We all have our coping mechanisms, some more productive than others. Lately I’ve found a perverse form of escapism by scrolling through the Instagram feeds of wellness influencers — intuitive nutritionists, adaptogenic alchemists, plant-based-lifestyle evangelists — to see how well they’re doing now.
In a word, they are glowing. Miranda Kerr, the model turned organic beauty entrepreneur, is posing with a bitten apple in a leafy yard and optimizing her quarantine by “spending extra time on my skin care routine and doing a daily mask.” Jordan Younger, who blogs as the Balanced Blonde, is reporting from the midst of a 14-day “water fast,” advising her followers to “go inward” as “this time on earth is happening FOR us and not TO us.” And Amanda Chantal Bacon, a lifestyle guru who sells earthy supplements through her company Moon Juice, is ensconced in a white bathrobe, cradling a mug in one hand and an infant in the other, her beatific gaze framed by a luxe tumble of hair.
The caption is riveting. Bacon has assembled a menagerie of emoji — toadstool, ringed planet, garlic bulb, DNA double-helix, lathered bar of soap, the yin and yang symbol — suggesting a sordid congress between the scientific and the mystical. She proffers her wisdom as an “immunomodulation enthusiast,” counseling against “sugar, fighting, alcohol, fear, processed foods, isolation and stagnation” and instead pushing liposomal vitamin C, acupuncture, broth, one-minute cold showers and the consumption of various adaptogens — a category of herbal supplements that claim to protect the body against stressors, which Moon Juice grinds into dusts and sells for $38 per 1.5 ounce jar.
There’s nothing like a pandemic to clarify the distinction between wellness and actual health. Our collective health is, most would agree, not so good. But through the logic of wellness branding, this situation can represent not just a loss of lives and livelihoods, but an opportunity. With the right motivational texts and quasi-medicinal products, well-positioned individuals are empowered to recast their quarantine as a self-actualization incubator, a chance not just to fend off the virus itself but to achieve their peak physical, mental and spiritual forms.
There is something ghastly about these efforts. Even when a pandemic is not raging, the very idea of a person advertising a 14-day fast makes me want to call the police. Yet the wellness evangelists have intuited a real paradox in this moment: As our health care system buckles under the strain of the virus, and citizens are isolated at home, self-care has never felt more urgent.
The virus has the power to kill the people it has infected, and to instill stress, grief, loneliness and despair in the people it has not. “The anxiety is what is most oppressive here,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a recent briefing. Lifestyle brands invite us to regain a sense of control, if only over our nutritional intake, hygienic practices and apartment interiors.
In the past few weeks, it seems as if the entire internet has pivoted to wellness. Actors have transformed into home-cooking instructors; pop stars are leading meditations; fashion bloggers are hawking sponsored loungewear. The showbiz couple Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon have rolled out a podcast, “Staying In with Emily and Kumail,” about adapting to indoor life with the help of a Nintendo Switch. The public is seeking self-care tips from Cuomo’s PowerPoint presentations and from a loner who has lived in an abandoned mining town for 50 years. I am doing yoga for the first time ever, ending every day by bowing my head and whispering “namaste” to my virtual instructor.
These coronavirus self-help guides offer tips on how to maintain mental health and relationships under quarantine. But some wellness practitioners are reaching further.
Everyone from Gwyneth Paltrow to Tom Brady is pushing an “immune support” supplement, which sure seems to imply immunity from the virus. Kerr was recently publicly shamed for sharing a “virus protection” guide from a “medical medium” who credits himself as the leader of “the global celery movement.” And Bacon was dinged for posting an “immunity” guide that intermingled hand-washing tips with Moon Juice products like Power Dust and Spirit Dust.
With just a feeble tweak of messaging, however, these same influencers have solicited praise for their epidemic response. Moon Juice is running a coronavirus giveaway on its Instagram, shipping off “immuno packs” to people who deliver groceries or work in nursing homes; Kerr recently donated a bunch of her brand’s “vitamin C” face serums to health care workers at the Ronald Reagan U.C.L.A. Medical Center, then shared grateful posts from nurses on her feed.
With a firm command of the woo-woo lexicon, a brand is capable of capitalizing on the crisis without saying anything at all. The pièce de résistance of coronavirus branding is perhaps this Moon Juice post from March 24, which offers a cosmic perspective on the situation: “This New Moon offers us a date with destiny. We are being called to birth new versions of ourselves, as the world morphs around us. Let us burn off resistance and dance with the unknown.” It concluded: “We are learning just how resilient we are.”
The text was followed by a recipe for a blend of hot milk and coffee with a dusting of Cordyceps, a “bioactive supershroom,” which Moon Juice claims is “said to increase drive, stamina, and reduce fatigue.”
The modern wellness movement in America arose in the 1960s as counterprogramming to the predominant idea of health. If health was framed as the prevention of disease, and managed through the medical system, wellness was pitched as an active, positive pursuit organized around the self. The idea was fused with productivity: Halbert Dunn, chief of the National Office of Vital Statistics, promoted the idea of “high-level wellness,” an “integrated method of functioning, which is oriented toward maximizing the potential of which the individual is capable.” And it could be spun into a whole lifestyle, complete with its own consumer accessories, from jogging gear to Jane Fonda videos, Lululemon pants to GOOP goops.
It’s easy to see how this idea migrated from its nominally countercultural beginnings into a luxury feature. When Audre Lorde wrote about self-care as “an act of political warfare” in the 1980s, she was talking about managing her cancer in the face of a system that was hostile toward her as a black lesbian. Health care remains a pricey commodity in America, but now wealthy people have co-opted “self-care” as a status symbol. They have the ability to appear not just healthy but radiantly well. Now, as the health care system flails in its coronavirus response — with basic needs like tests, masks and ventilators terrifyingly scarce — the promises of strange elixirs and fine powders feel more deranged and seductive than ever.
Wellness content used to merely gesture at some kind of spiritual necessity, but it has now proved itself truly crucial. Moon Juice likes to say that it offers “self care for communal care,” and while it is ludicrous to imagine that spooning ground mushroom into one’s coffee benefits one’s community in any way, in this case it borders on being technically correct. Public health legitimately relies on the efforts of each individual to cope in isolation, and if it helps to lace a beverage with mushroom powder, then great. The optimism of this content borders on the delusional, but we have been told to keep our spirits up. Wellness may be fundamentally self-absorptive, but we can be forgiven for gazing at our own navels when there’s not much else for us to look at.
Still, there is something disquieting about the slick translation of the crisis into the logic of branding. When a fleet of lifestyle bloggers turned a public health warning into a synergistic exercise — they each held up a sign in flowery influencer script, collectively informing their audiences to “Stay home for the people you love. Be kind! Wash your hands. Let’s flatten the curve!” — they probably thought they were using their platforms for good. But they were also helping to reaffirm the reorganization of community under their various cults of personality.
We are living in an upside-down time where the president of the United States is promoting unproven virus cures on television, but Paltrow appeared in a protective mask on Instagram more than a month before the C.D.C. recommended that everyone put them on. Health may be scarce, but wellness is still in stock.