Despite its seemingly altruistic name, the health and wellness industry has been steadily profiting from COVID-19, unconcerned with medical professionals’ dire predictions of the pandemic’s ultimate human cost, as well as society’s current needs. Although the industry’s exploitation of individuals’ insecurities is not a new phenomenon, during the current pandemic, it feels particularly unethical.
In recent years, the health and wellness industry’s marketing strategies have focused on nutrition, fitness, beauty, and anti-aging sectors, with a variety of celebrities and social media influencers promoting brands and techniques. To this day, media overflows with celebrity endorsements for diet and workout tips. Although the industry purports to be accessible to all, it typically markets products and services toward a certain demographic, namely those of upper to middle class, able bodied, white women. A leading example of this a well-known celebrity wellness blog, which touts toilet paper for over $900 USD, 18K gold dumbbells valued at over $125,000 USD, and a thousand dollar water filer.
The industry’s catchphrase is often “self-care;” a focus on prioritizing one’s needs, rest, nutritious meals, mediation and exercise. However, while some trace the idea of self-care to historian Michel Foucault, today’s modern self-care movement stems from the words of many women of colour, including feminist and poet Audre Lorde and writer and activist Angela Y. Davis, considered self-care to be a radical political act, protecting and preserving the Black community. After her diagnosis with cancer for a second time, Lorde stated, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. Instead, “[i]t is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
Since then, various activist, feminist, and queer movements have taken up this message. However, by marketing itself to a certain demographic, the wellness industry negates the idea that true wellness requires addressing systemic and structural inequalities, such as poverty, institutionalized racism, discrimination, and barriers to health care. Self-care means community care; it also means racial justice, disability justice, and gender justice.
Recently, amidst the COVID-19 outbreak, the health and wellness industry’s actions have been particularly unsettling, including those of yoga studios. Although the roots of yoga can be traced to ancient Indian scripts, the core principles of yoga were set during the fifth century BCE, including analyzing perception and cognition, raising and expanding consciousness, and being a path to omniscience. Unlike its spiritual origins, today’s yoga has been commodified into a $27 billion dollar industry, with paraphernalia, seminars, retreats, clothing, and even classes, such as drunk yoga, with poses such as Twerking Downward Dog, as well as Alpaca, rage, naked, and reindeer-forms of yoga. In addition, despite yoga being a way for people to control stress, maintain mental health, and ease pain, it is often expensive and inaccessible to many.
Recently, some yoga studios have become increasingly predatory, in a time when society needs them most. Although understandable that, as businesses, they have overhead costs, some are simply charging similar fees for online classes, while many longtime members have much less disposable income and increased stress. Amielle Christopherson, a student at the University of Alberta, Augustana Campus, states, “When all of this started and my yoga studio talked about having sessions available online through Zoom, I was excited.” This excitement was short-lived. She continues, “Despite the fact that many people have lost their jobs, are waiting for EI to kick in, and are unsure of what’s going to happen, my yoga studio hasn’t changed their prices. And while I understand that it’s tricky (their instructors also have THEIR own bills to pay, etc.) it also leaves those of us who find ourselves without income in an unfortunate position. I can’t afford to shell out $15/class when I can find free alternatives elsewhere. However, those free alternatives aren’t with an instructor I really like and a class I’ve come to enjoy and find comfort in. The sense of community I’d built in those classes is now inaccessible to me in a time when I could really use them because I don’t have enough money to access it, which seems counter to what yoga (and health and wellness in general) is all supposed to be about. It’s disappointing that a practice that should be there in times of need is blocked by a paywall, even while I understand the difficulty in bringing down prices.”
Other yoga studios may even be endangering their clients. Delta, B.C’s Bikram Yoga Delta has recently promoted the misinformation that hot yoga can prevent COVID-19, to which B.C.’s health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry retorted that yoga studios are, in fact, the perfect place for the virus to spread. When bylaw officials arrived to investigate, the owner refused to stop their class, leading the inspectors to suspend the business license.
Fortunately, positives have been seen in this grim situation as well. Some studios, such as Kamloops’s Yoga Loft are offering a free online 30 days of gentle yoga and meditation, while others are offering classes by donation.
In other predatory behaviour, the health and wellness industry, which often promotes extreme weight loss goals, has also been profiting on people’s vulnerabilities during this time. An example of this is the various online MLMs, or multi-level marketing, which offer a range of wellness products ranging from skin care to vitamins. Fears of weight gain and social media trends, such as Instagram’s #corona15, in which various online coaches and influencers offer tips on avoiding weight gain (a 15 pound gain being the meme behind the hashtag) during the pandemic, have led to an increase in sales and promotions on weight loss products.
