Fear-Mongering at The Grocery Store, and More of “Wellness’” Greatest Tricks
“Part of what I'm trying to do with the book is just to open people's eyes to you're kind of being duped. It doesn't mean you're stupid, it doesn't mean you did anything wrong. You are being preyed upon.”
If you appreciate this newsletter and want to support this work, become a member of The Double Shift. You get members-only threads, an audio newsletter and virtual and IRL hangouts. It starts at $7/mo.
I hope you had a chance to check out last week’s essay inspired by Rina Raphael’s incredible book, The Gospel of Wellness. That newsletter focused mostly on the intersection of western medicine with “alternative” wellness culture. Truly, there was so much to unpack in the book about this $4.4 trillion industry, that I find highly relevant to The Double Shift audience, I decided to break it up into two parts. Today, I’ll talk more about the intersection of wellness, capitalism and deciding what the hell we should be eating. And don’t worry, I’ll leave you with some actionable ideas for how to be a much savvier consumer when wellness seems to infiltrate all of the spaces around you.
Quick reminder: American capitalism is an economic system that places huge stressors on our time and as a result, has the potential to burn out our bodies. Our culture fetishizes productivity and we don’t allow ourselves meaningful rest. Women aren’t able to “do it all,” and yet companies who want to sell us something and popular media that supports them are all too willing to say we are just a few quick fixes away from this “mythical having it all'' euphoria. “The wellness industry stepped in to fill a void created by unreasonable expectations that torment us,” Rina writes. Let’s just sit with that.
She also puts this moment into historical perspective. I would love to get this truth bomb from a chapter called, “Why the Hell Is the Advice Always Yoga?” printed and framed for my office.
In the 19th century, “hysterical” women were sent to an asylum. In the 20th century, they were put on Valium. In the 21st, they put us on Xanax. Today, they direct us to a wellness app. The real causes of our stress shouldn't be ignored. Nor should we have to go through these various measures to live our lives. Wellness is triage, but never forget you are still stuck in a cycle of stress. Stress exists for a reason. It’s a mental state informing us that something is wrong. And yet, we’re constantly told this is something we should bury away. When women furiously pedal away on a peloton to “silence their minds” might we begin to ask: “Why should we silence our minds? Maybe my mind has legitimate complaints.”
For some, a wellness lifestyle has become about so much more than just purchases. It’s become a panacea for all that is difficult about modern life and its expectations, and an unshakable expression of personal values. It is also a pacifier. It is a status quo-maintainer, it’s a way to convince us we need to work even harder to have more money for these wellness fixes.
Not everyone, however, is particularly interested in having concrete evidence shared with them when they feel so attached to wellness’ promises. “There are people who-over identify with the values within that system. I find this a lot with organic food where it symbolizes something about them, either good parenting or purity or whatever it is, and it comes to define them,” says Rina. “So, when you attack an argument, they don't see it as attacking an argument. They see it as attacking who they are. The evidence didn't matter to them because it wasn't about the evidence to begin with. It was about a perceived value.”
On the subject of organic and healthy food, The Gospel of Wellness made me want to demand compensatory damages for the guilt and emotional distress that companies and the media have inflicted on people, especially moms. Do you know about The Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen?” It’s an annual report that has been blasted all over the media outlets for years that highlights how seemingly dangerous it is to eat non-organic fruits and vegetables. Even if you haven’t heard of the report, it may still be working its way into your consciousness. EWG, however, is not some impartial safety group. It's actually heavily funded by the organic food industry, and roundly criticized by actual toxicologists. The Dirty Dozen Report highlights the presence of ANY pesticide, not the amount. This openly flouts how toxicologists accurately assess risk. Dr. Carl Winter, a toxicology expert who’s researched some of EWG’s claims says, “for most pesticides, if we were to feed consumers ten thousand times more pesticides in their diet than they’re getting, those levels still wouldn’t be a health concern. It’s the amount of the chemical, not its presence or absence that determines the potential harm.”
While there is nothing wrong with organic food, and there can be worthwhile benefits to buying it, nutritionists Rina spoke to were far more concerned about the fear mongering going on that leads people to avoid say, nectarines, entirely if they can’t afford or access organic ones. A 2016 study shows that low-income shoppers planned to consume fewer fruits and vegetables overall after being told about pesticide residue potential in conventional produce. Ugh.
