Life & Culture

Meet the writer asking hard questions about the wellness industry

Feeling overwhelmed? Maybe shul is a better idea than the gym


For years, journalist Rina Raphael bought into the so-called “wellness” movement. She watched what she ate, exercised regularly and even tied her career to the industry, by writing about wellness trends for publications from the New York Times to the LA Times.

Like the many who have made wellness worth £3.5 trillion, she was attracted to the “pursuit of health”, self-care and control promised by products based on natural remedies. She investigated diet fads from green-juice cleanses to mushroom coffee, as well as alternative exercise classes and expensive skincare brands that all promised to improve the buyer’s health.

But one day, that relationship came to an abrupt halt.

Her father David died in 2020 after a long illness and that led Raphael, 40 to reevaluate everything. She found that coping mechanisms encouraged by the wellness movement were not working as she became increasingly anxious and struggled to sleep.

Raphael, who was raised in a Modern Orthodox home, realised that she had stopped going to shul on Shabbat in a bid to get more exercise into her weekend routine. In her grief, she regretted this choice, and started to look at “wellness” more critically.
“People depend on their gym, like they do their church,” says Raphael, who describes the wellness industry as a “deconstructed religion”. She explains: “It acts like a church or a synagogue, telling people: ‘We will be your tribe or community, come here twice a week and we will be here for you. There are idols, symbols and ethical values like ‘purity’, focusing on what you can or cannot consume, which includes anything that is not natural.”

Speaking from her home in Los Angeles, which she describes as “ground zero for wellness”, Raphael says: “Over the weekend, I always prioritised movement and I stopped going to synagogue because I was so stressed and exhausted.

“But after my father died, I realised my fitness instructors were not going to come over with a casserole; the people I exercised with weren’t coming to the shiva.”

She started to closely read the fine print behind the promises made by brands, and was not happy with what she found. And eventually she wrote her book, The Gospel of Wellness: Gyms, Gurus, Goop and the False Promise of Self-Care.

In it, she argues that the wellness industry preys on people’s — especially women’s — desperation for a “quick fix” to being exhausted, over-worked and over-stimulated by our busy society.

Asked what “wellness” actually means, Raphael says any ambiguity around its definition is deliberate.

“It is really telling that the number one question I get asked is: ‘What is wellness?’ People are so confused, and it is, by design, a general and vague term. There is no agreed definition.

“At its most basic level, ‘wellness’ is the pursuit of wellbeing outside of medicine and insurance. It claims to be all the ways we can independently be mentally, spiritually, and physically better. It can mean almost anything — and when something means everything, it starts to mean nothing.”

To some, wellness might simply mean eating healthily and exercising. To others, it involves buying activated charcoal toothpaste, or CBD-infused leggings, or drinking collagen

So why doesn’t common sense prevail? “This industry really capitalises on hope,” Raphael explains. “Consumers want to believe in it, especially in the United States where there is such a love of quick fixes.”

Raphael believes that women can be particularly exploited by wellness brands because of social pressures.

“A lot of women are still working, in charge of childcare and errands at home. They’re doing the double shift, so they are exhausted,” she says. “Many feel like they can’t be involved in synagogue or Jewish life, because they feel overwhelmed and are looking for solutions that promise them everything.”

She’s acutely aware of the pressures put on women. “There are also pressures on them to be thin, beautiful and not age. Wellness healers, brands and influencers promise women certainty.”

Raphael speaks from experience.

As a teenager, she experimented with restrictive diets including the carbohydrate-free Atkins programme.

As an overworked adult, she investigated different food plans. They have left some lasting impressions. “There are so many eating fads and diets that leave a trace,” she says.
“That has been hard for me. I can eat a tub of ice cream, but I am terrified of a piece of bread.”

But she is not suggesting that we ditch everything we’ve learned about how to improve our own health.

She is keen to clarify that there is a line between healthy eating and wellness plans that might, for example, promote the use of non-medical supplements.

She says: “I am not anti-wellness. It’s great that there are salads for sale, and that people do yoga.

“I want the wellness industry to improve. I have a big issue with the way ‘self-care’ is marketed. It’s individualistic and hyper consumerist.

“The wellness industry all funnels into one message: ‘buy this thing’, which is usually very expensive.

“I wish that people really targeted the reasons why they feel so stressed and overwhelmed, rather than buying ‘magical things’ to make them feel better.”

As a result of her decision to expose wellness brands, she has faced backlash from some companies and dedicated followers. “People who do my type of work are always threatened with lawsuits,” she says.

But still, she is not deterred, noting that people are starting to question empty promises behind some products.

“The tide is turning on the industry,” she says. “Coming out of the pandemic, the smarter consumer has started to focus on health misinformation.”

She wants people to understand the importance of community and support when it comes to the individual’s wellbeing. She has found healing in religious rituals.

“The beauty within Judaism is having some space that is not solely focused on the body and the superficial,” she says.

“When I need to meditate, I open a siddur, or light Friday night candles.
“I am now more involved with my synagogue, my personal network of friends, with Shabbat dinners and holidays.”

It’s the type of wellness, she says, that simply cannot be packaged by big brands.

‘The Gospel of Wellness: Gyms, Gurus, Goop and the False Promise of Self-Care’ by Rina Raphael is published by Souvenir Press

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