Rina Raphael, THE GOSPEL OF WELLNESS: Gyms, Gurus, Goop, and the False Promise of Self-Care

Rina Raphael, THE GOSPEL OF WELLNESS: Gyms, Gurus, Goop, and the False Promise of Self-Care

Zibby speaks to journalist Rina Raphael about her new book The Gospel of Wellness: Gyms, Gurus, Goop, and the False Promise of Self-Care, a revelatory, cautionary, and expertly-written study of the modern wellness industry (and its impact on women, especially). Rina describes “wellness” as an ambiguous, fear-mongering marketing tactic leveraged in our hyper-consumerist, productivity-obsessed culture. She analyzes diet culture (and its sneaky disguises–like cleanses), skincare fads, and organic product obsessions. She also discusses the loneliness crisis and how the industry has mastered selling us “community.”


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Rina. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Gospel of Wellness: Gyms, Gurus, Goop, and the False Promise of Self-Care.

Rina Raphael: Thanks for having me. I’m excited to chat with you.

Zibby: There is just so much in the book. Every chapter, I was like, okay, let’s talk about this. Oh, yeah, this too. Let’s talk about green juice. Let’s talk about all the things. Basically, your book is like, let’s take apart all of these assumptions and everything that’s made the self-care/wellness business into what it is today and dismantle it and see, wait, what’s really working? What’s science? What’s not? All of that. You might have a better pitch, but that’s what I got.

Rina: I’ll also say why we’re so attracted to wellness. How did it become such a huge industry, and specifically over the last ten years? Why is it always women? Why are women targeted more than men? I thought that was the most fascinating part of the research I did about what women were looking for and how much pain they’re in in America.

Zibby: You talked about debunking this notion of adrenal fatigue. Is that even a thing? Everybody’s so tired. You’re like, is it adrenal fatigue, or are we just actually running ourselves into the ground and looking for quick-ish fixes to get us out of the hole that we’ve dug ourselves into?

Rina: It’s probably more appealing to just take a pill or a supplement than to deal with the actual issues that are making us feel so tired and so sluggish and just depleted. We love a quick fix. I don’t blame people. They don’t necessarily have the time to deal with this stuff.

Zibby: It’s so funny. When I had COVID the first time, I was like, I think I’m really dehydrated. I remember calling my doctor. I was like, “What should I do? I don’t even know.” He’s like, “The quickest way to fight dehydration is to drink water. There’s nothing else you can do.” I was like, “I should get this. I should take this pill. I should do this. Should I get an injection?” He’s like, “Just drink your water.” It’s just such a perfect metaphor for the shortcuts we’re all looking for.

Rina: I’ll say this. When we buy these fancy products or IV injections, whatever it is, we feel like we’re taking action. There’s the psychological impact of, I’m doing this extra thing, so it must mean more. Oftentimes, you’re just wasting money. You could’ve just had a glass of water.

Zibby: Which is what I ended up doing, but then I had to pay the doctor. Shame on me. First of all, I’m really sorry about the loss of your dad. You wrote about that in the book really beautifully, in fact. I was really struck by how that was the way that you sort of dissected this community aspect of places like SoulCycle or particular gyms and classes that purport to really unify you. Then in your time of need, it turned out it was your synagogue, which actually is an experience I had similarly. I was like, oh, my gosh, look who’s showing up for me even though I give so little in emotionally and get so much out of it. What does community mean when it comes to exercise? Tell me a little bit about all of that.

Rina: My point in that chapter isn’t that everyone should go and join a synagogue.

Zibby: No, I know. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to suggest that.

Rina: No, I didn’t mean that you alluded to that. Just the fact that one thing religion has, and it’s definitely not perfect, is that they’ve had centuries to perfect certain aspects, including community. They have different entry points. The point of that chapter is to say that I had a specific experience where I wanted to see people more, but I was exhausted. Getting my friends together for dinner was like herding cats. If anyone’s been on a text message thread trying to get all their friends together, it’s so painful. I kind of fell for the marketing that was all about, boutique gym is your family, your community, your tribe. I had a personal experience where you go through a major milestone. I laugh that your SoulCycle instructor isn’t going to come over with a casserole. There are no memorial rites. This idea of, when I needed community, I was not going to go work on my body. It was ludicrous. I needed something more.

