How did wellness become our new religion?

Take me to your leader.
Take me to your leader.
Image: BFA/John Salangsang
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I own exactly one product from Goop. It’s called Emotional Detox Bath Soak, and I have no idea what it does.

All I know is that when I use this product, supplied to me by Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness juggernaut, my bath smells as if the well-tended rose garden of a chic English countess exploded inside it, and I feel I am doing something for myself which falls into the vague realm of “self-care.”

This is an activity that, if you spend any time on Instagram, you already know is as popular as a Museum of Ice Cream full of Kardashians. Which is to say: extremely popular.

So why was I moved to shell out $35 plus $5.95 shipping to own this product?

And how did Paltrow build a lifestyle empire —now valued at $250-million, as we recently learned in a New York Times Magazine profile — by selling us Emotional Detox Bath Soak and countless other products like it?

Before you rush to answer —and inevitably pile on the judgement of a brand espousing philosophies and products you might perceive to be wackadoo —I’d ask that you pause for a moment to look at the bigger picture.

Until earlier this year, I ran lifestyle partnerships at Facebook. This means I worked with social media influencers, brands, and publishers in food, fashion, home, health, travel, and of course, wellness, to help them tell their stories on Facebook and Instagram.

During my five years working at Facebook, I watched wellness grow from a fringe interest for a mostly female audience to a multi-trillion-dollar industry encompassing nutritional supplements, on-demand massage, period-friendly underwear, CBD-enhanced teas, mushroom elixirs, and then some. (If the mysterious powders I put in my morning smoothies and obscurely-scented candles I light every evening are any indication, it’s also an industry to which I have made hefty personal contribution.)

All $35 bath bombs aside, there’s lots to celebrate about wellness. Practices like acupuncture, yoga, meditation and healthy eating are all mainstream today for a reason —they can seriously improve our lives, even if we don’t always understand exactly how they all work.

There’s also real value in “self-care” —that close cousin to wellness. While it may seem like self care is simply the socially acceptable term for our “me-me-me”-obsessed society (especially when there’s a bathtub selfie involved) I’ve observed first-hand how it can legitimately make people feel safe and profoundly seen. Take Beautycon, for example —a convention that has been dubbed the Super Bowl of the beauty world. In several locations across the country, it draws a thoroughly diverse group of young people who connect to each other through all things makeup, finally at home in a community where they are allowed to feel beautiful for expressing themselves as they choose.

In the six months since I left Facebook to launch my own consulting business for lifestyle brands, wellness has continued on an upward trajectory—to the point that it seems like wellness has usurped entertainment as Los Angeles’ primary cultural export. And it’s not just because some of those smoothie supplements, bath soaks, and CBD teas actually work.

Here’s how we got here.

Facts are now considered debatable

As a culture, we’re currently in the midst of an intense period of questioning. Pretty much every age-old system out there is currently marked as “pending further review.” Like, for instance: government. Or religion. Or even science. We’re questioning whether these systems still represent a larger concept of truth —or even that there is a singular version of truth at all.

In some ways that is terrifying. But in other ways, it’s liberating.

We’ve been living at the mercy of outdated systems —puritanical, patriarchal, you name it—for way too long. So how do we decide what is actually true when the guiding systems we used to rely on are broken or irrelevant?

At some point in recent history, we decided to use “because it makes me feel good” as a key metric by which we determine truth. Truth has become, in essence, anything that makes us feel good about ourselves. That shift created the perfect conditions for the wellness industrial complex to flourish.

It should not come as news that facts are having a bit of a rough go of things right now. We may not have guessed, for example, that people would be marching in the streets in support of science in our lifetime.

Sure, you could blame the current president for this breakdown of truth, but both the right and the left are guilty of peddling ideas — and products —featuring murky and unsubstantiated claims.

As Molly Young pointed out in her 2017 profile of Moon Juice founder, wellness guru, and Goop acolyte Amanda Chantal Bacon, wellness takes hold “at both cultural poles.”

