American Detox Excerpt
Categories: Excerpt Health & Healing Society & Politics
We’ve Been Goop’d
Against the backdrop of a booming tech industry and homelessness crisis, San Francisco was a budding mecca of wellness, filled with fog and hippies and really fucking healthy people. Patchouli-incensed yoga studios, crowded vegan restaurants, Himalayan boutiques filled with prayer flags and Ganesh statues, the Bay was a weird and totally wonderful counterculture. In the twenty years that have passed since I first arrived in San Francisco, wellness has gone mainstream, the landscape crowded with aspiring images and alluring ads inviting you into the next best version of yourself. From juice bars and meditation retreats to crystals and mindfulness apps, these trending health fads show no sign of abating. Wellness is hip-hop yoga. It’s a rose quartz face roller. It’s vegan and paleo and macrobiotic. Wellness is yoga mats at Walmart and clean beauty at Target. It’s collagen supplements, vitamin B shots, and elixirs. It’s Beyond Burgers at Burger King. It’s skin glow gummies and mushroom adaptogens. It’s hot springs, silent retreats, essential oils. Wellness is manifesting mantras and charging one’s chakras. It’s juice fasts, gluten-free, and oat milk. Wellness is in school, at work, on vacation, in the airport. Wellness is everywhere.
To understand how we got here, we must go back. While wellness has manifestations in the nineteenth century (especially among aristocrats with the time and money to explore new thought, health trends, and alternative medicine), it wasn’t really established until the 1950s, when Dr. Halbert Dunn drew a distinction between good health as a passive state of not being ill and what he termed “high-level wellness,” or “a condition of change in which the individual moves forward, climbing toward a higher potential of functioning.” It made prime time in 1979 when Dan Rather ran a segment on 60 Minutes, opening with, “Wellness, that’s not a word you hear every day.” Cut to today, and the wellness mindset has permeated all aspects of our lives. And wellness wouldn’t be where it’s at without the phenomenon of yoga.
The origins of the ancient practice of yoga go back many thousands of years, but the modern roots can be traced to 1893, when East met West at the Parliament of the World’s Religions. Swami Vivekananda, a Hindu Indian monk, traveled to Chicago and gave a brief talk on September 11, 1893. His speech, which spoke of universal tolerance and compassion for the persecuted, boldly challenged Western ideas of imperialism and presented a spiritual unity that transcends religion; it made him an instant sensation. But while Vivekananda’s daring political ideas may have opened the door for yoga in America, the culture of yoga that hooked me and millions of others did not come from his legacy, but from an unassuming white woman from eastern Europe.
Indra Devi, born Eugenia Peterson at the turn of the century in the Russian Empire (today’s Latvia), came of age during the New Thought movement (an ancestor to New Age). An aspiring actress and spiritual seeker, she traveled to India and became the first female student of Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, often referred to as the father of modern yoga. Krishnamacharya created the posture-based yoga practice that we know today, a physical system of yoga that pulled from mystical yogic tradition, Indian wrestling practices, British army calisthenics, martial arts, and more. Devi was able to bring yoga west when many South Asians could not because of the Immigration Act of 1924, which barred immigration from Asia and set quotas and restrictions on immigration from other “less desirable” countries in eastern and southern Europe. Her dress style (white woman clad in saris) immediately attracted a following of movie stars and Hollywood housewives eager for the “exotic” practices of the East that promised to keep them forever young and beautiful. And that is the story of how a white woman brought yoga west and seeded what would become the modern wellness movement.*
In the twenty-first century, wellness has reached a dramatic tipping point. Valued at over $4.3 trillion worldwide, according to the Global Wellness Institute, wellness far surpasses the pharmaceutical market ($1 trillion). The industry has been growing at a rate of 6.4 percent per year, and it has successfully permeated the consciousness of the consumer, affecting everyday decision-making such as healthy food purchases, mindfulness for stress reduction, essential oils for wrinkles, mind-body fitness, and eco-friendly products. No longer a niche, wellness for many people in the US and around the world has evolved from the occasional to the essential, from luxury to lifestyle.
And it’s no wonder people are turning to wellness. Modern medicine has failed to curb the growing epidemic of noncommunicable and preventable diseases such as heart attacks, diabetes, and chronic illness, which have become the US’s leading killers. The medical-industrial complex isn’t motivated by making people well, it’s motivated by making money. Add to that an unhealthy and unregulated food system deeply entrenched by money in politics and the human-made harm to our environment that threatens extinction, it’s not surprising that people seek out an alternative system that promises to make us better. All of which has inspired an aggressive culture of kale-eating, crystal-loving consumers who can’t get enough.
And I was one of them, desperate and hungry for healing. The wellness industry promised to make me feel good, look better, get healthy, and become a more attractive version of myself. Wellness wasn’t just some hobby; it was an ambitious pursuit of something better. I became obsessed with perfecting poses, eating right, sounding enlightened, and being seen. Belonging to the wellness world demanded that I play the part, aspire for enlightenment, and strive to become my best self as prescribed by Goop.
What began as a sort of voyeurism of Gwyneth Paltrow living her best life has become a $250 million lifestyle brand that is making a killing off of women who want what Gwyneth has. It has spawned a website, a magazine, a podcast, a Netflix series, and myriad products from creams to crystals to vibrators. Goop has become a one-stop shop for individuals obsessed with what Gwyneth calls the “optimization of the self.” “We’re here one time, one life, like how can we really, like, milk the shit out of this,” she says. By milking it she means a $495 vibrator and a $295 incense holder and a $350 meditation headband. Who can afford that? I certainly couldn’t. But I would try.
You see, woven between seemingly feminist messages of empowerment and healing is an insidious wellness culture exploiting our insecurities, propping up healthism, and getting rich along the way. Everywhere we turn, it tells us we’re not good enough. It says, “Buy this and you will be happy, do this and you will feel beautiful, eat this and you will be healthy, eat this and you will be enlightened.” It is a storyline sponsored by a system that profits from our sickness.
And like 80 million other Americans, I believed it. I bought it. I even sold it.