The Wellness Epidemic

The Wellness Epidemic

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When Gwyneth Paltrow first launched Goop in 2008, it was a great place to find out where to eat the best tapas in Barcelona. It was straight-up celebrity-lifestyle voyeurism, and Paltrow, with her long blonde hair and aura of complete self-satisfaction, was irresistible. There’s the expression “living your best life,” and then there is Paltrow: best life manifest.

But then Goop’s focus started to shift. Paltrow began to describe in detail her exercise regimen with her trainer Tracy Anderson, who believes one should work out two hours a day, six days a week. Then she began providing information on a cleanse she does each January. The mission became less about revealing the trappings of the good life and more about the notion that the really good life is internal. Rich and beautiful people don’t just go to nicer places, their organs work better. They even know how to breathe better, with more oxygen per ounce. They’re not afraid to try fecal transplants, with really top-notch, vegan-only feces. Goop became less about hotels and restaurants and more about chakras and thyroids, with the implication that maybe what’s actually standing between you and your inner Gwyneth is some mysterious virus that your overextended, pharmaceutically corrupt doctor is too narrow-minded to address.

Goop began publishing long interviews with doctors, healers, and shamans. One of its most-shared pieces is an interview with Oscar Serrallach, an Australian doctor, about “postnatal depletion,” which suggested that women live in a depleted state for up to ten years after the birth of a child. Among the contributing factors: overwhelming stress, nutrient-poor food, and “electrosmog.” While Goop had traditionally done well selling products related to its content (spiralizers blew up after Paltrow’s recipe for “zucchini cacio e pepe” went live), what could it sell a woman who’s just received medical confirmation that the negative feelings simmering in her gut are not just in her mind? How about vitamins? Goop Wellness now offers four vitamin “protocols” (protocols and practice are words you’ll encounter a lot in this world) based on four common complaints: The Mother Load addresses postnatal depletion; High School Genes is for women who find it harder to lose weight as they age (i.e., all women); Why Am I So Effing Tired? is for the pernicious fatigue faced by do-it-all women; and Balls in the Air is similar, only more for the chronically stressed.

“It’s been overwhelming,” says Ashley Lewis, senior director of wellness at Goop. “We sold over $100,000 worth of vitamins on day one, and that trajectory has just continued.”

Diets, exercise, and various versions of self-care have been around forever: Antecedents are found at an Austrian spa still famous for its enemas and in 1970s L.A., where wheatgrass was just as popular as cocaine. The seeds were in the Jane Fonda workout and the Scarsdale diet, in the EST movement and the yoga craze that brought us Lululemon. In 1978, this magazine ran a cover story on “The Physical Elite,” the new class of people who had quit smoking and devoted themselves to working out. Some were known to make odd food demands, like requesting that an entire onion be concealed in an omelet.

Four decades later, wellness is not only a word you hear every day; it’s a global industry worth billions — one that includes wellness tourism, alternative medicine, and anti-aging treatments. The competition for a hunk of that market is intense: In Manhattan, two for-profit meditation studios are vying to become the SoulCycle of meditation, and Saks Fifth Avenue has temporarily converted its second floor into a “Wellery,” where you can experience aroma and light therapy in a glass booth filled with salt, or get plugged into a meditation app during a manicure. Every giant corporation has a wellness program: yoga at Goldman Sachs, communal sleep logs at JPMorgan Chase. A new magazine has debuted out on Long Island this summer, Hamptons Purist. (“Look around the city,” says its editor, Cristina Greeven, who came up with the idea on a surfboard in Costa Rica: “It used to be a butcher, a baker, and a hardware store. Now it’s SoulCycle, Juice Press, and a meditation place.”) It will have to compete with the Goop magazine, to be edited by Paltrow and published by Condé Nast, which this spring also announced the launch of Condé Nast Pharma, a division that offers “brand-safe” wellness-based content to pharmaceutical advertisers. The advertising giant Saatchi & Saatchi has its own wellness division, capitalizing on “women’s unmet wellness needs” in the marketplace.

Wellness is used to sell hotel rooms (“Stay well at Westin Hotels & Resorts, a place where together, we can rise”) and condos (Leonardo DiCaprio just sold his “wellness” condo, but Deepak Chopra still has one at the same address), and it has become a political movement, too. “Radical Self Care” seeks to heal wounds both recent (Trump) and systemic (trauma as a result of one’s race or gender), using the words of the poet Audre Lorde as a rallying cry: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

It can be easy to be cynical about wellness, about the $66 jade eggs that Gwyneth Paltrow suggests inserting in your “yoni.” There’s something grotesque about this industry’s emerging at the moment when the most basic health care is still being denied to so many in America and is at risk of being snatched away from millions more. But what’s perhaps most striking about wellness’s ascendancy is that it’s happening because, in our increasingly bifurcated world, even those who do have access to pretty good (and sometimes quite excellent, if quite expensive) traditional health care are left feeling, nonetheless, incredibly unwell.

