I’m Finally Giving in to My Wellness Obsession
04.16.18

I

am a young woman living in downtown Manhattan in 2018, which puts me precisely at the juncture of the wellness movement and brick-and-mortar retail. I am both judgmental and indulgent, which makes my relationship with wellness — and the corresponding imported horsehair foot scrubbers for toe-callous removal, sold locally — somewhat complicated. I try to maintain a degree of perspective and self-awareness as much as possible, but at times, the contemporary miasma can smell as overwhelmingly appealing as a chocolate chip cookie from Levain.

This happens every time I walk into a wellness store. I’m not talking about the type of hippie-oriented supermarkets I grew up with in Northern California, where couples in hiking boots rifle through bulk bins of nutritional yeast and old beans. I am referring to shops like the one on my block in the West Village, aimed at convincing women like me that we could have happier, more peaceful lives, for the small investment of $96-plus-tax in a trendily packaged bottle of CBD oil. In such shops, one can find no shortage of colorful, appealing substances with labels that promote a lack of toxins, from lip gloss made of Moringa, to emollients formulated solely to soften one’s pubic hair (don’t worry — they’re gluten-free), to $28 jars of stone-ground coconut butter.

(Many elements of these products have been appropriated from long and meaningful cultural lineages, which sometimes end up paraphrased onto dusty signs in back corners of display cases.)

I’ve tried them all. At first timidly and guiltily — a dab of an essential oil here, a swipe of natural deodorant there — and then more and more rapidly, like the Grinch raiding Whoville on Christmas Eve, sweaty and trembling with excitement. In recent months, things have escalated. One day, I spent hours tracing an internet wormhole (the computer screen reflecting off of my face, which was slick with various tea tree oils) to locate the source of the perfect Dry Brush, sworn by wellness gurus to stimulate my lymphatic system — which sounded like a very important system! Another day, I ran a full-scale calculation to determine how many weeks I’d have to eat leftover soup to save up for an at-home microcurrent facial toner.

It was this kind of obsessive, unchecked behavior that catapulted me headlong into adaptogens.

Adaptogens are natural substances (anything from ginseng to herbs to multiple types of mushrooms) that are thought to promote bodily resistance to stressors, each with unique healing properties. They’ve been used for centuries in ancient traditions — Ginseng, for example, is a mainstay of Chinese herbal medicine, and Ashwagandha has been part of the Indian Ayurvedic cannon for thousands of years — and they have been for sale at the wellness store on my block for approximately 36 months.

On a recent foray into said shop, I couldn’t help but trot after the dewy-faced sales associate as she glided over to the attractive blue jars of adaptogen powders, rattling off their names as if possessed by the spirit of Gwyneth herself: Ashwagandha, Chaga, Reishi, Rhodiola, and so on. I stood mesmerized as she espoused potential benefits — reduced anxiety, diminished inflammation, longer and glossier hair, clearer skin, immune system “boosting” — and I returned home with several types. Over the past few weeks, I’ve taken to dosing up regularly alongside my morning tea, often with the supposedly relaxing Reishi, occasionally with the productivity-branded Rhodiola, and always with the one I was told might make my hair prettier, He Shou Wu.

Is it working? I hate to sound like a wellness expert, but that all depends out your outlook.

In 2017, The New Yorker ran a piece contextualizing the recent boom in skincare mania — or as the writer Jia Tolentino described it, “the Sisyphean hobby of trying to halt the effects of time on one’s body” — as a means of grappling with a frightening and capricious geopolitical climate that makes it hard to believe in a stable future. The article is called “The Year That Skin Care Became a Coping Mechanism.” At the time, I couldn’t help but think that while the sentiment was interesting (and helpful for rationalizing behavior I viewed as fairly outrageous), at the end of the day, my own motivations looked less like those of Sisyphus and more like those of Narcissus.

