The wellness-industrial complex, with its various supplements and detoxes and crystals, is having a bit of a moment right now. Previously thought to be the province of patchouli-scented yogis and eccentric truther relatives, the expansion of scientifically dubious wellness products and services into a $199 billion industry in 2015, according to the Global Wellness Institute, has made Goop and its ilk hard to ignore. This growth has brought with it an increase in condescension from doctors and other health care professionals toward wellness consumers—which is understandable but probably not helpful in understanding why people around the world turn to Gwyneth Paltrow instead of them for health advice.
The most recent entry into this chorus of condescension is a New York Times op-ed “Worshipping the False Idols of Wellness,” by obstetrician and gynecologist Jen Gunter. “Before we go further, I’d like to clear something up,” Gunter starts. “Wellness is not the same as medicine.” She goes on to lay out all the familiar—and true!—gripes against the wellness industry: It’s not medically sound; it spreads misinformation; and it can cause “people with serious illnesses to postpone effective medical care.” Where Gunter goes wrong is her attempt at explaining why people turn to jade eggs and moon dust. Her explanations range from the aesthetic (“Wellness potions in beautiful jars with untested ingredients of unknown purity are practically packaged for Instagram.”) to the spiritual (“It’s like a medical throwback, as if the halcyon days of health were 5,000 years ago. Ancient cleansing rituals with a modern twist.”) But what she only passingly acknowledges are the many people who turn to the wellness industry after their pain has been ignored or scorned by doctors.
“Many people—women especially—have long been marginalized and dismissed by medicine,” she writes in a moment of fairness, before quickly dismissing any distrust that might stem from that marginalization. “But the answer does not lie in predatory conspiracy theories, a faux religion or expensive magic.” At best, Gunter’s piece is indifferent to the reasons people turn to charlatans for medical advice. At worst, it doubles down on the kind of medical condescension that has people turning away from real doctors in the first place.
It should be a well-known fact at this point that women, people of color, and fat people systematically have their symptoms downplayed or just outright ignored by doctors. Women in pain are more likely to be prescribed sedatives rather than painkillers, they wait an average of 16 minutes longer than men in emergency rooms to receive analgesics for acute abdominal pain, and a 2000 study found that “women are seven times more likely than men to be misdiagnosed and discharged in the middle of having a heart attack.”
Nurses are frequently taught inaccurate and racist information about patients of color, like that nonverbal communication should be prioritized with black Americans and that “Arabs/Muslims” may choose to “thank Allah for pain if it is the result of a healing procedure” rather than request pain medicine. A shocking 25 percent of medical residents surveyed in a 2016 study thought that black people’s skin was thicker than white peoples’. Fourteen percent of medically trained residents in the same study took the “black don’t crack” maxim to heart and thought that blacks age more slowly than whites.
And anti-fat bias in medicine has prompted such cruelty as sending a patient to a zoo to get an MRI because most scanners at medical offices have an upper weight limit of 450 pounds. According to a report from the New York Times, doctors reported seeing patients as a greater waste of time the heavier they were, and “heavier patients were viewed to be more annoying, and … physicians felt less patience the heavier the patient was.” That bias has led to doctors prescribing weight loss rather than actually paying attention to patients’ symptoms, resulting in delayed diagnoses of conditions as serious as blood clots and worse outcomes after being diagnosed with cancer, due to compromised medical care.
These are just some of the reasons people turn to charcoal detoxes and placenta pills, but they all stem from being scorned or dismissed by the people they went to for help. Is it really surprising that soft-pink descriptions of quick fixes only a click and credit card number away are a bit more alluring than having to convince a doctor to take your pain seriously? (And that’s if you even have the insurance coverage and bureaucratic wherewithal to get an appointment in the first place.) The answer to the exploitation of gaps left by traditional medicine isn’t to point the finger at people taken in by attractive marketing copy. It’s to fill in the gaps.