5 Books Reexamining the Wellness Industry and All Its Toxic Parts

5 Books Reexamining the Wellness Industry and All Its Toxic Parts

Those self-help reads of the early aughts could never. 

In the 1990s and 2000s, a slew of “self-help” books hit shelves that we can in hindsight safely label as problematic at best. (The Fat Flush Plan and The Atkins Diet instantly come to mind.) And as much as we’d like to believe we’ve come a long way in terms of how we talk about wellness and self-image, the current digital landscape isn’t so different — but the language is. Amateur nutritionists have taken to TikTok to preach the benefits of myriad ingestibles that have no real clinical support. There are 5 a.m. morning routine videos that revolve around workout plans and liquid breakfasts disguised as motivation to “better yourself.” Diet culture has also had a recent, unwelcome rebrand that allowed companies to continue selling a weight-loss mindset under the guise of “clean eating” and to push supplements as cure-alls. Lately, it can feel like we’re back to where we started, with publications dropping headlines like “The Cult of Thinness” and “Why are Body Types Still a Trend.” 

“The wellness industry as we now know it is an expansion of the same diet industry that, as activists in the The Fat Underground movement in the 1970s put it, ‘sells a cure that doesn’t work for a disease that doesn’t exist,’” Aubrey Gordon, author of You Just Need to Lose Weight and 19 Other Myths About Fat People, tells Allure. It’s still challenging to find books, like Gordon’s, that intelligently and empathetically talk about modern wellness culture in a positive, and, well, real way.  

But writers have developed projects that challenge those shortcomings. In the last year, a handful of books have taken a different approach, breaking down the commodification of wellness through the lenses of social justice, detrimental diet culture, gender inequality, and fatphobia. These works discuss why wellness culture has proven problematic, yet each author has their own take on the industry and its problems.

Here, five books that speak to the exploitation and commercialization of wellness, and how to examine your own personal self-care practices in a new light.

For challenging fatphobia: “You Just Need to Lose Weight”: And 19 Other Myths About Fat People (Myths Made in America) by Aubrey Gordon

Author and co-host of acclaimed wellness and weight loss debunking podcast Maintenance Phase Audrey Gordon recently released this non-fiction follow-up to her last title, What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat. The work educates and debunks society’s most common anti-fat myths with tools to take action for fat justice. “Fatness is frequently considered to be a ‘choice,’ despite ample evidence that our body size usually lies outside of our own individual control, and even more ample evidence that dietary changes to lose weight simply don’t result in long-term sustained weight loss,” she tells Allure. “Some fat people do choose to be fat; others don’t. But regarding fatness as a ‘choice’ allows us to insist that if fat people aren’t treated with dignity or respect, it’s us who need to change — not the people who refuse to treat us decently.”

The book is structured around each myth, with reflection questions at the end of each chapter in the hopes of raising awareness while also creating actionable social change. “If a lot more people know about the racist, decidedly un-scientific history of the BMI, that doesn’t necessarily materially change conditions for fat people,” Gordon explains. “But if those same people use that awareness to advocate for their doctor’s office to drop the use of BMI, or to address anti-fat bias in health care, or to end their workplace’s annual BMI weight loss challenge, then we’re getting somewhere.”

For questioning capitalism: The Gospel of Wellness*__ __*by Rina Raphael

The Gospel of Wellness explains why and how wellness grew into such a phenomenon, exploring the psychological, social, and political factors of the subject. Health, wellness, and tech journalist Rina Raphael has been writing about wellness exclusively for the past six years and — through her access to people like Gwyneth Paltrow, Bulletproof Nutrition founder Dave Asprey, and Peloton CEO John Foley — she’s had hands-on experience regarding the marketing and business tactics behind wellness brands. “We treat wellness like fashion,” Raphael tells Allure. “Eight years ago, it was green juice, then it was chlorophyll water, then it was kombucha. We keep cycling through fads. There are issues with that because we’re not talking about lipstick and clothing. We’re talking about health.”

