For six-ish weeks last year, Atlantic contributor Devin Gordon tried to live like Joe Rogan, the world’s most popular podcaster. Gordon added mushroom powder to his coffee, took way too many supplements, and brushed his teeth with a paste that “taste[d] like wet sand and look[ed] like loose stool.” The experience, he told On the Media, was like “Goop for men” —a plunge into Rogan’s hypermasculine spin on wellness culture.
Wellness, which literally means the active pursuit of health but more often refers to a swirling cultural and economic eddy of endless self-optimization, is primarily characterized as a feminine pursuit. It’s partly because its most vocal ambassador is Gwyneth Paltrow and partly because women have been tasked with the most literal forms of pursuing good health—like hand-washing and family hygiene—for generations. Men, by contrast, have a long history of not taking great care of themselves. In the United States, the founding myth of the rugged “real man” has contributed to lower rates of doctors’ visitors, higher rates of suicide, and risky and sensation-seeking behaviors—all of which contribute to shorter life expectancies overall.
Despite this, men have also long been a part of wellness culture—they’ve just avoided the label. In tech bro parlance, disordered eating becomes “biohacking,” Ginkgo biloba supplements become “nootropics,” and Gisele Bündchen’s anti-anxiety diet becomes Tom Brady’s nutrition plan for “a lifetime of sustained peak performance.” But some people are finally starting to call a serving of Soylent a spade: Last year, Goop, which says 23 percent of its audience is male, launched a special section for men with helpful explainers on prostate cancer and “crystals for masculine energy.” The direct-to-consumer drugstore Hims, which was founded in 2017 and bills itself as “a one-stop shop for men’s wellness and personal care,” is valued at a billion dollars. And GQ, the glossy men’s magazine, recently repackaged its online “fitness” section as a “wellness” vertical.
This could, in theory, be a positive development in the way men relate to their bodies and minds, particularly during a pandemic. Given the state of their health, some wellness of the literal sort is certainly in order, and the boys deserve a Zoom yoga class as much as anyone. But in practice, things are trending in the other, unhelpful direction. Even as men slowly submit to the idea of living well, “men’s wellness” is being consumed by darker forces.
The world of men’s wellness has a distinct character from many of the more feminine conceptions of self-care. While Goop is rightly criticized for spreading misinformation and promoting potentially dangerous treatments like vaginal steaming and bee sting therapy, the lifestyle brand mostly gets off on cashmere and hyaluronic acid serums—things that may not dramatically alter your life but are at least supposed to feel good. The world of men’s wellness is saturated with the message that you can defy your biological realities with bravery, ingenuity, and a lot of money. Many such men identify as grinders, i.e., the kind of people who apply a “hacker ethic” to their own bodies. They take the implicit promises of wellness culture—if you buy these things or practice this routine, you can become a superhuman version of yourself—and push it to a toxic extreme by often-permanently altering their outward appearance or internal biology to meet some internal standard of masculine well-being.
Hims, the clear leader in the commodification of men’s wellness, is effectively a digital dispensary. It sells a variety of erectile dysfunction drugs, which you can get delivered straight to your door after a telehealth screening with one of Hims’ doctors. You can also get finasteride, the side effect–heavy hair loss drug some people speculate makes President Donald Trump mentally unstable, and propranolol, a beta blocker Hims markets as an off-label anxiety treatment that might treat stage fright but isn’t really meant to treat deeper issues. Admittedly, this is just what the company does: Hers, which Hims Inc., launched in 2018, pushes flibanserin, a controversial and mostly ineffective pill proponents call the “female Viagra,” and markets beta blockers to women as well. It’s even expanding into more basic health care, including primary care telemedicine for things like cold, flu, and allergies. But male customers, longer underserved in this category, seem to be the company’s focus, if the omnipresence of Hims’ de facto phallic cactus mascot can give us any indication.
Rogan, the former Fear Factor host, has mostly focused his energy on promoting questionable products from the supplements company Onnit. But he’s also created space on his show—the number two Apple iTunes podcast for three years running—for more radical conceptions of wellness. Earlier this year, Rogan completed a 30-day meat-only diet, inspired by his 2018 interview with Jordan Peterson, the pop psychologist, carnivore evangelist, and walking medical mystery who spent eight days in a medically induced coma in January while pursuing treatment for his dependence on the anti-anxiety drug clonazepam. It was great, Rogan said, aside from the apocalyptic diarrhea. Rogan has also hosted Ben Greenfield, a personal trainer, on the show to discuss how Greenfield harvested his own stem cells so he could inject them into his penis for “erectile enhancement.”
These experiments can—and do—go wrong. In September, Jezebel published Prachi Gupta’s investigation into her brother’s terrible death from a pulmonary embolism at 29. Unbeknownst to her, he had been undergoing limb-lengthening surgery, which Gupta describes as “a lengthy procedure that involves sawing through the bone, drilling a nail and screws into it, and in the months afterward, slowly, painfully pulling the broken bones apart by a few millimeters, every day for months, to add a few inches of height.” For Gupta’s brother, being 5-foot-7 felt suboptimal, and elective surgery was just another item on the self-actualization checklist.
Men’s wellness feeds off the same societal forces that discourage men from looking after their own health in the first place. They can’t enjoy hand rollers and face creams without compromising their masculinity, so instead we get a “no pain, no gain” perspective on wellness that makes dubious pills and risky surgeries seem reasonable and the bros who pursue them enlightened. It goes to show that how we talk about the cult of self-improvement matters. By eluding the “wellness” label for so long, men have been able to circulate dangerous, even life-threatening, ideas under the banner of radical thought and innovative engineering. If we can finally acknowledge the extent and variety of wellness culture, maybe we can see what so many of these products and services really are: scams with some serious consequences.