in nature—a symptom of hysteria.

Conditions that affect women at higher rates than men, including depression and autoimmune diseases like fibromyalgia, are much more likely to be dismissed as having a psychological rather than a physiological source. Chronic fatigue syndrome sufferers are still instructed to rely on exercise and positive thinking, despite research that indicates these measures do not cure the condition. Many women with autoimmune diseases, endometriosis, or even multiple sclerosis go undiagnosed for years, despite multiple trips to doctors and specialists—all the while being told that their symptoms could just be stress.

Even with diseases that strike men and women at similar rates, women are in many cases at a disadvantage during treatment. Women have lower survival rates from heart attacks than men, partially because their symptoms often present as “atypical”—that is, atypical for a male heart attack victim—and because they receive less aggressive treatment once they are admitted to a hospital. Clinical trials for medicine tend to include more men, and the male body is the medical default.

For some US women, the experience of childbirth creates a permanent distrust of the medical system. Many American mothers experience birth in a hospital setting in which they are given very little control over their care and which procedures they are subjected to. The national C-section rate is about 30%, triple the World Health Organization’s target of 10%. And US hospitals have one of the worst maternal health track records among developed nations. When women’s preferences and individual needs are dismissed in the process of childbirth, it’s no surprise that they may face physical and psychological scarring—and that they will seek out alternative methods of health care where they feel listened to and in control.

Enter the wellness industry, which specializes in creating safe, welcoming, amber-lit spaces that make people feel cared-for and relaxed, and which treats the female body as its default. It’s easy to see how a sympathetic reiki practitioner who listens closely to your descriptions of what it feels like to inhabit your body, and vows to help you feel better, could seem appealing. As Brodesser-Akner writes in her piece for Outside, “whatever you think of detox and the people who sell it, they are mostly people who care very much for you and who know how fragile happiness and health are and who want you to have a good life.”

Wellness products and services are designed to make women feel that their unique, individual needs are being addressed, whether it’s via a smoothie, a mud bath, or leech therapy. And it’s not all bullshit. Deep twists in yoga may not literally be “rinsing out the kidneys,” as many teachers like to say, but research has shown a variety of benefits from the ancient practice that go beyond simple stretching and movement. The Mayo Clinic touts the benefits of meditation. The Federal Drug Administration just recommended acupuncture for pain relief. There are plenty of yoga teachers, massage therapists, and the like who are well-educated in their fields, talented, and dedicated to the people they work with.

The problem is that the rest of the wellness industry hitches a ride on their coattails of compassion and competency, benefiting from the utter lack of warmth found in mainstream medical treatment. And once you buy into the idea that science and medicine are not to be trusted, it’s easy to become susceptible to misinformation—whether that means obsessing over toxins in sunscreen and using coconut oil instead; going gluten-free when you don’t have celiac disease or gluten intolerance; steaming your vagina; or saying no thank you to vaccines and standard, evidence-based treatments like a vitamin K shot for newborns.

The truth is that the medical establishment deserves our skepticism—especially from those of us who have female bodies. The FDA and Perdue Pharma share a good deal of responsibility for the opioid crisis. There are plenty of substances, like Red Dye No. 40, Yellow Dyes No. 5 and 6, the herbicide atrazine and the class of pesticides called neonicotinoids, that are legal in the US but banned elsewhere out of concern for consumer safety. And of course, we are a long way from gender parity in medical research and treatment.

But it’s important to remember that the dollars we drop on salt lamps and Moon Dust aren’t the same thing as agitating for change—and that retreating into wellness is only an option for the privileged set. Medical outcomes in the US are largely predicted by race and socioeconomic status, and it is minorities and poor people who face the worst consequences when toxins get dumped and regulatory systems break down.

Health-care practitioners needn’t resort to crystals and mandalas to learn something from the wellness industry. There’s a movement already afoot in medicine to cultivate compassion in physicians, which has been linked to better health for patients and better financial outcomes for hospitals. Simply looking patients in the eye, slowing down, and listening closely to what they have to say would be a good place to start.