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.