There is a fitness studio in New York where women go to scream. Called simply “The Class”, sessions are led by an instructor called Taryn Toomey, who is slim-hipped, and sprightly, a kind of athleisure elf. “Go ahead, get fucking angry!” Toomey will say, and the women before her will beat their chests with their fists, while simultaneously doing squats, because technically they are here to exercise. Some women cry: they jump on the spot and the tears run down their cheeks. Others roll around on the floor, which Toomey had embedded with rose quartz crystals in order to provide “vibrational energy”.
The Class is just one form of self-care featured in The Gospel of Wellness, Rina Raphael’s book about the curious things (wealthy) women do in the name of good health. The wellness industry is worth $4.4tn globally but no one seems to know what that word – “wellness” – actually means. The slipperiness of the term is a boon for marketers. The Class is “wellness”, but the same can be said for any number of costly modern activities: buying a Peloton or an infrared face mask, squeezing a crystal, consulting an ayurvedic healer, micro-dosing hallucinogenic toad venom, “bee-sting therapy”, aromatherapy, past-life regression therapy, buying a “vaginal steaming bowl”, squatting over that bowl to blow hot steamy air up your own vagina.
Raphael is an American lifestyle journalist, and The Gospel of Wellness is framed as a fact-based investigation into the false promises made by wellness brands – but it is also a memoir. Raphael freely admits that for years, she organised her life around the observance of strict wellness doctrines. She spent, on average, “hundreds of dollars a month” on bath salts, yoga day-raves and one-on-one consultations with a shaman. She cut out sugar and survived on squeezy tubes of organic baby food and she regularly paid Toomey to make her scream.
Raphael is entertaining about the spas and the boutique exercise classes where she was indoctrinated. She is very good at evoking small details. Her guru’s cheeky little smile, Chanel products in the gym loo, the lovely face of her blond crystal healer. The pleasure of this book is that it is an inside job: a series of dispatches from the other side of the looking glass.
But in other ways, Raphael’s immersion in the movement arguably detracts from her ability to report on its promises objectively. She warns us in her introduction that we might be shocked by what she has “unearthed” about wellness. But many of the revelations of this book – such as the fact that “clean eating” can encourage a disordered relationship with food – are not very shocking. Occasionally, the Gospel has the flavour of a tell-all penned by a disaffected cult victim. The hollowness of many of the industry’s claims are, to the uninitiated, obvious.
Where the book comes unstuck is when Raphael tries to assign a deeper political meaning to her spending habits. The idea she repeats is that women pursue their own wellness because we are desperate. She makes a number of blanket statements about the contemporary female experience in this book, which she sees as largely miserable, citing the childcare burden, sexism in the workplace, saying that three out of four American women are burnt out. The problem with this statistic, like much of Raphael’s analysis of what it means to be a woman, is that it is a bit vague. The burnout poll she references collected data from only 1,036 women (there are 167.5 million women in the US), with no information recorded about how people from differing socio-economic backgrounds experience the condition. Raphael is careful to insert a short disclaimer in her opening chapter, stating that Black and Latino women “have it way harder than others”. But overwhelmingly, The Gospel is about moneyed, white women, who presumably have well-paid jobs, and are insulated from many of the inequalities that supposedly make us so desperate.
At points, Raphael goes so far as to suggest that wellness is a new form of gender-based oppression. In a chapter on nutrition, she describes a trip to the supermarket, where the female shopper – uniquely vulnerable to exploitative messaging about diet because of her sex – is paralysed by a barrage of conflicting advice: should she go all organic? Cut out gluten? Or dairy? Or sugar? Or all of the above? “Food has become an utterly fraught ordeal for the average woman,” Raphael writes. Which raises the question: define average? If you are having these kinds of existential battles in the grocery aisle, it’s probably not you.
I’m not denying that there is a pressure on women to be thin and beautiful. I feel it all the time. But Raphael seems to imply that this pressure works a bit like a lobotomy, removing our agency entirely. Jia Tolentino made a similar argument in her 2019 book Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self Delusion, writing about what is optional – barre classes, salad lunches, Botox injections – and repackaging it as compulsory. I can see the appeal of this idea: it is flattering to believe that you spend hundreds of dollars per month on products and treatments because you are coerced, the victim of a system beyond your control. But it is frustrating to me that books such as this are marketed as feminist, when the experience of reading them is so often disempowering. If we take Raphael at her word, to resist the requirements of conventional femininity would be pointless: we can’t. We’re doomed.
Raphael is more persuasive when she writes, not about womankind, but about specific injustices faced by certain women. She is thoughtful about Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness brand Goop, explaining its popularity in terms of the historical underfunding of gynaecology in the US. One particularly detailed passage focuses on the six million American women who suffer endometriosis, which receives only $26m per year of government research funding, a figure Raphael puts in perspective by pointing out that it is around half the value of Kim Kardashian’s house.
Female illnesses aren’t treated effectively in the US, Raphael writes, which opens the door for wellness brands to make a buck. This part of the book is convincing, mostly because Raphael acknowledges the limitations of her own argument, pointing out that of course, not every Goop fan will have been let down by traditional medicine. And that if anything, the kind of woman who can fork out $66 for a “vaginal jade egg” will probably have access to the very best traditional medical attention, as well as alternative remedies.
Perhaps this is what makes wellness such an intriguing subject: every time you try to explain its popularity in terms of a grand political thesis, that thesis falls apart. My favourite part of this book tells the story of a love triangle at a stationary bicycle class. One woman dropped a used tampon into a fellow rider’s handbag to punish her for riding on the podium with a star instructor. Raphael doesn’t try to find an explanation for this incident, which is a relief. Tampon-bombing a love rival transcends the rational. So does crouching over a mugwort bath. Or letting a live bee sting your face. Rafael is at her best when she presents lunatic rituals without comment – and the reader is allowed to make up her own mind.