Goop-age wellness: Why are people so desperate to feel good?

Catie Fenn was practising law for six years before she decided to switch careers and become a wellness coach. The 31-year-old Toronto resident said litigation was stressful, and knew the peace she found through meditation was something she wanted to experience more often.

“Meditation completely changed my life,” she told Global News. “Not only did I have the tangible results of feeling more calm at work, but I loved having this place to come back to every day and reconnect with myself.”

Now, Fenn runs her own business teaching mediation, leading wellness retreats in Muskoka and Costa Rica, coaching women on how to take control of their lives, and running “goddess circles” — paid events where “a community of changemakers gets deep” and encourages one another to “live their highest potential.”

Fenn says that over the last year, she’s seen a significant increase in the amount of Canadian women interested in partaking in these types of wellness activities, which has allowed her business to grow from something she did on the side to a full-time career.

“Women now are way more open to this than they were four of five years ago,” she said. “There’s been a huge boom in the wellness industry.”

The Goop effect

There’s one company that is synonymous with the growing world of wellness: Goop. What started as a newsletter in 2008, Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle brand has come to dominate the market, promoting alternative wellness therapies like anti-bloat detoxes and pedaling more dangerous health advice on things like vagina steaming and “toxic” heavy metal cleanses.

This has angered many members of the medical community, who say Goop is making irresponsible health claims. Dr. Jen Gunter, a U.S.-based OB/GYN, documents all of Goop’s “bad” advice on her blog, and wrote that 90 per cent of the health products sold by Goop could not be supported by science.

(In September, Goop was ordered to pay US$145,000 in civil penalties to settle allegations that it made unscientific claims about the health benefits of a vaginal jade egg and two other products. The company was also barred from making any future claims about the efficacy of its products unless it can back them up with solid scientific evidence.)

So if doctors are debunking much of what wellness companies like Goop are saying, why are people still buying healing crystals, going on juice cleanses, and paying $400 to attend Goop’s recent health summit in B.C.?

According to Timothy Caulfield, a professor in the Faculty of Law and the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta and the author of the book Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong about Everything?, it’s a complex social phenomenon, but there are several reasons why.

How did we get here?

“I think there is a breakdown of trust between the general public and conventional sources of health information,” Caulfield told Global News. “People are worried about conflicts of interest, they’re worried about the involvement of [other] industries.”

Caulfield also says many women feel their health has long been overlooked by the medical community, and that their concerns aren’t heard. Research shows that women are more likely to suffer pain longer than men, and are often taken less seriously by their doctors.

“There’s a famous study … that suggests doctors stop listening to patients after 11 seconds. That’s not to say that they aren’t offering good health care, but people react to that,” Caulfield said.

Brands are aware of this. Many companies do a good job at marketing products and services to women who often feel ignored, Caulfield said, which has helped turn wellness into a trillion-dollar global industry.

“We need to learn from this,” he said. “We need to learn that there’s issues in the conventional system that are making these other approaches seem more inviting, and take that seriously.”

‘Wellness’ often blurs the line between science and pseudoscience

Wellness companies also do a good job at making pseudoscience sound believable. By using terms that sound scientific, Caulfield said, companies are able to position products and ideas in a way that make people think they will be bettering themselves if they buy into them.

“A lot of the stuff is presented in a way that sounds really legitimate, it has intuitive appeal,” he said. “Detoxification is a good example of that. Who wants toxins hanging out in the body?”

“They use that kind of imagery and language to make this stuff seem more plausible and desirable, and obviously it works.”

Plus, Caulfield says that society has an obsession with self-improvement — a tendency that drives many people toward consuming health and wellness products.

“A lot of these things that people buy from places like Goop are not about treating cancer, heart disease or some incurable ailment, they’re really about improving ourselves,” he said. “There’s this strange compulsion that we’ve got to constantly be improving and striving to be better, and that’s part of what this wellness [trend] is about.”

Wellness is about more than diet and exercise

Amber Joliat, the owner of Misfit Studio, an exercise business in Toronto, says that more women are adopting “wellness lifestyles” because they’re realizing that traditional approaches to health don’t work. Joliat, who teaches fitness and was a presenter at Vancouver’s In Goop Health summit, also says more women are willing to spend their time and their money taking care of themselves than ever before.

“What we are experiencing is a paradigm shift where we are questioning all the old ways as we learn more about health, wellness, our bodies and science,” she said. “The way people once upon a time saw eating and working out, we recognize it doesn’t work anymore. In that, there’s a really beautiful curiosity in finding ways that do work.”

Wellness coach Fenn echoes this stance, and says that women are moving beyond simply exercising and eating well as pillars of good health.

“If women start to eat healthier and work out a bit more, it’s a natural progression to think about health more holistically,” she said. “They’re saying, ‘I’m taking care of my body, but how’s my mind? How’s my soul? My spirit?’”

While there’s no doubt that eating well, regularly exercising, and getting proper sleep is key to overall health, buying into alternative healing therapies and products that are not backed by science is where the danger comes in, Caulfield says.

“One of the things I’m most worried about, to be honest, is this kind of erosion of critical thinking,” he said. “The idea that all knowledge is relative and science doesn’t matter … it’s inviting people to believe in magical thinking, and I feel like that’s the last thing we need right now.”

Even if you use products that aren’t necessarily effective but aren’t harmful either, like healing stones, for example, Caulfield says buying into the wellness industry can be expensive.

“A lot of people say they’re using these things to improve their health, but there’s no evidence that [these things] can do that,” he said. “It’s potentially wasteful from a financial perspective.”

“This stuff isn’t cheap.”

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