The digital wellness industry is booming. As the coronavirus spreads, many of us around the country are doing Joe Wicks’s PE classes with the kids, bowing our heads in “namaste” with YouTube star and yoga teacher Adriene Mishler, or practising mindfulness with apps such as Headspace and Calm. Yet the pandemic is proving to be a bit of a minefield for wellness gurus.
hile many have the best intentions for their followers, promoting positivity and self-care, brands must navigate the pitfalls of marketing amid the outbreak. It’s a difficult balance: we’re not feeling all that well right now, which has led to a surge in demand for health and wellness content online. Most of these brands, however, are better known for recommending kale smoothies and vagina-scented candles than hand-washing techniques and social distancing.
Wellness, of course, doesn’t simply mean “being well”. Modern use of the word dates back to 1959, when it was popularised by American doctor Halbert L Dunn, the so-called father of the movement. He defined wellness in contrast with good health: health meant the prevention of illness – an objective truth of modern medicine – whereas wellness was more subjective; an active, ongoing pursuit of “a high potential of functioning”.
Over the years, this concept has been commodified beyond recognition. Until very recently, “wellness” meant a luxury yoga retreat, head-to-toe Lululemon and adaptogenic supershroom tea. It has become a global industry worth €4.1 trillion, according to the Global Wellness Institute.
But what does wellness currently mean, now that we’re all shut up at home, with no boutique fitness classes or luxury eco-spas or designer athleisure stores to go to?
Never has the divide between health and wellness been so clear, and never has the wellness industry seemed so cynical. Those of us who previously dabbled with rose-quartz face rollers may have found our patience wearing thinner and thinner with each wellness influencer’s posts about cashmere loungewear, immune-boosting herbal dust or ethical self-isolation sex toys.
The wellness industry is subject to intense scrutiny in normal circumstances, from both the public and advertising watchdogs, but the coronavirus has created a new challenge in communicating with consumers.
Even Gwyneth Paltrow, our foremost celebrity guru, has struggled to hit the right tone. Her wellness company Goop, the movement’s standard-bearer, hastily deleted an Instagram post last month featuring an outfit recommendation worth €900 after it was branded “tone-deaf”, and a couple of weeks ago, her advice on the best vibrators to get us through quarantine was greeted with a collective eye-roll.
Paltrow isn’t famous for her sensitivity, but she’s not the only one flailing in her coronavirus response. Miranda Kerr, the model-turned-wellness entrepreneur, has been criticised for promoting a “virus protection” guide from “medical medium” Anthony William, whose greatest claim to fame is spawning a “global celery juice movement”.
Kourtney Kardashian’s lifestyle site Poosh, meanwhile, instructed readers on “how to prepare for coronavirus” by plugging her friend Simon Huck’s €230 luxury emergency kits, while American football player Tom Brady has encouraged followers to pick up “immune support” in the form of his TB12 protein and vitamin supplements (with starter kits costing a cool €132).
“Immune support” has emerged as the industry’s designated euphemism for virus-related anxiety remedies, carefully worded to allow the vague promise of “wellness” without making any specific claims to cure the virus itself.
“Right now we need to look after ourselves,” urged Elle Macpherson’s Welleco, alongside a link to buy the company’s Super Booster “immune system support” supplements. And Moon Juice founder Amanda Chantal Bacon shared tips on Instagram as an “immunomodulation enthusiast”, including cutting out “sugar, fighting, alcohol, fear, processed foods, isolation and stagnation” in favour of liposomal vitamin C, garlic broth, acupuncture and one-minute cold showers to help you “stay strong”.
“Immunity means something different today than it did yesterday,” Allen Adamson, the co-founder of New York brand consulting firm Metaforce, told the Business of Fashion news site. “Yesterday, immunity might have referred to fighting the common cold and being healthier and building up your resistance to sniffles. Today, when you use the word ‘immunity’, it’s hardwired […] ‘What if this could help protect me from the virus?’ I think that’s a dangerous place for these brands to tread.”
Goop has been treading especially lightly: in 2018, the company was fined $ 145,000 (€132,000) by the Orange County district attorney’s office for making “unsubstantiated claims” about its vaginal wellness eggs. The site has played it safe during the pandemic, providing information on Covid-19 from the World Health Organisation and Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, and emphasising its lifestyle and home offering – the company reportedly sold out of its €31 sustainable bamboo toilet paper last month.
But it’s difficult to relate to Paltrow’s earnest discussions with her intimacy coach around tension in the home when Paltrow and husband Brad Falchuk are isolating in their sprawling Brentwood mansion.
Celebrity gurus thrive on their ability to be aspirational and accessible, to appear seamlessly as “one of us” and “one of them”. With a pandemic forcing us all into lockdown, many celebrities seem to believe they are more like us, and more relatable, than ever. In reality, the quarantine has shown celebrities couldn’t be less like us, isolating in luxurious, mortgage-free homes with plenty of space for pent-up children to run around, plenty of organic food to eat and plenty of designer loungewear to laze about in.
While celebrities crow about seizing the quarantine as a time to quaran-tone, or embracing this “golden opportunity” to nourish the mind, it exposes the industry’s conception of wellness as just another status symbol.
Before the pandemic, wellness brands straddled a fine line between escapist and out of touch, a line that seems to have evaporated since the shutdown started. The barrier to entry for wellness is money; with a recession looming and soaring unemployment, less and less of us can afford to subscribe. And with our attention focused squarely on our actual health – the prevention of illness – it’s the medical professionals we want to hear from, not the snake oil saleswomen.
The wellness industry stands to lose a lot in this crisis. But it could be a wake-up call for the sector, as it is proving to be for many industries. Entangled with consumerism and elitism, the wellness industry is itself profoundly unwell. Perhaps its survival depends on going back to the most basic definition of wellness, the kind that you can’t simply buy: of “being well”.
Rather than implying a product can ward off the disease, a pivot to practical, affordable tips about self-care – homemade skincare, freezer-friendly recipes, exercise videos – could help brands weather the storm. They’d do well to show they understand our urgent, everyday needs, and leave the medical advice to the experts.