Are We Blind To Our Privilege In The Wellness World?

Since I left my job in conventional medicine in 2007, I’ve contributed and participated in the wellness industry as a thought leader and also a consumer of wellness services and products. After hanging up my shingle outside the system, I had a cash-based integrative medicine practice- because I wanted a whole hour with my patients and insurance wouldn’t even cover my overhead, much less give me a salary if I accepted managed care reimbursement. I was always uncomfortable with the idea that my services were a luxury good but felt helpless to practice good medicine any other way. You might say I sold out some of my social justice ethics- but I didn’t see another way to make a living without the moral injury that was making me suicidal in the hospital systems.

Once I became a bit of an unwitting spokesperson in this world, I started looking around me- and what I witnessed was so vastly different than my experience as a conventional medicine doctor who worked in inner city and immigrant populations on the San Diego border, as well as with wealthy socialites in La Jolla.

Unlike public health clinics or hospital services, almost all alternative medicine services and wellness products are expensive cash-pay luxuries. No insurance covers supplements or herbs. Yoga memberships are pricey. Organic food at “Whole Paycheck” could break the bank for many people.  Cutting edge trauma therapies have cost me a fortune over the past few years. Meditation retreats and other wellness workshops- expensive. Green juice and cleanse products- oh my.

And don’t even get me started about Lulu Lemon pants and other “wellness” fashion or the New York Times doing fashion articles about “what to wear when you meditate.” Or the cost of spiritual tourism to places like Peru or Bali or India or Lourdes- or before he went to jail- John of God in Brazil.

Then I start getting invited to speak at conferences where 90% of the audience is white and 70-80% of them are women. The tables of products for sale include thousand dollar crystals and pricey EMF blockers and culturally appropriated Indigenous clothing, sacred objects, and sage, as well as jewelry with sacred geometries on it for hundreds or even thousands of dollars. There are scores of expensive aromatherapy oils and superfoods and raw chocolate, and as a speaker, I get bags of swag; free, allegedly so I’ll blog about the products, which I don’t.

When I look around, I see the “beauterati”- bodies glowing with “good vibes” and tight abs, packaged in high end yoga gear, dosed up on a hundred supplements, faces Botoxed to tight perfection and decorated with organic face products so pure you can eat them. The hair is colored and coifed, breasts enhanced, nails manicured with French tips, and lots of yoga butts.

At many of these conferences, I didn’t feel comfortable putting on a bathing suit to show my aging un-enhanced mama bod, even though I regularly swim au natural at naked hot springs in California. Although I’m usually fairly comfortable in my imperfect but healthy body, around this kind of crowd, I feel body shame, as if all my imperfections out me as some kind of wellness failure.

This is not to say there’s anything wrong with all of this. If people want to prioritize lengthy workouts, plastic surgery, beauty regimens, supplements, vegan food, and fashion, more power to ’em. I do not judge people who prioritize their health in this way; if anything, I admire it. It takes discipline and commitment to make your health such a priority. I don’t have any beef with this.

The part that makes me cringe is when the wellness crowd fails to see what a privilege it is to even have the option to make wellness your priority.

Let’s just say these are all signs of extreme privilege. All of these beauty and wellness interventions are expensive.  What triggers me is not the choices people in this wellness world make; it’s that they seem to think this way of being, getting or staying well is scalable and can be applied to everyone.

Now, I’m one to talk. Aside from plastic surgery, Botox, or hair coloring (I’ve decided not to try to hide that I’m a 52 year old mom,) I’ve indulged in and benefited from all these interventions. But I’m also the first to cop to my privilege. Of all the privileges one can have, I have ALL but one of them (I’m not male.) I didn’t choose this and I didn’t earn it, but I’m very aware that it gives me access to health-inducing treatments (like IFS therapy) that many cannot access or afford.