But in recent months, I’ve come around to Tolentino’s idea. Maybe it’s just the Reishi talking, but the harder I’ve leaned into this particular brand of self-care, the more my personal wellness-ideology has evolved. I can appreciate why the daily act of consuming a spoonful of earthy-tasting powder that’s supposed to even out my skin-tone makes me feel more in control, and how that improves my life in some small but not immaterial way. And if my intentions for participating in such rituals are inherently narcissistic, then so be it. For example, when I wake to an incendiary tweet from the President of the United States, instead of spiraling completely to the point of uselessness, I’ll incur a quick terror/rage blackout, then simply get up, walk into the kitchen, and engage in my daily practice of stirring something that science says may or may not actually work as a tranquilizer into a mug of warm almond milk.

It’s not a gratuitous indulgence to feel a modicum of control in this world.

I don’t mean to give myself a pass when it comes to purchasing products that are essentially appropriated, re-branded in jewel tones, and marked way up. My self-care-product odyssey is still very much underway (and also involves universally accessible tools like dramatic breathing exercises on the subway), and will require balancing my trend engagement alongside actions and ideas that I deem more personally meaningful. I also plan to seek out wellness products that empower their ingredients’ heritages, like argan oil from fair trade supporter Arganic, which works exclusively with a farm in Morocco that employs and fairly compensates Berber women.

In the meantime, I hope my visits to the wellness store won’t nudge me off the deep end entirely. But if they do, I’m sure there’s a great adaptogen that will help me re-center. And if all else fails, I’ll just move to L.A.

Ella Quittner is a writer based in New York City. You can follow her on Instagram here.

Collages by Louisiana Mei Gelpi. 

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  • Sarah Loftus

    All of this. There’s something that makes me feel so in control when I take my supplements, or make it to the after work hot yoga class. It’s like, if I can’t get a handle on all of these other moving parts in my life at least I’m in control of this one part.

  • Jackie

    This is so great! What a well written, hilarious, self-deprecating/aware piece. Resonates so much with me! I recognize I’m absurdly desperately following all the latest it-items in the wellness trend, but can’t stop myself because it makes me so happy and feel more in control when so much in the current world makes me feel out of control. Love this!

  • First of all, you’re hilarious. Cackled at the “Grinch on Christmas Eve” comparison because I can SO relate!! I’ve been dipping my toe into the whole wellness thing and trying not to spiral into Goop territory but the g-dang marketing of it all makes it so hard to resist.

    Secondly, a moment of appreciation of the collages by Louisiana. So beautiful!!

    • Louisiana Mei Gelpi

      thank youuuuu

      • Sadie

        Yes! I Love the collages too!! <3 <3

  • Suzan

    These collages are amazing!! Wonderful work, Louisiana!

    • Louisiana Mei Gelpi

      thank you!!

  • Jaq

    I love this so much!!! It made me laugh out loud several times and completely resonated with me. And is so well written. Kudos!

  • Lorna

    I thought I was peculiar in wanting to use wellness products with ingredients that I can ‘almost’ eat. Obsession, no! Not after reading this article. I’m not alone. Bravo 👏🏽

  • “I’ll incur a quick terror/rage blackout” haahahaha 100%.

  • Poires Poires

    “It’s not a gratuitous indulgence to feel a modicum of control in this world.”

    Not sure how this is control when it’s essentially the result of successful marketing. Aggressively gendered marketing that, as the author notes, is slapping “ancient Chinese medicine” on an incredibly expensive product of dubious effectiveness to sell it (and the vast majority of folks selling this stuff are rich and white). Wellness is an *industry* and a lot of us are falling for it while thinking we’re being subversive by engaging in so-called self care. Such is capitalism and cooptation. If all these products were widely available and/or inexpensive (and I know they are in some non-white communities in America, and in the non-Western world, but that isn’t what the author is talking about), would we be so hype over them? Would that be the ‘self-care’ discussed here if it wasn’t ‘indulgent’? Honestly, I don’t think so. And I’m not even going to talk about how much wellness is covertly tied to conventional standards of beauty…