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Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine

I was in the elevator of a Park Avenue apartment building on my way to a lunch celebrating the launch of a blog when I ran into Kerrilynn Pamer, whom I knew as the owner of Castor & Pollux, a clothing store in the West Village. Beautiful and tall, she was wearing a long white dress and had a mellow, happy smile. She had closed Castor & Pollux, she explained, and reopened it as a natural-beauty store called CAP Beauty two years ago. “With fashion, there was often a sense of lack,” she said. “It was always, ‘I don’t fit into that,’ or, ‘I don’t have the wallet,’ or, ‘I don’t have the life to wear it.’ It all just led to a sense of people being left out.”

Pamer had long been interested in wellness. “I didn’t really embrace it,” she said, “but I felt bad all the time. I went to the doctor for an annual physical and just said that I was tired. I wasn’t aging how I wanted to. I wasn’t feeling how I wanted to feel in my body.”

The doctor called after her appointment and said, “ ‘I don’t know how you’re walking around right now. You’re not retaining anything.’ I just thought, This is the norm. I live in New York, I’m getting older, I have a business. But he said, ‘No, you have celiac disease.’ I gave up gluten, and it was just like, boom.” Pamer started analyzing everything she was eating, then everything she was putting on her skin. “It all comes from a place of diagnosis.” She and her business partner Cindy DiPrima are part of “a very solution-oriented group of people. I want to make myself feel better and then I want everyone to feel good.” Pamer invited me to come see the store. “We’ve laid down some rose quartz beneath the floorboards, and the vibrations are great.”

I went a week later. It was a rainy day, and the shop was friendly: all brass fixtures and raw snacks from Amanda Chantal Bacon’s Moon Juice line. The vibrations seemed good! I was led into a back room where I had a facial from an especially warm, kind woman named Crystal. A lot of the products she used had an earthy, sometimes rank smell — like very, very ripe fruit on the verge of crossing over — but otherwise it was pretty standard as facials go. Crystal never scolded me or criticized my skin, which was nice, as that, too, is often standard as facials go. A few days later, I got an email recommending a new “protocol” for my skin. The protocol involved nine products, and if I bought all of them (there were links), it would cost close to $1,000. I panicked for a moment: But I need this! Clearly I am poisoning myself with the drugstore moisturizer my dermatologist recommends! I started to click on the links: Maybe I’d just buy a few, maybe just the $40 probiotic mist to balance and restore my facial microbiome. Don’t my children deserve a nontoxic mother, don’t I deserve a nontoxic self? But I didn’t get far: Almost all of it was sold out.

I, too, know women with celiac disease, maybe-kind-of-celiac disease, and a million different autoimmune diseases with long, complicated names that affect their skin and their gut. It’s hard not to wonder what’s going on sometimes, if we are all being poisoned somehow, if our bodies and minds are in revolt against this highly processed, digitized life, or if some of the ailments being named and treated would have been quietly borne — for better or worse — in other generations. Are the University of Chicago medical school’s estimates about celiac disease (one percent of the U.S. population) outdated, or are we being overdiagnosed? Anxiety levels have shot up in this country, and though illness can of course be both a source and symptom of stress, the body is also one zone where, however futilely, we may see a chance to reexert control.

Online, there’s a community known as the “spoonies” that might be described as both the fringe and core of the wellness world. Spoonies take their name from Spoon Theory, an idea proposed by a woman named Christine Miserandino who was diagnosed with a chain of illnesses including chronic-fatigue syndrome before landing with a diagnosis of lupus. For years, she was embarrassed and suffered silently, endlessly having to explain her behavior (her blog is called butyoudontlooksick.com). Her theory is simple: When you are healthy, you have a never-ending supply of renewable energy. When you live with chronic illness or pain, your energy capacity is finite and you must constantly be measuring it out, via spoons, negotiating how they might be spent. Taking a shower costs a spoon, but, then, sometimes, so does just getting out of bed. If you choose to cook a healthy dinner at night, that might cost you so many spoons that you won’t be able to do the dishes. And so on. Miserandino gained a following, and there is now a robust online group of self-identified spoonies who come together to discuss their daily struggles, to share treatments and theories, to discuss what it means to live with chronic pain of the physical and mental variety. “We always have to look out for the spoonies,” says Carolyn Kylstra, the editor-in-chief of Self. “They are really at the heart of all of this.”