What triggers me is not that some people take advantage of their privilege to prioritize optimal health. The trigger is around the blindness to privilege that seems built into this world, especially in the midst of a global pandemic. I’m not saying we shouldn’t leverage our privilege- those of us blessed to have it. I’m not saying we shouldn’t eat organic, drink green juice, take supplements, practice yoga, work out, or otherwise care for our bodies. I’m only saying we need to STOP assuming everyone has access or can afford to do the same. And we definitely need to resist assuming that vaccination is unnecessary because all 8 billion people on the planet just need to use these interventions to avoid disability or death from Covid (something that would make NO sense in India right now.)

I hear this from so many in the past year. “I don’t need to worry about Covid. All I have to do is take my immune boosting supplements, keep my vibe high, shun fear, eat healthy, work out, stay slim, and my beautiful body will keep me safe if I do get Covid.”

I’m not denying that this may be true. Certainly, we have lots of cases of perfectly healthy people who died of Covid or now are Covid long haulers, so devoting yourself to wellness is certainly no guarantee of skating through the pandemic without winding up disabled- or dead. But assuming you DO skate through because your wellness practices have left your body in good shape, I’m only asking us to practice some empathy and sensitivity for those who can’t.

Think of all the people working three essential work jobs and living in close quarters where sheltering in place is not an option- nor is quarantining if someone in the family gets infected. Think of the people with no disposable income, the ones getting their food from food banks this year because the moms had to leave the work force in order to tend to the kids who are doing virtual school. Think of the marginalized and oppressed, the disabled, the Indigenous tribes hard hit by Covid. Think of the traveling nurses, hopping from one outbreak hot spot to the next without a minute for self care.

Instead of demonizing or pointing fingers at the obese, diabetic, hypertensive, or elderly masses of high risk people, shaming them for their vulnerability, think of the link between all these conditions and poverty, colonization, systemic racism and/or severe trauma. Think about how they can’t afford to treat the traumas that might make them struggle to take good care of their health. Think about how little time they might have to work out, how little money they might have to pamper their bodies, how little access to organic food they might have in food deserts, how little support they might have to break addictive behaviors, how little role modeling or education they might have about how to eat healthy or do their trauma work or spiritual healing. I’m not saying we should pity these people. I’m saying we should LOVE these people and expand our circle of care and compassion to include them.

When we think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (putting all its shadow aspects to the side for a moment), we see that Self-actualization is at the top of the pyramid, an obvious privilege far above basic needs for survival, safety, and belonging. This doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with seeking Self-actualization. But we need to pull back and have a bird’s eye view on how much privilege is required to care about and prioritize such things.

Why should we do this? Because right now, way too many people in the wellness world severely lack empathy, sensitivity, or support for those with less privilege- and it HURTS. It doesn’t help to look with judgment, contempt, or smug superiority at an underprivileged obese person on disability who is scared about Covid and doesn’t understand or is angry about why some people are vaccine hesitant. It doesn’t help to post memes promoting wellness products and services that only the privileged can afford, while suggesting that everyone would benefit from such interventions.

I’m all for transforming health care so that all these wellness interventions (minus the plastic surgery and deforming beauty regimens) are accessible to anyone who needs it. I’m actively working to democratize and make spiritual healing and trauma therapy accessible to anyone who wants it. We have lots of work to do.

But until we do it, let us be kind to those with less privilege. Let us be careful not to body shame or Covid shame anyone who is not able to prioritize the cost and time commitment wellness interventions require. Let us always think of the impact these shaming micro-aggressions can have on those who are struggling and don’t have the option of leveraging privilege to be healthier the way some can.

I’m not saying not to promote wellness for the privileged. Let us just do so with disclaimers, naming our privilege and no longer being blind to it nor assuming that what we promote applies to all equally. And if you’re lucky enough to be among the privileged and healthy, let us recognize that the world will be a more beautiful, loving and fair world if we leverage our privilege to move beyond the self-absorption that can hinder the wellness industry and devote ourselves to making sure we promote social justice, health equity, and wellness for all.

To discuss sensitive issues like this in a safe way using creativity, trauma healing, and spirituality, join Healing With The Muse, where we’re making an effort to make healing accessible, scalable, and more socially just, all while building out our non-profit Heal At Last. Internal Family Systems (IFS) founder Dick Schwartz, PhD will be our special guest June 1. You won’t want to miss this one!