Toxic Culture; The Dark Side of the Wellness Industry
Last Updated on April 17, 2022 by Thalia
My wellness journey has always been about putting my mental health and happiness first.
But thanks to a toxic wellness culture, many start their journey for the wrong reasons.
So this week I’m shedding light on a problematic wellness culture, and the toxic trends endorsed by the health and wellness industry.
I recently watched the documentary, Bad Influencer on BBC about the disgraced wellness entrepreneur, Belle Gibson.
The 45-min movie described how Belle deceived people into thinking she cured her terminal brain cancer through healthy and clean eating.
Belle gained a mass following of people who also had “incurable” illnesses and she slowly became their mentor.
She developed a healthy eating app, Whole Pantry, released a book under the same name and even won the Cosmopolitan Fun Fearless Female award.
But within 2 years, it was proven that Belle had in fact faked the whole thing.
She never had cancer.
It was heartbreaking to hear about the lives of so many women who believed and followed Belle.
And the fact that they were holding on to the hope that if they ate “well” their illnesses would be cured.
But it also opened up my eyes to the dark side of the wellness industry and its toxic culture.
Something that now seems to be becoming more and more apparent.
Table of Contents
Toxic wellness culture
The global health and wellness industry is now worth over $4.5 trillion.
And like with most viral trends, a dark side soon develops.
I mean just look at social media.
It’s a great tool to build a community and gain traffic to your online business but it can also be extremely toxic and dangerous.
Even productivity, which is essential to our growth and gives us purpose, has a dark side. Taken to the extreme and it promotes overworking and burnout.
And unfortunately, the wellness industry is not free from a toxic culture.
It likes to glorify being “well” a little too much and “what’s supposed to make us feel whole is actually preventing us from being our whole selves in an authentic way.”
Let’s look at Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness company, Goop for example.
Goop started out as a weekly e-mail giving out new-age health advice like “eliminate white foods” and has now grown into a lifestyle brand.
A lifestyle brand that promotes a cleansing culture on its website and within its workplace.
Yes, you heard that right. Goop’s employees partake in a cleanse every year which is endorsed by the brand.
“According to the brand’s website, the entire team does Dr. Alejandro Junger’s five-day “elimination diet,” which consists of one solid meal a day, consumed alongside a collection of supplements, teas, and premixed shake powders.” (The Cut)
The goal? To feel pure.
And unfortunately, this problematic wellness culture and toxic trends are distorting people’s body image.
There’s always a strive to be healthier, fitter and eat cleaner.
A lot of people end up becoming obsessed with what they eat and how much they exercise, which in turn, makes them compete and compare themselves to others.
And this extreme type of toxic wellness is damaging.
Not for the people at the top, as they’re the ones making the money, but for the men and women who buy into the idea that these wellness treatments will make them healthier.
“Does wellness bring health and healing? Or are we falling victim to false promises? Are we really getting well?”
(Un)Well | Netflix
The dark side of wellness in popular culture
Nine Perfect Strangers
In Nine Perfect Strangers, a dark comedy by Lianne Moriarty, the bestselling author of Big Little Lies, nine optimistic but dysfunctional guests head to a wellness retreat to detox and “better” themselves.
Since its 2018 publication, the fiction book has now been turned into a Hulu Original miniseries starring Nicole Kidman and Melissa McCarthy.
The TV show is eerie, chilling and terrifyingly real.
And Masha, Tranquillam House’s owner, takes things to the extreme.
She starves her guests through fasting. Gets them to dig their own graves. And gives them microdoses of psychedelics so they can truly be “transformed.”
In the book, the retreat begins with “a period of silence lasting five days, during which there will be no talking, no touching, no reading, no writing, no eye contact with other guests or their own companions.”
The thing is, Masha wasn’t always a wellness guru and was never properly trained.
She was once a high-flying, workaholic CEO until she had a near-death experience.
She explains to her guests that she died and was then reborn.
Reborn to take better care of herself.
And when she did, she created her own wellness centre “transforming” individuals through the processes that worked for her.
And this is where the issue lies.
You can’t help but question whether Masha has her patients’ best interests at heart or if she’s just taking advantage of them for the money. Just like Belle Gibson was doing in real-life and most recently Elizabeth Holmes.
“He never ceased to be amazed by the obedience of people at these places. They allowed themselves to be dipped in mud, wrapped in plastic, starved and deprived, pricked and prodded, all in the name of transformation”
nine perfect strangers
The Dropout starring Amanda Seyfried airs on Hulu and documents the true story of the rise and fall of Theranos’ CEO, Elizabeth Holmes.
Elizabeth Holmes dropped out of Stanford at the age of 19 to set up a blood-testing startup.
The idea was to create an at-home blood-testing machine that only required a few drops of blood for instant results.
She grew the company’s value to $9 billion.
The issue? The prototype didn’t work and the results were unreliable.
However, that didn’t stop Elizabeth.
For over a decade she lied to investors, Pharmaceutical companies, to her employees as well as to trial and non-trial patients, who as a result were provided with inaccurate test results and ultimately given the wrong medication.
She was lauded as “a female Steve Jobs.” So she started to dress in black turtle necks and adhered to a strange diet of only green juices.
Elizabeth Holmes became the youngest ever female self-made billionaire. She was featured in Fortune magazine, Vanity Fair, Forbes, etc, spoke on panels with Bill Clinton and even gave a TED Talk.
As the story in The Dropout unfolds, Seyfried’s character (Elizabeth Holmes) becomes increasingly more motivated to make her idea work, and increasingly psychotic at the same time. Where, by the end, she has zero remorse or empathy for what she has done.
So why have I chosen to focus on The Dropout?
