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Do companies like Goop spread a culture of toxic wellness?

Focusing on your health is great, but when it becomes an obsession, it can be highly detrimental to your physical and mental well-being

Elise Loehnen and Gwyneth Paltrow (Getty Images)

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Goop is back in the media again, and a former bigwig is speaking out this time. Elise Loehnen, the former chief content officer of Goop and Gwyneth Paltrow’s right-hand woman, has taken to Instagram to talk about her poor relationship with her body, thanks to endless dieting and detoxing. Since leaving Goop, this toxic relationship with food has taken her two years to reset. This video has gone viral, and every news outlet is grappling with this insider truth - that wellness can go too far and become “toxic.”

I use the word “toxic” deliberately for several reasons. One of the things Goop is known for, and Paltrow actively endorses (and surprise, sells on her website) are detoxifying products. Goop even releases an “Annual New Year Detox” plan. However, outside of practising food elimination to discover a food intolerance, detoxes aren’t necessary or even particularly helpful.

Also read: Are the headlines making you sick and stressed?

But try telling that to the people peddling products and services in the wellness industry --often with a celebrity or influencer endorsement. An alarming statistic reported by Business Insider tells us that only 10% of social media influencers share accurate health information and often represent their personal opinions as fact. The lack of regulation of misleading or inaccurate messages about our health and wellness earns the influencers money, but it can cost us our health.

The wellness industry, a sweeping term that encompasses everything from personal care, beauty products, fitness and spiritual self-care, thrives on the belief that we all need to be fixed or have continual self-improvement to live our best lives. The message is clear - you have a problem. You may even be the problem, and there will always be another problem waiting for you to solve. Your hair isn’t shiny enough, you’re not relaxed enough, you’re meditating wrong, you should be getting up at 5 am to exercise, and you’re simply not thin enough. In this industry, we are sold solutions to these problems. Every week, a new book contains life-changing hacks to make us more productive, energetic, and better parents - all in 10 simple steps. It makes us wonder, what step are we missing from living our best lives? We must buy the book to find out. And once we have one problem sorted, and if happiness isn’t any closer, another solution will pop up in its place. And so, our “journey” begins.

In this constant pursuit of perfection, many people end up in the same position as Elise, experiencing mental and emotional damage. What struck me as interesting about Elise’s Instagram post about cleanses is that she is speaking directly about a toxic wellness culture, one that we don’t often hear about. Elise referenced a recent guest on her podcast, saying, “she reminded me that wellness culture can be toxic AND that eating an abundance of overly processed foods can also be toxic.” In response to the rise in processed food and obesity, we can sometimes overcorrect and become fixated on health and wellness products or services. Focusing on personal wellness can both help and harm--while it does improve your health it could also tip the balance to obsession.

Take, for instance, orthorexia—a less-known form of disorderly eating. You may have heard of eating disorders such as anorexia nervous or bulimia (restricting and purging food). However, orthorexia is described by National Eating Disorders as “an obsession with proper or ‘healthful’ eating.” Although being aware of and concerned with the nutritional quality of the food you eat isn’t a problem, people with orthorexia become so fixated on ‘healthy eating’ that they damage their wellbeing. Because healthy eating is considered a desirable activity, it can go unnoticed when someone slips deeper into their obsession to the point where it becomes detrimental to their health. This disordered way of eating can eventually deteriorate relationships, health, and a person’s body image. According to Harvard Health, a person with orthorexia may start to exhibit a preoccupation with healthy food choices, begin eliminating food groups or enact strict food rules, and experience distress around not being able to uphold those rules. If you notice that you’re fixating on your food to a distressing level, it’s worth seeking help to re-establish a positive relationship with your food.

Also read: Why you should add more fish to your diet

As an insider in this wellness industry, I can tell you that the wellness industry works by sowing discontent with the person you already are. After all, why buy the solutions if you aren’t already convinced you have a problem? Creating a need for constant self-improvement and telling consumers they can only find happiness and success by endlessly pursuing elusive perfection ensures that people don’t learn how to find self-love from within.

I have to be clear that not everything in the wellness culture is sinister. There are genuine people behind products and services who want to help others, but those people can get lost in the noise from the consumer perspective. They become part of the wallpaper. If you’re looking for any form of self-improvement, finding the right product, service, or coach for you should be based on finding someone you can connect with who already accepts the person you are and uses your existing skills to achieve the change you’d like to see. After all, the only people who should directly influence your lives are the ones with your best interests at heart.

Jen Thomas is a Chennai-based women’s weight loss coach

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