This trend is disturbing, as fatphobia, or bias against someone based on their weight, remains a factor in our society, including the job market. Concordia University’s assistant professor Angela Alberga’s research into the topic reveals, “fatphobia doesn’t just affect job growth, it creeps into every aspect of a person’s life.” Along with career limitations, she believes that fatphobia causes psychological harm. The University of Alberta’s Mary Forhan, PhD, believes, “Weight bias … [makes] assumptions about a person’s value, aptitude, abilities, goals and attributes based on their body size and shape. … Limit[ing] … opportunities for a person to engage and participate fully in roles and activities that are meaningful or necessary.” Fatphobia or weight bias can be dangerous to one’s health as well, as the idea that the controversial BMI, or body mass index equals health persists to this day, which often results in dismissive behaviour and poor care by health care professionals.
Unfortunately, these examples are part of a much larger pattern in the often-problematic nature of the industry. Calls for vegan lifestyle may not take into consideration the social costs, such as the plight of migrant field workers, or food deserts that exist in impoverished areas, or the difficulty of doing so in a society in which fast food is cheaper than fresh foods as a result of lack of super markets and farmers markets. At times, the social costs are even greater, with traditional and nourishing foodstuffs no longer being available in their communities of origin, or the harms of monoculture as seen in the examples of soy’s deforestation and quinoa in Peru. A reliance on crystals for energy and healing, is not often discussed with consideration of the global mining industry’s lack of regulation. Often no guarantee exists that these crystals were not mined along with conflict copper, gold, and cobalt, which are known for various labour abuses, exploitation, human rights violations, and environmental harm. Other examples include the appropriation and overuse of white sage, traditionally used by Indigenous communities and the commercialization of sacred Ayuhuasca ceremonies.
In addition, for those with health problems, health and wellness industry proponents often interject unsolicited health advice in the form of helpful suggestions, or “But have you tried …?” Recommendations include the staples of the industry: yoga, MLM vitamins and supplements, veganism, energy crystals, and green smoothies. Those on their receiving end of this advice often feel compelled to reveal intimate details about their conditions, as they try to explain why they cannot simply try a vitamin or drastically change their diet. Although often coming from a place of kindness, these suggestions imply that all bodies are the same, without taking into consideration human uniqueness. More importantly, they invalidate an individual’s experience, as well as placing the blame on individuals for their continuing illness; surely, one could heal if they truly tried. Unfortunately, no amount of kale, positive thinking, or good vibes will cure autoimmune conditions, mental illness, Autism spectrum disorder, diabetes, or cancer. In addition, the movement to “cure” some of these conditions often inspires fears of a slippery slope to eugenics. For many communities, the very idea that they are in some way inadequate, faulty, and in need of a cure, is incredibly offensive, as well as dangerous.
Speaking from personal experience, when my illness first appeared, I was bombarded with well-meaning but ultimately misguided suggestions on how to cure myself, including energy healers, meditation, yoga, green smoothies, and vitamins. Although I support the idea that a powerful mind-body-soul connection exists, what has truly given me some semblance of my life back is my team of medical professionals who monitor my complex symptoms. The implication that I remained ill, stemming from my lack of resolve, was insulting and hurtful.
Admittedly, during this pandemic, positive thinking and focusing on health and wellness assuredly has benefits. However, perhaps what is truly needed right now is the idea of self-care as community care. As we struggle, we should not forget those who will be disproportionately affected—those of the lower socio-economic levels, the elderly, those living with disabilities and chronic illnesses, marginalized communities, migrant workers, sex workers, communities of colour, as well as undocumented individuals.
As the media constantly reassures the public that only a small percentage of people will die from COVID-19, remember that every single one these individuals, including myself, has a right to life. How unfortunate that empathy is often revealed only by putting a face to statistics, how truly sad that, we, as a society have become so desensitized to death in our communities, and worldwide. Human life should matter in the abstract, not only one’s relation to others or contribution to society. In our current economic system, in which the health and wellness industry exists, production and consumer spending are valued above all else. My life, as well as many others, are considered expendable.
Although I had come to this realization long ago, the implications are much more terrifying within this context of our current collective trauma. Who deserves to live, and who is considered a necessary sacrifice? Unfortunately, although we are still in the early phases of COVID-19, reports have already surfaced of the rationing of life support for weaker patients and pharmaceutical companies withholding medication, while thanking patients for their “sacrifice.” As a result of Trump’s unproven claims about certain medications treating COVID-19, many patients with various autoimmune diseases, now find themselves facing a shortage of their medication. In Canada, there have been reports of doctors stockpiling and prescribing the medications for friends and family, one of which I currently take.
Recently, as society struggles with isolation, which I am accustomed to, I am torn between feelings of compassion and feelings of irrational rage, knowing that while many will survive this, many will needlessly die, as well as knowing that many will come away from this experience with no greater empathy for those who live this daily reality. When this is all over, perhaps, instead of supporting industries that market “cures” and narcissistic self-care, we instead create a true wellness community, one that takes the time to understand and appreciate the different life experiences and inherent value of its varied members. Admitting that structural problems exist in our society is not negativity, as often derided by health and wellness proponents, it is the first step to validating the experiences of those most often silenced and moving forward to resolution.