Because again, it shows another respected entrepreneur in the health and wellness industry abuse her position of power and capitalise on exploiting others for her own personal gain.
Let’s talk about the “that girl” TikTok trend
On social media, there’s a big emphasis on starting your morning by drinking a green juice (literally the symbol of this new-age version of wellness), meditating, and doing a high-intensity workout.
Made popular by the trending “that girl” aesthetic, wellness has now been reduced to 2-sec clips of face masks, drinking green juices, making the bed, squatting and practising gratitude.
The thing they all have in common? The women are all beautiful and skinny and have the most “insta-worthy” set-up in their houses and bedrooms.
And this is why the “that girl” wellness trend and culture it encourages is so toxic.
Because it promotes a narrative of “be the best version of yourself” with this lifestyle.
I mean no offence, but I doubt the best version of myself requires me to drink a green juice every morning. I find them disgusting and will probably be pissed off for the rest of the day. Not to mention, adopting the same lifestyle as a hundred other “that girl” clones just doesn’t appeal to me.
Because when it comes to wellness, and becoming “the best version of yourself”, there is no one size fits all.
Wellness doesn’t have to be all about exercising twice a day and only eating rainbow-coloured foods.
It’s about how you feel inside.
So this curated way of how “that girl” promotes wellness is actually quite laughable.
I mean, I don’t think a wellness journey is supposed to look that aesthetically pleasing.
Because what feels good for you doesn’t necessarily look good.
My inner healing and journey to wellness have been about supporting my mental health.
It’s been uncomfortable, challenging and at times emotional. Moments that I have definitely not wanted to share with people, let alone the entire internet.
So it begins to beg the question, are the women taking part in the “that girl” trend actually taking their wellness seriously? Or have they just been hijacked by a viral trend and simply doing it for the likes?
Let’s normalise the messy reality of self-improvement and the fact that the moments that truly make us aren’t always going to be “insta-worthy”
Notes by Thalia
As Christobel Hastings for Stylist Online concludes:
“The wellness industry is pervaded by misinformation, commodification, and a lack of accountability in real life.”
As highlighted above with the “that girl” trend, we just need to look at social media for proof of that.
“It’s an industry that frequently elects leaders on the strength of a personal brand.”
If someone creates a viral reel or has at least 10k followers, they are considered an “expert” in their niche. People then start to look to them for advice and guidance. And brands employ them to start marketing their products.
These wellness “experts” then turn to sell online courses with a ridiculously high price tag so they can begin to monetise their audience.
But do they really know what they are talking about? Have they done the proper research into the products they are endorsing?
Or are they just wrongly promoting unattainable ideals and an unrealistic lifestyle. “One which co-opts ancient medicines and practices and passes them off as aspirational. And one that prescribes quick tip advice in the place of individualised care. Which capitalises on individual malaise for personal gain.”
What wellness really means
Wellness is about moving towards a healthy lifestyle. A lifestyle that has a positive impact on your physical health; both inside and out.
And yes, over the past few years, the core meaning of wellness has become misleading. And the term, which is essentially supposed to be a positive word, is becoming more and more intimidating, toxic and quite frankly pretentious.
But in all honesty, you don’t need to drink green juice every morning to be “well.”
Wellness also doesn’t need to look like buying ridiculously expensive beauty products, getting the latest skin treatment or trying a bizarre new diet.
And it certainly doesn’t look like dropping $10k on a luxury health retreat.
Wellness is really quite simple and it requires the combination of these 5 basic practices:
My wellness journey has essentially been about avoiding burnout, making more time for myself, adopting a slower pace to life and putting my mental health and happiness first.
It’s about practising self-love, gratitude and setting boundaries.
But unfortunately, for many, a wellness journey can turn into a toxic obsession with unhealthy dietary trends, dangerous wellness concepts and wellbeing retreats that go to extreme lengths to offer transformation.
As a wellness blogger, the last thing I ever want to do is promote an unhealthy or toxic idea of wellness.
To be honest, I doubt I ever will as I’m not that sort of person. But I will still continue to learn more about toxic wellness culture and trends so I can be in the know and share my thoughts.
I’m also so thankful that there now seems to be more awareness surrounding toxic wellness.
And I truly believe it’s because people are starting to become fed up with the narrative that a strict exercise routine and clean healthy eating is the only optimum way to live.
A lot of people only seem to be focused on self-improving and building better habits to the point where they are forgetting to actually have fun.
Yes, I’m on my own personal growth and wellness journey, but I’m not allowing it to take over my life.
Yes, I still over-indulge in food. I still have days when I’m lazy AF and just want to lie on the couch binge-watching Netflix and eating Dominoes.
And in all honesty, there is nothing wrong with that.
Life is all about balance and focusing on your needs.
So, start your wellness journey by all means, but do it in a healthy way. In a way that feels good for you. And make sure you’re doing it for all the right reasons too.
Because it will make you feel so much more fulfilled in the long run.
And don’t get so caught up in self-improving that you forget to actually live your life and have fun!
Until next week,
Let me leave you with this one last quote
“I believe that the journey of well-being, when done right, is relative, is transient and ever evolving. My journey may not necessarily be appropriate to be compared with yours, the depth or intensity of that journey will constantly be changing with time and will. If done correctly, it will keep growing with me. Most of all the journey never ends and each of our personalised journeys head in our own unique direction.
In the worlds of digital health and future technologies in which I play each day, I have come to realise that well-being is bigger than sickness and health, it cannot be defined by a clear set of boundary conditions or prescribed by a strict formula but is in the end a personalised journey of experimentation.
The beauty of this journey is that, should we wish, it can be a lifelong process of trial and error, learning and unlearning, fun and experimentation.”
Dr Marcus Ranney