Throughout my research, I found that a lot of people, because they counted on their gym to be their community, were often left kind of holding the bag. If they lost their job, do you think that they can go to a SoulCycle or boutique gym and be like, hey, I can still come, right? You’re my family. Absurd. There was actually a gym that I profiled for Fast Company in New York City that was just for pregnant women. It was a gym specifically for them. When I interviewed these women, they all told me the same thing. I was kicked out of my gym once I was in my third trimester. These people were my community. Where do I go? They had to build their own gym. I’m not saying everyone depends on their gym for community, but what are we being sold? How does the marketing get at to what’s really the problem in America? We have a loneliness crisis here. We don’t get to see our friends enough. We don’t have communal support. The industry comes in and sells us all these things that we want to hear.

Zibby: You even questioned, what does it even mean to be well? What is the goal here?

Rina: I think that’s kind of the issue with the wellness industry. Again, this book is really nuanced. It goes into the good, the bad, and the whole lot in between. The term wellness, it basically means everything that medicine and insurance won’t touch. It’s basically nutrition, sleep, relaxation techniques. Because there is no definition of it and because it’s so individualized — what I need to feel good is completely different than what you need. It’s devolved into this ambiguous marketing term that can literally mean anything. It can mean meditation as much as it means activated charcoal toothpaste. That’s how this industry has grown so big, because there’s no guardrails. The problem is that it’s devolved — again, comes from good intentions — into this hyper-consumerist, individualist culture that’s just bursting with productivity pressures. Over the years, we’ve seen more and more women come forward and say, why do I have to eat exactly right, do this exact thing, and then buy all this stuff? How is that actually helping me? In some cases, it could just add more burdens. Women are stressed enough as it is in this country, especially moms.

Zibby: Yes, very true. You don’t have to go into the whole science of it, but I have always been against the cleanse mentality. I’ve never done a cleanse. I’ve always looked at it questionably. Really? Are we all doing cleanses? Why are you guys only drinking water and lemon and honey for three days straight? This can’t be good. You put that under a microscope, as you do so much else. Tell me where you came out on that.

Rina: I’m sorry to hear that you’re not pure enough.

Zibby: Exactly. I am not pure.

Rina: There is this whole obsession with clean. The problem is that a lot of this doesn’t have any, or very little, scientific evidence. A lot of times, it’s just diet culture in disguise. We’re not allowed to use the word diet anymore because of the body positivity movement. All these different subcultures were like, well, I guess we got to use the term wellness. I guess we need to hide our diet underneath some sort of cockamamie cleanse, which, again, just adds more pressures to women. A lot of this stuff is rooted in legitimate complaints. A lot of people have legitimate complainants against the medical industry or our food supply, and so they do these things that they feel like can sort of counteract all these things that they don’t like. I understand the appeal. The problem is that, for example, just because there are major issues within our health-care industry doesn’t mean alternative medicine has the answer in the same way that just because you might be upset with something that’s going on in your grocery aisle doesn’t mean a cleanse is the answer. It’s sold to us. It’s in every media outlet. It’s repeated all over your Instagram. When you see things repeated over and over again, you don’t question them. You sort of just take them as fact. It’s not just influencers; the media as well. In the book, I go into how many women’s magazines pair with these things because they don’t check with medical experts. I was one of them. I’m a former wellness industry reporter. I myself did that.

Zibby: You even talk a lot about skin care. I like how you dissect all of these different parts of the wellness industry and really tackle them head-on. Your reporting skills themselves, you’re obviously just ridiculously bright. It’s just great to be the beneficiary of all of your hard work that I can sit in my chair and open.

Rina: I’m going to take that quote, print that out, deliver it to my husband, and plaster it all over the house that you said I’m very bright.

Zibby: Oh, come on. Seriously, all of it. When you talked about skin care, I was really interested. I know Gregg Renfrew from Beautycounter through family connections in part. I use Beautycounter, but I don’t exclusively use Beautycounter. I also use whatever happens to be there, what was sent. I liked how you questioned the claims of that company and even for Goop, honestly. You just tackle these giant companies. You’re like, okay, let’s really get in there. Are the trace levels of these things — you’re not eating your toiletries. Does it really matter how little of a something is in what you’re using for your overall health?