We’ve laid down some rose quartz beneath the floorboards, and the vibrations are great.

There’s a whole world of doctors frustrated with the wellness movement, with what they see as the shady, shallow science behind it, and they too are vocal. Just get Timothy Caulfield, a health and law expert at the University of Alberta and author of Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?, started on the topic of detoxifying one’s body. “It’s completely ridiculous from a scientific perspective on every level,” he’s said. “The idea that we need to detoxify our bodies — we have organs that do it … There’s no evidence that we have these evil toxins in our cells that are making us put on weight, that give us fatigue. But it plays to our intuition in a very powerful way.”

Jennifer Gunter, an OB/GYN and pain-medicine physician in Toronto, writes a frank and often funny blog that often takes on Paltrow and Goop. One post reads: “Your goopshit bothers me because it affects my patients. They read your crackpot theories and they stop eating tomatoes (side note, if tomatoes are toxic why do Italians have a longer life expectancy than Americans?) or haven’t had a slice of bread for two years, they spend money on organic tampons they don’t need, they ask for unindicated testing for adrenal fatigue (and often pay a lot via co-payments or paying out of pocket), or they obsess that they have systemic Candida (they don’t). I have a son with thyroid disease and I worry that in a few years he might read the kind of batshit crazy thyroid theories you promote and wonder if he should stop his medication and try to cure the chronic EBV that he doesn’t have. I also worry that science will have to spend more and more resources disproving snake oil as opposed to testing real hypotheses. I worry that you make people worry and that you are lowering the world’s medical IQ.”

The criticism doesn’t faze Goop. “Our job is to be skeptical of the status quo … to offer open-minded alternatives,” Goop said in a statement, insisting, “Our content isn’t meant to instill fear … We want to give people the tools to have some autonomy over their health.”

And then there are the physicians in the middle, “functional medicine” doctors like Frank Lipman. They are credentialed M.D.’s who prescribe antibiotics, but are just as likely to prescribe massage, a walk in a forest, or an overhaul of your diet and exercise regimens. Lipman has been in private practice for 30 years, but it was during a residency at a Bronx hospital that he noticed higher success rates among addicts treated with acupuncture and decided to find a way to merge Western medical practice with alternative practices. Lipman tells me that he believes the capacity to forgive can have tremendous health benefits, but when I tell him my hay fever is driving me nuts, he says, with a shrug, “My wife really likes Claritin.”

Among the New Guard is Dr. Robin Berzin, who has a degree from Columbia Medical School, trained at Mount Sinai, and is also a certified yoga and meditation teacher. She heads up Parsley Health, a boutique medical practice. For $150 a month, members get five visits with their doctor a year, plus 24 sessions with a health coach whose job it is to make sure they implement the doctor’s recommendations (you can do these meetings via video, if you’d like). “Look,” she says one day in her office, which occupies a big percentage of a WeWork near Union Square (the new functional medicine is, aesthetically at least, far less Orientalist — far fewer mandalas and Ganesh statues), “people don’t feel good, and they’re looking for solutions, and they’re getting a lot of bad advice. They’re downing juices that are just as bad as soda.” Berzin’s mission is to reduce medications, to get to the root cause of common complaints that she sees as utterly fixable, complaints of PMS, IBS, insomnia, eczema. “In service of technology, we are chronically stressed, exhausted, and on drugs: anti-anxiety drugs. ‘Wired and tired’ is the way many people describe feeling to me,” she says. A lot of her patients are young. “Millennials are more interested in quality of life. They expect to feel better.”

After a meeting with Berzin, I submit to the Parsley screening. I fill out paperwork for 30 minutes one night, describing the ear infections I had as a kid, the fact that I was delivered naturally but bottle fed. Parsley suggests an intense blood screening, so I fast one morning and visit a lab near my house. A kind technician with a long ponytail looks at the forms: “Parsley Health!” she says, and laughs a bit. “They look for everything. Not everybody looks for everything.” She shrugs, filling vial after vial, 14 in all.

My test results were posted on Parsley’s portal a week later: high cholesterol, which I’ve known forever, and a name for the dust-mite and hay-fever allergies I’ve also had forever. Berzin had recommended giving up wheat and gluten, but my blood work indicates no allergic response to either. She says I am like only 5 percent of her patients — what she would call an “optimizer” — in that I don’t suffer from chronic illness or pain, like the many women she sees with polycystic-ovary syndrome. Nonetheless, she has some tweaks for me: She recommends changing my exercise schedule and that I learn to meditate — Parsley members are given a free Headspace membership. She also recommends a vitamin regimen: a B-complex in the mornings, magnesium to help me find the solid, black sleep I used to get in my 20s. She recommends nettles for allergy season but also acknowledges that they don’t knock out symptoms 100 percent of the time. “Look,” she says, “we’re not going to reiki an infection away.”

