What do you picture when you think about wellness? Perhaps yoga, smoothie bowls, a vegan diet, beautiful women?
Gwyneth Paltrow and her brand Goop is the epitome of it all, and there are thousands of others representing this lifestyle on social media, mainly white, thin women. These wellness figures inspire others to lead similar lives and offer advice on how to replicate their wholesome lifestyles. Sounds positive right? But a recent BBC documentary, The Greatest Insta Con, highlighted just how dangerous these influencers can be.
It followed the story of Belle Gibson, a young, beautiful, blonde Australian who, after being told she had four months to live, cured her inoperable brain cancer through food and lifestyle. She became one of Instagram’s first “super influencers”, with over 300,000 followers (small compared to today’s figures for many), who adored her and tried to mirror her lifestyle. She went on to have her own cookbook published by Penguin books, and an app, The Whole Pantry, developed and backed by Apple.
Among her fans were three women who were the focus of the documentary, which was told through their stories. First, Pixie, who at 19 became obsessed with healthy or ‘clean’ eating, largely because of Belle, and developed the eating disorder orthorexia (an unhealthy obsession with eating “pure” food). We also heard from Kylie, who tragically had cancer herself, and wasn’t seeing much progress with chemotherapy, so decided to stop medical treatment after discovering Belle.
And finally, Maxine, a university student with a chronic inflammatory disease. All of these women became obsessed with Belle’s story and lifestyle, believing they too could cure their health problems. She was the ultimate inspiration to them, and hundreds of thousands of others.
Eventually, journalists became sceptical about Belle, and it was revealed that she never had cancer. It was all one big lie. Belle was exposed, leaving her followers distraught, angry and humiliated. She was fined £240,000 by the Australian government and had to start a new life out of the public eye.
While Belle’s story is an extreme example, and justice was served, it’s not hard to find similar examples today. One of which is the Medical Medium, Anthony William, who has a whopping 3.3 million Instagram followers, numerous published books and makes bold claims about the healing properties of celery juice. Is he a qualified doctor? No, but somehow, he manages to sell his pseudoscience to millions of people.
Then there’s Gwyneth Paltrow and her lifestyle website Goop, which coincidentally has featured the Medical Medium before. It’s not just the ridiculous products the brand sells that are shocking (including a $75 “vagina-scented” candle; her vagina, to be exact), but also the claims she makes about food and diet.
She recently promoted a book on Instagram that she wrote the foreword for: Intuitive Fasting by ‘Dr’ Will Cole (again, not a medical doctor), which just about sums up the ridiculousness. Intuitive eating is an anti-diet culture that teaches you to stop counting calories, eat to fill your hunger cues, and eat what makes you feel happy. So to add restriction into the mix through fasting is completely contradictory.
A common theme between Belle, Gwyneth and Anthony, the Medical Medium, is that none of them really have any authority to be offering health and diet advice, and their primary goal is to make money, rather than help people. So why do so many people fall for it? It’s difficult to say exactly but what’s certain is that they are all allowed to have a huge platform without any kind of censorship. Instagram certainly doesn’t seem worried about the spread of misinformation.
Their authority is then strengthened by book deals by the likes of huge publication companies like Penguin, and apps developed and backed by Apple, like in Belle’s case. When huge companies help to publish these people, this reinforces the trust.
For vulnerable people, ‘wellness’ is very tempting. It’s seductive and intriguing. But ultimately, the problem is there is no definition of peak wellness, leaving people feeling guilty that they aren’t good enough because they aren’t leading the ‘perfect’ wellness lifestyle.
At best, these people feed into diet culture and perpetuate seemingly perfect, unattainable lives, and at worst, they lead people to develop eating disorders and stop lifesaving medical treatment in search of a ‘natural’ way.
If after reading this you feel inspired to follow people who dispel myths and misinformation around food and lifestyle, here are some accounts to follow:
Pixie Turner (yes, the same Pixie who once fell for Belle’s story): @pixienutrition.
Food Science Babe: @foodsciencebabe.