The several-trillion-dollar wellness industry – a universe of mylks, mindfulness and alternative medicine – has never been so seductive. But it appears that the ocean of wealth on which it sails, is out of (alkaline) water.

Kate Demolder explores the murky concept that is wellness, and why, according to the silver screen, its time is seemingly running out.


"Do lectins in foods affect your gut?," a recent well-known wellness importium-cum-hypebeast’s Instagram post reads, amassing a like count of 3,500+, mainly women. "Our senior director of science and research answers this highly debatable question in her latest edit. Link in bio for the full read."

This is indeed, a post from Goop – Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness megalith, valued at some $250m – making Paltrow and her lectin-avoidant colleagues some of the wealthiest women in media.

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Feeding the well-heeled with unconventional methods of health (anything from vulva steamers to vaginal jade eggs to collagen smoothies), their modus operandi is to slip wheatgrass in amongst the key pillars of Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

However, the tide seems to be turning for the imperfect, arcane summoning ritual that is the wellness industry, due to its insidious links and occasional veer into quackery – but how have the mighty fallen? And what’s coming for us next?

Let’s start from the beginning. The term wellness was first popularised in the late 1950s by Dr. Halbert L. Dunn, the so-called father of the movement. Writing in the Canadian Journal of Public Health in 1959, Dunn defined "high-level wellness," the organising principle behind his work, as "a condition of change in which the individual moves forward, climbing toward a higher potential of functioning."

Dunn drew a distinction between good health—the absence of illness, or the passive state of homeostasis—and wellness as an active, ongoing pursuit. While good health is objective, dictated by the cold, hard truths of modern medicine, Dunn’s wellness is subjective, based on perception and "the uniqueness of the individual." Dunn’s ideas have gained a steady following, approaching near-ubiquity in the 21st century—in 2019, the global wellness industry was valued at $4.5 trillion.

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Well became the new wealthy in the early 2010’s, where a hangover from the hedonism of a recession-filled 2000’s caused us to reevaluate views and pivot to what seemingly most matters and what cannot be bought: health.

In modern day, this benign concept has since exploded into an industrial-level parasite feeding on (mainly women’s) insecurities and vulnerabilities, too often predicated on the idea that there’s something "wrong" with all of us.

The interesting bit, as you have read, is that the concept began rather innocently, as these things are wont to do, acting almost antidotal to the Millennial Burnout Era, where busyness acted as social currency and slowing down appeared sinful.

Where well-meaning individuals first began encouraging the idea of balanced diets and unbroken sleep, corporations began pushing products and services looking to cash in on the realisation that we need to relax sometimes.

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The murky underbelly of the industry gradually became more apparent, creating a whole list of problems to which it purports to be the answer – pre-shampooing, postbiotics and anxiety-curing diets among them.

However, reliance on a trend-adjacent audience will ultimately turn them sour. The wellness industry – itself pretty humour-negligent – is currently experiencing life as a butt of a number of jokes.

Case in point is the show of the moment, The White Lotus, a pitch-perfect character study of the wealthy and odious, set on a luxury resort in Hawaii, where the serene natural habitat has been overhauled and meticulously catered to the needs of the most unpleasant members of the one percent.

The desperation for perfection is ominent, sending a shiver up the spine from the opening credits, making it clear that all is not well.

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Similarly, Amazon Prime’s Nine Perfect Strangers pokes fun at the immovably blonde, cult-like figures we’ve come to know in these positions, as has Lorde’s latest album, Solar Power and Apple TV+’s show Truth Be Told. But what has caused this sudden flurry of wellness-critical media?

Scepticism has always been heavy, but recent realisations in the industry have been hard to shake: cultural appropriation, racism, fatphobia and the promotion of pseudo-science among them.

Back in 2018, doctors warned against Goop’s post-birth control remedies while medics continue to warn against the 'exploitative’ nature of celebrity-favoured IV drips purported to cure hangovers.

The movement has also found it hard to shake the blatant privilege association, as well as the overreliance on those who are both cash and time-rich, leaving accusations of scamming and exclusivity open for attack.

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Enter, the shrewd, pop culture satires who upend so seamlessly, proving ‘wellness’ is exclusive and elitist. (Your local GAA hall gym doesn’t meet "wellness" standards. Obviously.) This allows us to confirm something we’ve somehow always known: "wellness" is often shorthand for "privilege"; its relatives ("self-care"; "me time") are often signposts that what you’re about to hear is trivial, self-serving and largely either pinched from a different culture to be sold to the highest bidder, or wholly sham-adjacent.

Art predicting the downfall of wellness is not light on the ground, with shows and documentaries such as Paltrow’s viciously reviewed 2020 series The Goop Lab; the 2019 documentary Bikram, which exposed Bikram Choudhury (founder of the hot yoga practice which bears his name) as a predator and abuser; and 2020 six-parter (Un)well, which explored the pros and cons of the very lucrative wellness industry.

At the end of the day, wellness and all of its seductive health benefits boast many attractions, namely that of the provision of ready-made remedies touted for their ability to heal all sorts of vague emotional ailments during a hard few years. In a time where assurance and comfort can be hard to come by, it's undeniably alluring.

Lorde acknowledges as much in her email newsletter: "We’re living through wild times, and it’s tough to begrudge anyone the methods they employ to feel sane, questionable though they may be." However, surely the very fact that we are living through such difficult times means that we should be questioning these treatments, their efficacy and ethics as wellness becomes an increasingly exploitative and capitalist venture?

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Feminist critics of wellness culture have historically made strong cases for the nonsense associated with such movements but the embodiment of social problems through trend-adjacent needs is not new.

At the turn of the century, Europeans discussed neurasthenia (an ill-defined medical condition characterised by lassitude, fatigue, headache, and irritability, associated chiefly with emotional disturbance) and sipped Sinalco, a healthy alternative to alcohol, instead of kombucha.

Life-reform, the wellness of the day, determined bourgeoisie sensibilities and was often only taken up by the higher classes, much like Vitamixes or SoulCycle classes.

Far more consequential was that life reformers, in pursuit of a more natural, disciplined lifestyle, blended health with beauty, meaning it didn’t take long before a person’s physical appearance dictated their physical, spiritual, and mental health, a development that has dangerous, even fatal, consequences.

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Wellness culture has promised success in the struggle for survival through bodily control and self-discipline for over a century. But the modern world is a Darwinian place: As long as there is disenchantment with the frames that surround us, there will be the false redemption of the purported wellness movement.

Thanks to scholars and modern medicine, we now know that health and wellbeing comes in many different forms, and the reliance to be thin, perky and beautiful guarantees nothing but commitment to an formulaic certainty; social triumph via conformation.

For those keen to commit to the body type, lifestyle and traditional health format (varied diet and exercise) those before you have proven effective, gentler and less committed to stroking Los Angeles-based needs, your time is (thankfully) now.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.