One of the things that’s difficult to reconcile in the wellness world is that creeping paranoia is welcome — what are you eating? What are you putting on your skin? — yet there’s an untroubled faith in so much of the cure. A loaf of bread may be considered toxic, but a willingness to plunge into the largely unregulated world of vitamins and supplements is a given. My lovely, thorough, and smart GP says every year at my annual checkup: Please tell me you’re not taking any supplements. At best, she says, you’re doing no harm, you’re just giving yourself some very expensive pee.

A lot of the wellness movement addresses aspects of our lives previously considered basic and fundamental, like breathing or sleep. This spring, Arianna Huffington celebrated the tenth anniversary of what she calls her “great blessing.” On April 6, 2007, Huffington collapsed and broke her cheekbone. After a journey through many traditional medical disciplines, her diagnosis was just burnout — no cancer, no stroke, no sneaky diabetes. She was just very, very tired. “I was just literally burning the candle at both ends,” she says now. “And what I find interesting is that if you had asked me that morning, ‘How are you, Arianna?,’ I would have said, ‘Fine,’ because it was normal running on empty. Think about how aware we are of how much battery remains on our smartphone, but we don’t have that same awareness about ourselves.” Huffington wrote a book about just how important sleep is, offering a prescription (the rhythms of which will be familiar to anyone who has recently sleep-trained a baby: a totally routinized wind-down time including warm baths, soft lights, and a blackout shade). Later, she left the Huffington Post and started Thrive Global, an organization dedicated to wellness. Thrive publishes a blog, organizes wellness programs for companies like Uber, and sells products on its website, like the wooden Thrive phone bed, which comes with a set of tiny satin sheets for your iPhone to sleep on. “You know, there is something so satisfying …,” Huffington explains one day in her crowded Soho office as she tucks her phone in beneath a satin sheet. “We’re going to launch one that looks like a little race car.” She smiles and fusses with her iPhone’s pillow. “After all, you have to teach children to tuck their phones in, too.”

One of Thrive’s first clients was JPMorgan Chase, which worked with the company on a 28-day wellness challenge for its more than 300,000 employees. Wellness, Thrive promises, does wonders for the corporate bottom line. “This is not for people who want to chill out under the mango tree,” says Huffington. “Those people are fine. They don’t need us. This is for people who want to get things done, who want to achieve.”

They quake and wail — a bunch of Maori warriors, except it’s white women in sports bras.

And if we need to relearn how to sleep, wellness also seeks to transform our relationship to exercise. The SoulCycle classes I take vary little in content from the spinning class I took at Crunch 15 years ago: There are the same funny little jumps, the same sprints and hills, and, sometimes, there’s even the same Madonna songs. But the teacher at Crunch used to shout things about bathing-suit season and bingo wings: We all knew what we were doing there. At SoulCycle, the ethos is unrecognizable. The lights are off, the candles burn, and the wall is covered in words like ROCK STAR and WARRIOR. Lately, I’ve noticed lots of women wearing T-shirts to class that say SPIRITUAL GANGSTER on them.

“Who in here has cried at SoulCycle?” an instructor asked one morning, and more than half the hands went up. “Close your eyes and think about who you love, what you’re doing this for. Where is your compassion, where is your kindness, what are you riding toward?”

The Class by Taryn Toomey, which takes place in a millennial-pink studio in Tribeca, is the wellness class to beat. Toomey started her career in retail at Ralph Lauren and was soon working her way up. “But I was just feeling just … Why am I unhappy? Everything on paper looks really good,” she explains. She began teaching friends a mix of yoga and dance and cathartic shouting in the basement common room of her Tribeca condo. A lot of celebrities started coming — Naomi Watts, Christy Turlington — which is solid gold in the fitness world, and last year, Toomey was able to open a studio. “I think we’re all up against all this feedback from the outside world,” she says one afternoon before class. “It’s all this social media, it’s all How do I compare myself, it’s all this illusion people are creating for themselves about how perfect things are. Or aren’t. Or they’re using it as a platform to shame or hate. I think wellness is a movement, and all these different types of practices are about stretching your mindfulness and your consciousness, and it has become so necessary. I think we’re really scared and confused and we’re looking for community.” Against a wall are products for sale: more of the Moon Juice snacks and dusts, some essential oils that Toomey rubs into my hand. She closes her eyes and inhales loudly: “Now,” she says, “now you smell like love.”