Rina details how some companies’ fear-mongering can be deliberate. “One of the most eye-opening accounts I heard was from a food scientist who told me that she had been hearing from a whole bunch of different food scientists who were butting heads with their marketing teams,” Rina told me in an interview. “These are all people who worked at organic snack brands.... which had one core audience: Moms of young kids. The scientists were saying, ‘you cannot fear-monger like this. You cannot say that kids are going to get sick if they don't buy this organic brand.’ And the marketers are like, ‘It works. We're going ahead with it.’ The scientists at companies want completely different things from what the marketing team wants.”
The book details how marketers can often use vague and suggestive language, like “healthy” “natural” or “supports xyz health benefit” rather than concrete claims that could get them fined for false advertising, letting our minds fill in the rest.
I mean, who wants to eat or give their kids “dirty” food? The focus on organic, which on average costs 47% more than conventional food, makes eating “healthy” feel unobtainable to so many people, creating unnecessary fear and stress. Dr. Winter calls this “supermarket shaming.” Organic, of course, is only one factor in the information we are constantly being bombarded with about what to eat, with food shopping turning into some kind of house of horrors with refined sugar, gluten, and artificial colors infiltrating your cart at every turn. And I don’t even have the space in this newsletter to properly dive into how diet culture influences all of this. (I highly recommend Virginia Sole-Smith on this topic.) Rina writes, “a relentless torrent of food rules doesn’t simplify women's’ lives but clutters their minds, drains their wallets and confuses them to the point of paralysis.” Amen. I hear so much about both mental load and decision fatigue; it makes me angry about how much harder companies are making it on us. “Part of what I'm trying to do with the book is just to open people's eyes to you're kind of being duped,” says Rina. “It doesn't mean you're stupid, it doesn't mean you did anything wrong. You are being preyed upon.”
So what do we do with this information? We still have to decide what to buy at every turn. When faced with highly savvy marketing, about “heart-healthy” kids’ snacks, “sugar-free, dye-free” halloween candy, or “hormone free” yogurt cups, Rina has a bit of concrete advice. “If it’s a product or anything that requires you to buy something, just pause. Ask yourself, who's selling you this? Do they have something to gain?” If you are getting ideas from an influencer, Rina suggests asking, “are they an expert in what they are making claims about?” A wellness coach and someone with a Phd in Nutrition Science are not the same. And before embarking on wellness self-improvements, consider “pausing before diving back into the cult of productivity or perfectionism. Ask yourself, ‘what do you think you're going to get out of this? And is it really reasonable?’”
My big takeaway from Rina’s work is to avoid the extremes on all of these debates. Basically, everything is fine in moderation, and don’t let marketers worm their way too far into your brain. “I just spent like 60 bucks on sephora.com,” Rina admits. “I'm not against buying stuff and enjoying it, just don't buy all in on it.”
Great advice. I think I’ll go enjoy a non-organic banana now.
If you’ve enjoyed these last two essays, you should definitely go ahead and order The Gospel of Wellness. You won’t regret it.
For this week’s members-only thread, I’ll let you all have at it on all things “wellness.” After my two newsletters, I want to know: what resonated with you? And what’s your relationship like with “wellness?” Don’t forget, becoming a member supports what I do. It starts at $7/mo. If you want in and can’t afford it right now, email me and I’ll hook you up.
What I’m Reading: Loved this newsletter from S. Mitra Kalita in Charter about “How the Pandemic Made Caregiving the Newest Workplace Identity.” I am 100% for more caregiver ERGs and resources dedicated to supporting this group!
A Great Idea: I recently read in a local Facebook group about a woman who has a friend who’d been through a tough year. This friend has no plans on the horizon to marry or have kids, but after all the wedding and baby gifts this friend has given, the FB poster wanted to throw her a “baccalaureate” party to celebrate her recent graduation from grad school. This is so feminist, I love this so much, and let’s throw each other parties for things other than weddings and babies.
Join My Network? I’m doing more on Linkedin these days, so if you are also active on that platform, feel free to follow me there.
Join us for our members-only hangout THIS FRIDAY! This month's topic will be a casual "Ask Me Anything" with moi, Katherine. Is anyone else's fall schedule feeling kinda overloaded? Let's decompress before the sugar high of Halloween weekend and have the relaxed feminist mom hangout we all need and deserve. We can talk all things Double Shift newsletter, you can share a current quandary, you can ASK EACH OTHER things, you can give me feedback on the membership program or things you'd like me to cover....you can ask me what kind of car I drive (this was a real question from a previous AMA) or we can just shoot the shit. Come on, let's hang out. OCT 28th at 2pm EST. Members will also get an email reminder and a google calendar invite. If you want in on this kind of fun, don't forget to join!