I read an article in the New York Times last week titled “Worshipping the False Idols of Wellness.” It was written by a female doctor named Jen Gunter, and the premise is that the wellness industry is basically targeting and exploiting women with harmful and foolish products and practices. While I appreciate the intent to protect women from fads and dangerous medical alternatives, the article rubbed me the wrong way. Take a minute to read it.
There were several reasons I found this article to be so upsetting. I mean, the title alone made me bristle—the subtitle immediately bombards us with the word “nonsense,” and uses deliberately diminutive and smug quotation marks around the word “toxins,” as if to discredit the very existence of toxic materials in our bodies and environment. Most obviously, it was utterly dismissive of using any type of natural medicine or homeopathy to improve one’s health. One could almost hear a sneer accompanying the word wellness. (The “theater of wellness”? C’mon.)
Apparently “inflammation” and “detox” are also nonsense ideas that are worthy of immediate discrediting, as evidenced by more passive-aggressive punctuation. The author overtly mocks people who choose “clean” food and beauty products. Because the food and makeup industries are so pure and safe and worthy of our trust?. . . Hmmm. And yet she paradoxically insists that doctors want us to get our micronutrients from food. In the same breath she touts the importance of nutrition for health and then mocks those who are attempting to clean up their diets by avoiding harmful foods. Doctor, you can’t have it both ways.
Secondly, I find articles that question the ethics and efficacy of a particular field are best written by those in the field; I would prefer that someone who practiced alternative medicine or wellness write about unethical practices or areas in which progress is needed. Similarly, I would find an article about the flaws of modern medicine to be more compelling coming from a medical doctor rather than a holistic guru. The voice of the opposition comes across as hostile hostile and self-righteous. In this article, the author’s obvious prejudices bled through in such a disrespectful way. My favorite books about health are often written by medical doctors who have embraced alternative and natural approaches to medicine.
Most personally, however, was the flood of shame/anger/embarrassment/outrage I experienced myself, as a person whose life has been changed dramatically due to my own, cough, wellness practices. When I went gluten free over a year ago, I wrote about my initial feelings of embarrassment upon requesting gluten free food and menus. It seemed so pretentious and trendy—how could I have succumbed to this fad I had mercilessly mocked prior to my own nutritional endeavors?
I had been let down by the doctors in my life in numerous ways over many years; finally taking charge of my own health and becoming an advocate felt . . . wait for it, here comes another buzzword . . . empowering. As I further adjusted my diet, read book after book, worked with a dietician and an Ayurvedic practitioner, and added supplements that my body responded to quickly, I felt better than I ever had before.
And yet I was still slightly embarrassed. I had taken the woo-woo path that surely no educated, sarcasm goddess like myself could feel good about. But I did feel good. I do feel good. In addition to losing 30 pounds, I was able to control my acid reflux and stop taking my medication altogether. On the matter of medication, Dr. Gunter writes, “Belief in medical conspiracy theories, such as the idea that the pharmaceutical industry is suppressing “natural” cures, increases the likelihood that a person will take dietary supplements.”
In my case, I took acid reflux medication—PPIs to be specific—for 7 years. Being on these medications long-term can be devastating to your gut health. You diminish your stomach’s helpful hydrochloric acid, and it can damage your gut lining. As a result, I wasn’t absorbing nutrients and was extremely iron deficient, and had to work hard to restore my gut health. Certainly, there are times when regular, daily medication is absolutely needed, but there are also situations where taking medications long term is not in your best interest. Perhaps it’s more appropriate to avoid black and white theories when discussing health? I digress.
Additionally, with my new “wellness” regimen I have more energy than I had in my 20s. I went an entire year without catching a cold, when, as the mother of two children and teacher of preschoolers, I previously had at least 4-5 a year, often in addition to sinus infections, bronchitis, and even influenza.
And wait, it gets worse! I regularly meditate and do yoga, and yes, I sometimes even use essential oils! I have made wellness a focal point of my life, and it has helped me in ways that not one doctor I have encountered ever did. And I’m done apologizing for that, and I refuse to be embarrassed anymore.
And that’s why articles like this, written by a clearly irrefutable “expert” (see, I can use hostile quotation marks, too) really push my buttons. They make women feel ashamed of trusting their own inner wisdom. They make it seem ignorant and foolish to incorporate ancient healing practices and natural solutions, as though the modern era of perfectly ethical and always well-rounded Western medicine is the only way.
What women really need is to be taken seriously, trusted, and respected. Writers and doctors like this need to learn that dismissive language and closed-mindedness is not the best way to serve women. We want our intuition and instincts to be honored.
Now I am not a wellness advocate who eschews modern medicine—if I had cancer, I would choose chemotherapy and radiation if that’s what my doctor recommended. When I am ill, I will go to the doctor. But that’s the whole point, isn’t it? Why make it seem that one way cannot exist with the other? Not all wellness folks hate doctors, or are anti-vaxxers or people who refuse medical treatment in favor of an alkalinizing foot bath. There is middle ground.
The author’s only concession that medical doctors have their limitations was in this meager paragraph: “We doctors can do more to provide factual information about hazardous substances, such as carcinogens and endocrine disrupting chemicals, in products and the environment from medically vetted sites with no products to sell, such as the National Cancer Institute and the Endocrine Society.”
Um, yes, yes you can do more. How about more than a paltry serving (pardon the pun) of nutrition in your training? How about a deeper comprehension of mental health? But for me to lump all medical doctors into the category of closed-minded ego-maniacs driven by Big Pharma would be to stoop to the same level as the author. In fact, my new family practice doctor is fantastic; she impressed me so much with her interest in nutrition and her encompassing whole health approach to medicine—she respected me and made it clear that there was room for many paths to health.
The author concludes with “Many people — women especially — have long been marginalized and dismissed by medicine, but the answer does not lie in predatory conspiracy theories, a faux religion or expensive magic.” She is absolutely correct that women have been marginalized and dismissed by medicine. And I have no doubt that there are some pretty wacky remedies and cures being hocked by less than honest people.
I would like to believe that Dr. Gunter is coming from a place of advocacy, that she genuinely wants to help women avoid being preyed upon by dishonest, greedy companies and individuals. I think she truly believes that the wellness industry is taking advantage of people and she wants to shed light on it. But to approach this supposed advocacy from such a harsh, dismissive vantage point is to alienate and belittle not only women, but an entire profession and industry.
There is room for overlap and understanding in the field of traditional medicine and alternative healing. Let’s not turn the medical and wellness communities into the family with opposing political views who cannot get through a Thanksgiving without lambasting each other, who are clearly destined to never see eye to eye, to never shift even a fraction of a degree in their understanding, never to acquiesce a point.
My life, and many other women’s lives, have been made better by a sound wellness practice. We have educated ourselves and found supplements, diets, rituals, and routines that improve our health and our lives. And we should not be demeaned for that. It’s yet another attack on women’s ability to discern; we have been questioning our own self-awareness and wisdom for so long and it’s becoming tiresome, particularly from a woman, a doctor, who could be an ally. We should all be advocates when it comes to how not just women, but all people are treated as consumers of products, foods, services, and medical treatment.
But we need to start with a respectful conversation that makes room for the possibility that maybe we don’t know everything there is to know. And that maybe women are not being guided down a foolish path when they choose to honor themselves, fight for their health, and trust their inner wisdom.
**This post is part of the Your Best Self, For Real series. Learn more here.