    (And full disclaimer: I’ve totally been a sucker for this shit too, but have realized that buying expensive products in pursuit of wellbeing primarily begets a neverending chase toward wellness that involves buying more expensive products. There are so many ways to achieve wellness and feel control over your life without buying being involved.) `

    • LS

      I don’t want to speak for the author, but I don’t think it’s about actual control so much as doing something (anything) that you can manage to convince yourself makes a difference. It reminds me of parents who desperately want to make sure their children grow up happy and healthy even though there are so many things outside of their control. They end up with all sorts of gadgets and advice and conflicting information because there isn’t actually anything you can do to prevent a freak accident from happening to your child, but you just need to do something to tell yourself that it makes a difference. We can’t actually ensure well being but we’re worried about it so we do whatever we think might help us, even if the reason we think that is just successful marketing.

      • Poires Poires

        ….but what we’re actually doing is engaging in behavior that reifies the racist (cultural appropriation), sexist (get glowing skin and shiny hair and a flat tummy!), classist ( $$$ supplements) structures that has filled us with stress (we’re trying to alleviate) in the first place.

        The parents in your example can forgo the internet gurus and the gadgets and just, you know, spend time with their children? Did happy and healthy children not exist before the internet and networked technology? (And honestly, I’m not sure what parents you’re talking about…I had no such experience, nor do I know anyone else who has…) Just like I can forgo the Beauty Dust and the jade roller and the expensive serum, and just, like, talk a walk.

        This whole “I’m self aware of how this is problematic so that somehow excuses that this is problematic” is, well, a psych game that’s problematic. Ironically, the Trump administration is probably the best thing that could have happened for the wellness industry.

        • LS

          I’m not sure I made my point very clearly, because I agree with your first statement.The things we do to try to feel control often don’t actually give us any control. Usually when we have that need to feel in control, it’s because there is something going on that we can’t control. So we do something else that we think gives us control just to feel like we’re doing something.

          The parent example wasn’t about internet or gadgets specifically. My grandma talking about how she was told to put her first child to sleep on their stomach to prevent SIDS, then told to put the second on their back to prevent SIDS, then the third back on their stomach, etc. is another example of the same thing. Parents who are scared of their child dying want to be able to do something to prevent it. We don’t actually know how to prevent SIDS (completely) but we do a lot of things to try to prevent it because it feels better than doing nothing.

          I was agreeing with your point that it’s not about actually having control, it’s about successful marketing. So much of marketing is about playing to our fears and that feeling of not having control. I think that’s why it’s so easy to create these huge industries around things like wellness (or parenting), because those are things that have a lot of factors outside of our control. And there’s a lot of money to be made from that.

          • Poires Poires

            ahhh…I see. I wish this article had that level of reflection in it. It kinda feels like it’s just perfunctorily scratching the surface of all of that.

          • Jane Thornton

            I think the author does reflect on this. She notes she does things like “breathing exercises on the subway” (accessible to all!)—it’s just not the main point of the article.

        • BK

          I need “just like, take a walk” printed on a t shirt immediately if not sooner

    • BScrivner

      Shopping is not actually a creative act.

    • Chess

      Because we’re worth it!!!

    • Elly

      Completely agree, it’s disconcerting how much buying a lot of crap is sold back to us as some kind of subversive act.

      I think to add to everything you said in this and your subsequent comments, part of the problem is also alienation and a breakdown of social life. If a lot of this is taking place on social networks, people communicate in spite of these, not so much thanks to them. I’ve noticed that the times I start to fall for some bullshit is when I’m feeling a bit cornered by life and isolated, or else when there’s something big going on in my life that I can’t fully control. And for most of us, we don’t have the exact problem in this article because we can’t afford that problem. Instead, we covet the actually expensive stuff and make do with cheaper substitutes, that we probably buy more of as a result, because we’re not getting what we want.

      A bit of self-awareness about it is a good thing, but it can lead to feeling somehow like a more self-aware consumer… while still buying as much shit, just being less self-critical about it because you pre-empted that stage.