Rina: It should be noted that I named Beautycounter a most innovative company when I was at Fast Company magazine. A lot of this book is, again, me as a reporter doing what too many reporters did, which is just taking claims at face value, not questioning them. Basically, my awakening to a lot of the things that were sold in wellness are way more complicated than what is being delivered to the consumer. I did kind of a 180 on Beautycounter. By the way, I love their products as well. I use them. I just take issue with some of the fearmongering that’s going on right now because it’s having unintended effects. It’s making people terrified of their products. It’s also excluding a whole bunch of communities that can’t afford these very pricey products. You see this a lot within wellness where it’s either fearmongering people — you have to buy our products, or something bad’s going to happen to you and your children — or it’s tied to an aspirational lifestyle. Goop does this very, very well where you believe if you consume what Gwyneth consumes, you will look like Gwyneth. It’s to show off your athleisure or whatever it is. It’s these two things that I think can be very, very detrimental. My point in that chapter is to say there are, again, legitimate issues within our beauty supply, but should we be made terrified of our body wash? What are the consequences of that?

Zibby: It’s true. I have a teenage daughter who follows all these skin-care people on Instagram or TikTok. She’s like, “You can’t use these wipes. You have to use micellar water. You can’t use this.” I’m like, “I’ve been using it forever. I’m fine. Okay, fine, I won’t use this product anymore.” They’re these giant brands. Is Neutrogena really so bad?

Rina: Also, think of how much headspace that’s taking up. I make the joke, why isn’t my husband afraid of his deodorant but every woman I know is terrified of everything? It’s not an exaggeration when I say that I know moms who are having breakdowns in grocery aisles being like, what can I buy here? I don’t think it’s productive. I think it’s, to some degree, misogynistic. They prey on women, specifically moms. I go into the book about specifically how organic snack brands target moms. They make them fearful because they have something to gain, a purchase. They know that women will respond to it more than men.

Zibby: I’m trying to take the concept of fearmongering and see how many industries really use this as a tactic. How many can?

Rina: A ton. One of the issues that we’re seeing with wellness is that because it’s become the industry du jour, a lot of people, a lot of publicists and marketers who used to work in the beauty, fashion, even alcohol industries, have all migrated to wellness. I’ve been a reporter for more than fifteen years. A lot of the people who used to pitch me fashion and beauty brands now pitch me supplements and green juices. I think the more people are aware that they’re being manipulated to some degree, they’ll pause before getting on the next big trend or going all in on some marketing claim. I always remind people, hey, remember eight years ago, we were all into bone broth? Then it was green juice. Then it was cucumber juice. Then it was kombucha, then coconut water. Now it’s chlorophyll. It keeps moving and moving. We’re treating health and wellness like fashion fads. Women say, oh, yeah, I remember when I was into that. Why do we keep migrating from trend to trend? It’s because these trends don’t deliver on their promises. It’s a lot like fad diets. Why do people go from keto to paleo to Atkins? It’s because they’re unsustainable or they don’t deliver, and so they just put their faith in the next-best thing.

Zibby: I’ve tried every diet for a long time.

Rina: Me too.

Zibby: Actually, I was a Weight Watchers leader for a little while, which was fascinating, back in the day. This is a long time ago, way before the rebrand that you talked about in the book. I wrote in my memoir, I was so obsessed with my Weight Watchers lifestyle for years that I’m convinced it was an eating disorder after a while. I could not eat without counting. I’m not going to get into that. It is disordered eating of a kind when you cannot eat an almond without calculating how many points. Does it add up to the day? Does it destroy your week?

Rina: The headspace, yes.

Zibby: The amount of time I spent adding it up, at least I was doing math. That’s my only saving grace.

Rina: I am in the same boat. To this day, I cannot have a piece of bread or a sandwich. I’ll eat around it, but I will eat ice cream and cookies. I was made terrified of bread when I was in Atkins. People always say, Rina, you’re about to eat ice cream, but you won’t eat the bread? I’m like, yes, bread is evil. I can’t get rid of it. These things stay with us. They get embedded. That’s why restrictive fad diets can be so harmful. Again, what are we doing to women in this country? Why are we driving them crazy?

Zibby: It’s so true. Did you see, it was called Odd Mom Out, the Jill Kargman show? Have you ever watched that?

Rina: I haven’t, but I heard such great things. I love her.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, you have to go watch it. She’s hilarious. The show is so fantastic. There was a scene with four to six women sitting around the table. The waiter comes over with the bread basket. He’s like, “Bread, ladies?” They’re like, “No bread!” I should find it and send it to you. That was the gist of it, but it was much funnier in the show. In terms of the book part of this whole research journey, it must have taken forever to do all of this research because you really dive deep into a lot of different things. Then I’m curious about the writing process itself. Also, are you scared of these big companies that you talk about? Even though you’re not necessarily saying anything bad, are you afraid at all of what the response will be or has been?