When Toomey walks into a classroom, she starts to shout: “Get out of the fucking mirror. Get out of the Mother. Fucking. Mirror and get into your fucking. Physical. Body!” Her students beat their fists on their thighs and moan. They wiggle and quake and wail — a bunch of Maori warriors descended on a Southern Baptist revival tent, except that it’s all women, almost entirely white women, and they’re all wearing sports bras. Everyone gets really sweaty (the room is not ventilated) doing jumping jacks and burpees and sit-ups, with the occasional downward dog thrown in. What’s remarkable about all of it is Toomey, who talks in her low, gravelly voice into her headset the entire time, a chanting monologue of self-help and advice and encouragement: “Say good-bye to your stories,” she says. “Don’t blame and shame. Community. Unity. You, you, you,” she chants. She never once mentions body parts, and I find myself embarrassed for thinking, while doing kicks I remember from a Tae Bo class a hundred years ago, Oh, this one’s good for the butt. When it’s all over, Toomey starts winding her monologue down. No more shouting, no more “fucks.” The mirror is too fogged up to see anything, anyway. Toomey invites the room to clutch their chests (on hers is a crystal necklace she designed, a variety of which are on sale for $400 to $10,800 in the lobby. “It helps ground you,” she explains). “Oh, hi,” she says softly. “Oh, hi, my dear heart. There you are. It’s me. I’m sorry.”

Meditation, that centuries-old practice, is to this movement what jogging was to 1978’s “physical elite.” The core protocol — and a growth opportunity. Right now, there are two major competitors in the New York “meditation studio” arena. One, Inscape, is the brainchild of Khajak Keledjian, who made his fortune with Intermix, which curated outfits by high-end designers into looks that could work on the Jitney or at Marquee. He sold the chain to the Gap, and, as often happens with very successful people, was inundated with questions about how he pulled it off. His answer was meditation. He’d learned from a friend who ran a hedge fund about the benefits of looking inward. “Self-care is a new dimension for luxury,” Keledjian tells me. “Instead of being human beings, we have become human doings. I’ve worked enough on people’s outsides. Now I’m helping people’s insides. And I’m working just as hard. Just more mindfully.”

Ellie Burrows of Inscape’s competitor Mndfl was a junior film executive depressed that she didn’t seem to love work the way her colleagues did. She went on an odyssey of the eat-pray-love variety, and when she returned to New York, she began volunteering at the Institute for Compassionate Leadership, which was run by Lodro Rinzler, who’d been raised a Shambhala Buddhist on the Upper East Side (“Probably wasn’t the only reason I was shoved into lockers as a kid, but it was up there”) and had written a number of books, including The Buddha Walks Into a Bar.

They had this idea and, through family and friends, were able to raise capital to open three studios in New York. “We didn’t do a seed round. We did a love round,” Burrows says one afternoon. She is wrapped in scarves and lots of delicate gold jewelry in the lobby of the Mndfl studio on 8th Street. NO TECH, says a sign, BUT WE UNDERSTAND IF YOU NEED TO INSTA THE PLANT WALL.

“We’ve seen this affect our lives firsthand,” she says. “We’d like to be in service to others, and that was ultimately very inspiring for the people who decided to invest: They did it from a place of service.”

In the calm skylit back room at Mndfl, a 30-minute meditation class is being led by Kevin Townley, a blond-haired sometimes actor with horn-rim glasses and an unusually sweet face. “You’re standing on a bridge,” he incants, “and your thoughts are flowing by. You just let them go, you observe them.” One man breathes loudly through his nose; otherwise, the room is silent, but for the occasional readjustment, sniffle, clearing of the throat. At the close of class, Townley opens the floor to questions.

“I haven’t been able to come much lately,” says a man in the front row. He is dressed in khaki pants and a gingham shirt — his physical being is resolutely mainstream. “I’m wondering about what to do with what I’ve learned when I can’t make it here. Because some of the stuff I’ve realized, when I’m meditating, well … it’s not all good.” Townley nods empathically. He knows. There is no guarantee that all this looking will yield beauty or peace. There’s the possibility of uncovering suffering, of uncovering pain. Pain, after all, is still life. As is dissatisfaction, and nights of terrible sleep, and joint troubles. As is growing old. We find cures, only to chase new ones.

“I’m not sure where to put my anger,” he says. “And then I can’t make it here, and it’s just there. And I’m stuck.”

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