      I also totally agree with your points about race, class and sexism, since so many beauty products involve taking something that people have been using, cheaply, for centuries, and marketing it to a western audience in a form that’s adapted to western habits of rubbing this stuff into your skin or making lattes out of it, expropriating it from the communities that have always used it (it becomes too expensive for them). And there are trends, so it becomes this destructive rampage from one product to the next, one neighborhood to the next, one country to the next, as they become trendy. And you get a group of relatively well-to-do people talking about an ingredient, a cultural product, or a place like they discovered it and it belongs to them. Plus if you had a more-than-superficial engagement with that thing yourself, you can never win against people who can afford to buy whatever is involved (whether it’s a 96-dollar moisturizer or, like, plane tickets to Tokyo or Helsinki just to go shopping), because they have first-hand experience, however superficial.

      Even chocolate is a great example – pretty everyday stuff, but like, a chocolate bar, a product coming directly from colonialism and involving close to actual slavery in its production (and at one time plenty of literal slavery), bears no ressemblance to what South American people would have associated with cocoa for hundreds of years. And now you can buy cacao nibs at an inflated price as a wellness trend – so like, only if you can fork over ten bucks for a small bag can you taste the actual bean.

  • the fox forgot

    How meta! I’m in the middle of the (very funny) wellness satire Fitness Junkie and the book has namedropped Man Repeller a few times so far 🍊

    Gotta love capitalism for… capitalizing on everything, man.

    • Cristina

      Fitness Junkie was so funny and actually 100% how I imagine NYC to be lol

    • Lia

      That’s actually how I found this site. Read the book and wondered if it was a real thing.

  • Kayla Sweeney

    Ok but Fur Oil is the shizz!

  • Kubla

    As an older woman it’s like, time heals all wounds. Seriously. And meditative activity is very calming. Repeating patterns that are lovely. Why not reach for the heavens, even if doing it at a wellness store… it’s a start.

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  • Emily M

    I love this. Even though I will never buy Ashwagandha again! Firmly on the collagen peptide trend, though.

    • CM

      As an Ayurvedic practitioner, I can say that ashwagandha is an herb that should NOT be recommended across the board. It is specifically suited only to certain constitutions, and for some people will cause much more harm than good.

  • Jane Thornton

    This piece is amazing and so funny. Can someone recommend a natural shampoo?

  • Sara

    Can anyone tell me the difference between Reishi and Chaga???

    • nicolacash

      Different mushrooms = different benefits

  • nicolacash

    This might sound naive but I was completely unaware adaptogen powders was part of the ‘wellness’ trend. I buy mine in whatever label/brand from Amazon, purely because I like to do anything I can to help my immune system since I hate getting sick.

  • Walter Dunn

    Any spots in BK people recommend for adaptogens? Preferably Cobble Hill or BK Heights area?

    • Ella Quittner

      Hi, Walter! One place I love close to the Brooklyn Heights area is Radicle Herb Shop, at 394 Atlantic Avenue. They have a great “bulk bin” style set-up where you can get adaptogens, supplements, etc relatively inexpensively. I can be found there interrogating the nice salespeople about the benefits of various obscure seeds…

  • Claire Torro

    what a pleasure to read! quippy, intelligent, a little more relevant than i’d like to admit… can’t wait for her next post!!

  • Estelle

    Acknowledging your privilege doesn’t give you an automatic free pass to keep engaging with ‘problematic’ capitalist/social structures

  • Brooke Laland

    Such a well written and hilarious article. I laughed out load multiple times. Thanks for such a thoughtful piece author!

  • EmKay

    So funny and poignant. I work in advertising, so I’m completely aware of the marketing tactics I’m falling for when i indulge in “self-care products”, but as long as I can afford it, search for accessible tools and find alternative products that support small businesses and women around the world, I’ll keep “indulging.” True, women may have been using argan oil and the like for centuries, but would I have found out about it if overpriced boutiques didnt start selling them? No. Can I learn about it from a boutique, buy it from a boutique, then later find more sustainable, ethical options? Yes.

  • Madisen Sage

    CAP beauty forever. 💕