In a Pandemic, Is ‘Wellness’ Just Being Well-off?

Maybe there isn’t really a difference anymore.

A person running in Central Park on April 23. Photo: David Williams
A person running in Central Park on April 23. Photo: David Williams
A person running in Central Park on April 23. Photo: David Williams

In 2017, I wrote a story titled The Wellness Epidemic. It was a tour of the various expensive, spiritually assertive, and scientifically questionable strategies that many people were engaging in to stave off the perceptions that “people are finding more and more that everyone they know is kind of sick,” as Elise Loehnen, the head of content at Goop, told me at the time. (Yes, this seems ironic now.) I later was offered a book contract to write about the subject: the yoga, the supplements, the tidying regimes, the pulsating colonics, the organic-cotton sweatpants, the silent retreats, the intermittent-juice-fasting–sleep-hygiene–SoulCycle–Moon Juice Ashwagandha of it all. After a career covering fashion, with all of its coded hierarchies and tribal class signaling, I was intrigued at how quickly wellness — whatever that meant, exactly — had supplanted it as a self-elevating pursuit, to become the center of our aspirations, fantasies, and most profound, and potentially unfulfillable, wants.

I was deep in revisions on a draft of the book when news about the mysterious virus began trickling in. At my last face-to-face meeting with my editor, I sort of flapped my hand before her furrowed brow and said, “Eh, a global pandemic is not where my anxieties live.” And it wasn’t, then.

A few weeks later, everything changed. The wellness channels lit up: emails, Instagram Stories, livestreams of all sorts. What an opportunity to practice a little (a lot?) self-care! It had never been easier to find recipes for healthful teas and tinctures, breathing techniques, and mantras to recite. Was this what the wellness world had been preparing for all along? Superpowers to survive a terrible, scary new world? I got an email from the Well, the fancy membership club, announcing that I could purchase a box of its yet-to-launch proprietary “immune boosting” supplements. Right away, I reserved my kit and spent $90 on … I don’t know what, exactly. Some of the ingredients are listed (vitamin B, vitamin D), others are just described as an “herbal formulation to support a healthy immune response.” Whatever! As much as my research has led me to believe (strongly believe) that the vast majority of supplements on the market are bogus, this time everything felt different. I was panicked and therefore vulnerable: I figured, So why not at least try? I did lots of Pilates and breathing exercises. I kept outrageously hydrated and took expensive little shots of a lypo-spheric vitamin-C supplement that resembles, in texture, a clot of orange snot.

It all felt of a piece with the endless handwashing and the awkward, three-steps-back stance everyone started taking when running into each other on the street: attempts to control a totally out-of-control situation. Los Angeles juicing celebrity Amanda Chantal Bacon filled her Instagram Stories with concoctions meant to boost immunity and allow you to emerge unscathed, most containing her mysterious magic “dusts,” and she hosted a 20-minute online “sit” during the Jupiter-Pluto conjunction on April 4. “Reality comes from consciousness, and all levels of reality are affected by collective consciousness,” she wrote in an Instagram post.

The other wellness stars of social media are on overdrive: @melissawoodhealth is broadcasting from a home gym where light streams through bright windows onto soft wooden floors, her athleisurewear is clean and fresh and flattering, and her fruit bowls glow colorful and full. There is abundant time for gratitude journals, and gluten-free banana bread, and face masks, and $300 sweatpants. There is no lining up six feet apart outside Trader Joe’s: The truly well are receiving boxes of local produce and preparing it in their ceramic pots and pans.

The fitness instructor/primal-scream leader Taryn Toomey began streaming classes from an empty studio. “What we are doing in the class, if you will, is cleaning the cells, the blood, the organs,” she wrote. “Cleansing the mind, flushing inauthenticity while irrigating the body.” CAP Beauty, a “clean” beauty store in the West Village, beefed up its video content with yoga classes, advice, and primers on things like astragalus. “‘The Great Protector,’ it’s one of the traditional Taoist herbs. It strengthens and protects many of the body’s systems, including skin health, metabolism and digestion, the immune system, and our energy levels. While astragalus helps the body adapt to physical stressors, it also eases emotional and mental stress.”

As the hospitals filled up, and so many people began to die, the notion that superior health has anything to do with minimizing nightshade consumption, or toxic exposure from your toothpaste or deodorant or shower curtain, or taking Taryn Toomey’s class or ingesting astragalus — all the consumer-truther truths of wellness — seemed to not make much sense anymore. Or did it? The drastic inequities in who was and was not surviving this illness grew more and more stark. Every time I read about a corona death, I nervously scanned obituaries for clues of how bad this new disease was. I wasn’t always reassured by this, of course. Healthy, and not very old, people we knew were getting very sick, and some dying.

But taking a step back, as the death toll mounted and more data began to appear, it became clear that if you had the time and money to do many of the sorts of things that Gwyneth Paltrow recommends so that you could be a little bit like her, you were privileged enough to have a degree of control over your life, and your health care, already. You are, statistically, less likely to get sick, and if you did get sick, you’d be more likely to fare a bit better. One of the lessons of wellness is that good health has become a premium luxury product. Obesity, diabetes, lung disease, and heart disease are all considered leading determinants — comorbidities — in just how sick you are likely to get from this thing.

The origins of the self-care movement are far more political than a quick perusal of Goop or mindbodygreen would have you believe. The term self-care actually began in the radical-feminist health clinics of the late ’60s, when a group of women in California stole some plastic speculi and set out on a school bus to educate women in their own anatomy (a small mirror was often distributed as well) and also to perform pelvic exams on each other at a moment when the gynecological profession was almost entirely dominated by men. It was also popularized in community health centers founded by the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California, places established to help populations ignored by the medical Establishment. It had nothing to do with massages or manicures. It was about looking out for your community when no one else would do it for you.

That notion is now, somehow, a bit twisted. The corona-celebrity Chris Cuomo is married to a wellness woman: Cristina Greeven Cuomo is the founder of The Purist, and her husband is one of the famously infected. Flushed and furious, he’s been broadcasting his CNN show from his Hamptons basement (you can see what appears to be a box of alcohol wipes on the stairs over his shoulder). Given what Greeven Cuomo has described as the difficulty of finding advice on how to treat this disease, she took matters into her own hands, consulting with alternative practitioners and therapists to come up with a protocol of her own.


Some number of his meals were prepared at Juice Press; others were delivered by Organic Krush, an East End “lifestyle eatery.” Cuomo sat in his Sunlighten sauna and did breathing exercises on daily walks in his backyard. Later, Cuomo Greeven herself got sick and wrote about what she learned, and how she applied it to her own illness, on The Purist (while acknowledging that “I am aware that what I am about to talk about are remedies for people who are already in a privileged situation.”)

My book editor and I were talking this week, wondering how much my topic has changed, about the revisions I will need to make once this thing has played out a bit further. I started my book out of some sense of skepticism at the FOMO consumerization of the industry. But it made me realize that while privilege — the Cuomos, Gwyneth’s, mine — is not the same as immunity, it has become grimly clear that it’s certainly a help.

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In a Pandemic, Is ‘Wellness’ Just Being Well-off?