To be clear, the author isn’t against any of these modalities. She’s against aggressive marketing, how wellness is positioned in our country, the pressures it puts on women, and the pseudoscience it perpetuates. “Wellness puts the onus on the individual and it’s completely divorced from the social, economic, and political context,” she says. “You’re not stressed because you’re not taking enough bubble baths. You are likely stressed because there aren’t enough childcare policies in this country, maternity benefits, substantial time off from work, and improved doctor-patient relationships. But instead, self-care says no, it’s your job to be zen. It’s your job to feel well. It’s all on you, the individual, without the greater communal aspect.”

For challenging the cult mentality: The Goddess Effect*__ __*by Sheila Yasmin Marikar

While The Goddess Effect is fiction, it’s still a comedic and honest look at how the wellness industry preaches transformation and the idea of constantly “bettering” yourself.  The singular novel follows Anita, an Indian American millennial who resists her own spiritual practices with the re-packaged and whitewashed version of boutique fitness. She moves from New York City to Los Angeles, where she discovers a class called The Goddess Effect run by a lifestyle guru named Venus. The storyline examines how the wellness industry is always encouraging us to be our “best selves” and, in turn, equates wellness to a sometimes cult-like community. 

“As I was writing it, The Goddess Effect became more of a character than I initially imagined,” author and journalist Sheila Yasmin Marikar tells Allure of the pseudo-cult Anita falls in with. The book also touches on the supplement market and surgical aesthetics, and in the age of Ozempic, Marikar wanted to address the pressures of weight loss and becoming smaller. “There are some people who say no public figure owes their audience anything,” she tells Allure. “They don’t have to say how they seemingly lost 35 pounds in a week. But because of the way people look at what’s on our screens as reality, we enter this danger zone.”

For navigating the underbelly of modern wellness culture: The Wellness Trap by Christy Harrison

Author and registered dietitian Christy Harrison, MPH, RD is best known for her anti-diet perspective. She brings this expertise to the forthcoming book The Wellness Trap, which is set for publication on April 25. The book illuminates the damage of wellness culture, including the ramifications of unfounded claims pushed by wellness influencers and providers and the troubling patterns of cultural appropriation. “I was interested in and curious about how this online environment that we’re in right now is spreading myths and disinformation, and how that ties into the diet and culture aspects of wellness,” Harrison explains. 

The book also examines how the values of diet culture hold fitness, muscularity, and weight loss as a means of attaining higher moral or societal status. “In terms of the commodification of wellness, I have seen the functional and integrative medicine space become such big business in the last 10 years,” she tells Allure. “It’s the way that those spaces are pumping out ideas about diagnoses that don’t have real evidence behind them, like adrenal fatigue, chronic candida, and leaky gut, among other interventions. It’s really harmful and not necessarily addressed head-on.”

For decolonizing rituals: Who is Wellness For? by Fariha Róisín

Part memoir and part wellness exploration, Who is Wellness For? explores the appropriation of wellness through the lens of author Fariha Róisín’s upbringing in Australia. As a Bangladeshi Muslim, Róisín struggled to fit in; in her book, she details her own experience with fatphobia, gender dysmorphia, and trauma. “If you’re a racialized person who lives in America, [or] anywhere in colonized land, you have less access to a better life,” Róisín explains. “Self-care in those moments is extraordinarily revolutionary. And so, for me, I started to see it as a tool for evolution. That’s what sparked the genesis to start thinking more expansively about what it was not just for myself, but what it was societally.”

Róisín examines wellness culture and who it leaves behind, plus speaks to the importance of giving credit where credit’s due around ancient rituals and practices. “What is wrong for me about capitalism is that it creates this colonial thought that anything can be yours,” she tells Allure. “If you want it, you can have it without consideration. But calling in, talking, challenging, and educating people is really important.”

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