She wrote: “The far-right conspiracy theorist and radio host Alex Jones sells some of the same supplements as Moon Juice on his Infowars website.” (Yep, it’s true — check out Quartz’s rundown of ingredients found on both sites here).

And as Brodesser-Akner reported in her piece, a partnership between Goop and Condé Nast ended because Paltrow didn’t want Goop’s pieces to be fact-checked. In wellness, facts are not always required to present “truth.”

While I would never advise the brands I work with to play fast and loose with the facts as a means to reach audiences, I do believe it’s more important than ever for them to create their own distinct universes—clear, targeted system of values and language, communicated through content and products.

That’s because brands, more than any established mainstream systems, are rapidly becoming a consumer’s north star for truth. Because of this, in many ways, brands have more responsibility than ever before to get it right.

So why else is this major wellness moment happening?

The US healthcare system is sexist

Much ink has been spilled about what’s not working about the US healthcare system, but it can be especially fraught for women. Think: higher rates of misdiagnoses, having symptoms repeatedly minimized, and the built-in gender bias inherent in many clinical trials. Brodesser-Akner hits at this in her profile of Paltrow: “I know women who’ve been dismissed by their doctors for being lazy and careless and depressed and downright crazy. Was it any wonder that they would start to seek help from sources that assumed that their symptoms weren’t all in their head?”

So, are the brands espousing the type of wellness some might write off as “quackery” just a rallying cry from women desperate for answers in a system that makes them feel repeatedly ignored?

I don’t think it’s that simple. But it’s a big part of why many of these brands have so much traction with women.

Traditional medicine (Big Pharma and healthcare companies, I’m looking at you) dismisses this reality at its peril, or risks being usurped by more nimble wellness startups such as Maven, which offers female-focused health care from physicians delivered on demand via digital channels.

There’s a third and final factor that helps to explain momentum of the wellness movement.

Wellness helps fill a vacuum where religion once was

Arguably not since the Renaissance, (when science first became, as the kids might say, a “thing”) has religion been so consistently rocked by outside forces.

In place of religion, we now have spirituality (or pseudo-spirituality). Instead of church, we do elaborate #selfcaresunday rituals. We get baptized at Burning Man. We pay tithings to yoga studios. Wellness has in many ways become our new religion, with practitioners, instructors, and coaches its priests, imams, and rabbis. (Soul Cycle, anyone?)

Except, of course, for one very important distinction. The wellness industry is driven by a massive consumer imperative: it requires that we buy things. Lots and lots of things. I don’t think buying things is inherently bad (I make a living working for brands!), but I do think it becomes problematic when the imperative to buy is placed before bigger societal imperatives such as social and family support systems.

Am I the only one wondering, for example, why I —a woman living in one of the most affluent countries in the world —can get my hands on a jade egg intended to strengthen my “yoni” within hours, and yet may never see government-supported maternity leave in my lifetime?

That’s the thing about religion —for all its faults, it has historically addressed bigger societal imperatives that are fundamentally about contributing to a greater good, not just in consumer acts that make us as individuals feel good.

So what now?

As facts become increasingly imperiled, the healthcare system becomes more fragile, and we replace religion with spirituality, brands are slowly taking the place of institutions because they seem to better reflect the demands of our current world. That’s a massive responsibility for anyone, but especially so for brands who simply thought they were in the business of selling products or services.

It’s important for brands —especially those in the wellness space, because they have such an intimate relationship to our well-being —to acknowledge this, and also ask some questions of themselves.

Such as: how can companies stay true to to their own identity and yet champion facts?

How can brands make people’s lives better—beyond the tiny percentage of the population who can afford to access what they are selling?

And, perhaps most importantly, is there a way to create a version of “self-care” that goes beyond just the self?

I’m not quite sure, but I’m hopeful that by asking these questions, they—and we—can get there.