Rina: I hope that they take it the way I intended it, which is that it’s nuanced. That was my point of it. It’s not saying these are evil companies. Although, I’m pretty critical of Goop. A lot of them have good intentions. I think even Gwyneth oftentimes has good intentions. She’s just misguided and refuses to listen to scientists and doctors.

Zibby: You said that in such a nice way. You could not have said that any nicer.

Rina: In fact, some of the criticism I got from the book is, you should’ve gone harder. I don’t think so. I think that the reader is smart enough to be presented with some of the evidence and make their own decisions on how to evaluate these sectors. It is strange to have been a wellness industry reporter who propped up a lot of these companies and then realized midway through her career, a lot of this isn’t based on science. A lot of this is having unintended effects. I make the comparison that the way a lot of us treated wellness years ago is the way we thought about social media fifteen years ago. We were so excited for Facebook and all these companies. We just didn’t see where it would end up. I had to reevaluate these companies. It’s a little bizarre. In terms of the research, a lot of it is based on my research of having been a wellness industry reporter and a health writer. This book took me years. Oftentimes, I would start out with a presumption and call up a bunch of doctors. They’d be like, “Actually, you’re completely wrong.” I would have to change the entire chapter. That happened a lot. It was really, really eye-opening. Throughout the book, you see me being just as shocked as everyone else. Clean beauty is a perfect example of that in which I would call up a toxicologist, and they’d be like, “It’s mostly marketing.” I’d be like, I don’t like what he said. I’d call up another. Same thing. Call up another. I realized it was much more complicated than I ever, ever thought.

Zibby: Just to play devil’s advocate for a moment, that implies you trust the doctors. You never know. Sometimes I’m like, this doctor says this thing, and this doctor says that thing. The doctors are also trying to sell, a lot of times, their own medicines or the prescriptions for different things. I’m just saying everyone has a vested interest in the ecosystem.

Rina: Totally. I also definitely spoke to people who said the opposite. I will say this. I don’t think you should take advice from any just one — I think people should work with their doctors. There’s a difference between trusting just one doctor and then actually looking at medical guidelines or that sector society guidelines. For example, sure, you could be like, trust a doctor. What if your doctor’s Dr. Oz? If the entire cardiology association says something, you should probably listen to that consensus of doctors. For example, when eighty perfect of the toxicology association says that EWG is dealing with fearmongering, I’m going to take that to heart because that’s more than one toxicologist.

Zibby: You’re right. I knew I shouldn’t have played devil’s advocate with you.

Rina: No, I appreciate it. The other thing is that I was a devil’s advocate years before. I gave a lot of airtime to these companies. I interviewed their founders. I interviewed their staff. I feel like I actually have a really good balance of both sides. Again, it’s not trashing many of these companies. It’s just saying it’s a lot more than people realize. They’re not being given the full information. They deserve it. Consumers aren’t stupid. Women aren’t stupid. Treat them like adults. Give them the full information.

Zibby: Not to mention how much disposable income people spend on so many of these things. That comes at a cost, not just the finance. What are they giving up by investing in this?

Rina: Right. It’s wasted time and money. In some cases, if you rely on a supplement because you think you have adrenal fatigue, that stands in the way of real therapeutic treatments. You might have a real condition that could have a real treatment. That can actually lead to adverse effects. It’s not always harmless. It’s not just a matter of, oh, I wasted a couple bucks here. It can be dangerous.

Zibby: True. What are you taking on next?

Rina: That’s such a good question. I’ll say one thing. I don’t recommend writing a book that has to do deal with so many subsectors. The book took so long because I had to deal with nutrition, but also supplements and spirituality. It really took years to do this book. I’m like, the next book has to be one topic.

Zibby: That’s funny. It was really eye-opening as a consumer and someone in this market who has been marketed to and has adopted some but not all of the things, like most women of a certain age. I’m in this bucket. For me, I found it very, very interesting and eye-opening and intellectually fascinating. It changes the way I see our world right now, which is one of the best things a book can do.

Rina: I hope so. I’m so glad you enjoyed it. Thank you for having me.

Zibby: Thanks for coming. Buh-bye.

Rina: Bye. Thank you.

Rina Raphael, THE GOSPEL OF WELLNESS: Gyms, Gurus, Goop, and the False Promise of Self-Care

THE GOSPEL OF WELLNESS: Gyms, Gurus, Goop, and the False Promise of Self-Care by Rina Raphael

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