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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

The Commodification of the Wellness Industry

“Everything is packaged to us. Our pain, our deepest pain, packaged to us as this product that will solve it.”
The Commodification of the Wellness Industry
Image: Vicky Leta
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The holiday season is upon us, marking a make-or-break time for brands scrambling to sell their products as the perfect Christmas gifts for either your loved ones or yourself. The trillion-dollar wellness industry, in particular, has plenty of products to convince us to purchase in the name of self-care at a trying time like the end of the year, from the perfect face masks to de-stress, to the perfect diet tea or spin class to burn supposedly shameful holiday weight gain.

Much of the marketing around varying products starts to blend together and sound the same, at some point. It’s all about treating yourself,
hollow but feel-good references to living our “best lives,” and “self-care” in an increasingly exhausting world.

When pain is being mined for profit

Thérèse Cator, a wellness practitioner and founder of Embodied Black Girl, an organization that aims to cultivate healing through community for Black women and women of color, says she’s tired of what she sees as the increasing commodification of the wellness industry, particularly so during the holiday season. “Everything is packaged to us,” Cator told Jezebel. “Our pain, our deepest pain, packaged to us as this product that will solve it.”

Cator says she began to focus on her own mental health during a period of her life when her dad passed away, and she experienced near-fatal racial profiling from police. Her personal experiences with grief and healing have compelled her to feel especially frustrated to see “the health and wellness space become an industrial complex,” and one that doesn’t always help anyone, at that. One glaring example of this: “With diet culture, it’s just fatphobia... [There are] so many products that have nothing to do with wellness and well-being.”

More recently, mental health has become a burgeoning part of the wellness industry, from meditation apps to online and text therapy apps, like Talkspace or BetterHelp. BetterHelp may ring a bell, as Travis Scott announced a “partnership” with the app to provide one month of free online therapy to all attendees of his disastrous Astroworld festival that killed 10, injured hundreds, and traumatized many more. Some saw the collaboration as an opportunistic, even self-promotional move by both Scott and BetterHelp, while many noted ongoing criticisms of the app for not accepting insurance from customers like other therapy apps.

Beyond Scott, mental health and wellness brands have increasingly found willing partners in A-list celebrities. Ariana Grande became a BetterHelp sponsor earlier this year, while Selena Gomez announced she’d be part of the creation of a new mental health platform, Wondermind, coming in 2022. Prince Harry joined the San Francisco-based wellness company BetterUp as chief impact officer shortly after leaving his royal duties last year.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with celebrities and famous people speaking up about mental health—particularly in the case of Grande and Gomez, who have been widely lauded for being vulnerable about their own mental health struggles in the wake of personal traumas. But there’s something inherently disconcerting about the corporatization of mental health and mindfulness, considering the significant roles corporations play in harming people’s mental health. Last month, Insider reported that Spring Health, a startup that aims to reduce barriers to mental health services, fostered a work environment that was so stressful that a number of employees said their mental health suffered at the company, and staged an exodus last March.

Cator told Jezebel she fears many of the proposed “solutions” to widespread, pervasive mental health crises are rooted in the problematic marriage of capitalism and wellness. “Capitalism and wellness trends both make all of these systemic problems about the individual, of, ‘if you work hard enough, try hard enough, you’re going to make it’—a lot of wellness brands sound like that,” Cator said. “It’s all about you, never addressing systemic problems. But in reality, healing isn’t about individuals. It happens in community, not commodification, not just getting millions and millions of people onto this app.”

Cultural appropriation and modern wellness often go hand-in-hand

Often accused of white-washing and being predominantly white,
the wellness industry has long been inundated with influences from non-western cultures. White influencers and brands frequently steal proverbs, wellness practices and aesthetics, and “superfoods” from non-western cultures that center community and collective care, but ignore the communities they were born from.

People of color and LGBTQ people face disproportionately greater barriers to mental health services, in no small part because they’re more likely to struggle with poverty and be uninsured. There’s also a severe lack of culture-specific mental health resources for immigrants and communities of color, who may not be able to access services and therapy programs implicitly catered to white experiences. Research has shown poverty is closely linked to depression, anxiety disorders, psychological distress, and suicide. And, relevant to the current state of affairs in Texas and at the Supreme Court, pregnant people who are denied abortion care also face worsened mental health outcomes.

Pleasure shouldn’t come at such a high price

Ev’Yan Whitney, a sexuality doula and author whose work focuses on healing from trauma to live our freest sexual lives, sees much of the same opportunism and commodification in the sexual wellness industry. “We’re seeing a lot of, ‘You have to buy a product in order to have the best sex of your life,’ like a $100 vibrator or CBD lube,” Whitney told Jezebel. “I’m all for having tools that can help us, inspire us, encourage us to connect to ourselves, and be curious about ourselves. But I don’t necessarily feel that our sexuality, our pleasure potential, rests in products and consumerism.”

According to Whitney, a sexuality doula is someone who supports and guides “folks who are ready to step out of shame, confusion, and fear within their sexuality and want to come into authentic expression of their sexual, sensual selves—whatever that looks like for them.” Whitney’s interest in becoming a sexuality doula was sparked by her own realization that sexual traumas from her past were holding her back from experiencing pleasure and sexual freedom.

Especially for survivors, Whitney notes that real sexual wellness and fulfilled sexual lives don’t start with products, but healing from trauma you’ve experienced, either firsthand or intergenerationally. “Mental health and trauma aren’t easily solvable, because of systemic issues, the systemic oppressions we deal with on a daily basis that are constantly inflicted upon us,” she explained.

The increasingly popularized buzzword of “self-care” is particularly frustrating to Whitney, who says capitalism frames consumerism rather than community as the cure to people’s struggles with wellness and isolation. It’s more convenient and profitable for brands to tell people to get this spa treatment or take this yoga class, to try this “superfood” or this vagina facial, than to advocate for universal health care, paid leave, or shorter work weeks.

For all of the issues with the increasingly commodified wellness industry, Whitney and Cator agree it’s still natural to want to give gifts to loved ones this holiday season. Cator has some ideas what those gifts could be. “What about just experiences, like going into nature, making crafts together, working on beautiful projects together?” she said. “That personally has given me much more joy than getting the latest gadget, and things like that. But I would invite people to get creative, to create personalized experiences with loved ones.”

Similarly, Whitney thinks the best gifts are inviting “people to dive deeper into themselves,” and “have a purpose and meaning and intentionality behind it.”

“It helps to be thoughtful when shopping, for yourself or others, of what brands are using specific words to get you to buy them, and just check in with yourself to see, like, ‘does this feel good to me?’” she said. At the end of the day, Whitney understands we’re only human. “There’s always going to be that piece of you that maybe just wants a nice bubble bath right now, so if that does feel good to you, do it.”