On Belle Gibson, Jess Ainscough, And The Inherent Bullshit Of The Wellness Aesthetic

New Age for the Instagram era.

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Wellness is New Age for the Instagram era. Amethysts and incense have been replaced with kale and balayage; tie-dye and velvet with bamboo cotton and designer yoga pants. It’s the alternative lifestyle but with better design. It is a movement defined by its minimalist, feminine aesthetic – pastel homewares, bright vegetable smoothies, slim legs in clean, expensive exercise wear.  It’s not really about health – health does not have to be beautiful, thin and tidy in designer crop tops, but wellness does. It’s an aesthetic of wealth, a sort of gentle, palatable capitalism. There’s a dizziness to its beauty: it is light, weightless, transcendent. It probably feels this way thanks to the restricted calories as much as the calm from appropriated Eastern meditation.

Aesthetically, conventional medicine does not “work”. Actual medical medicine doesn’t make the best Instagram subject. Medicine uses copious packaging and leaves unattractive bits of aluminium on your minimalist timber bedside table. It is made with chemicals that have long, indecipherable names with numbers that just don’t sound organic. Medicine is administered in cold, sterile environments, with walls painted in ugly sedated hues and smells like disinfectant.

At its simplest, wellness posits that natural is beautiful, and beautiful is good. A scroll through its dreamlike instascape teaches us that beauty is healthy. Look at this stunning quinoa beet salad, look at these berries, how can this not be better than a chemical cocktail in a capsule?

A movement that rejects science and embraces a value system based largely on aesthetics is bound to be engulfed by capitalism. I don’t know if Belle Gibson deliberately sought to financially exploit cancer sufferers or if it just happened, but it’s not surprising that it did. The Whole Pantry is a beautiful production – the book would have looked great on your blond Norwegian coffee table. It promises beauty and hope, simplicity and life. The answers are right here in the warmth of your home; just open the pantry.

The rejection of conventional medicine in favour of a vague, though stubborn, belief in the power of leafy greens demonstrates the same desperate logic as conspiracy theorists. Wellness advocates seek simple answers to problems that confound them, while the beautiful filters through which we view their beliefs give the movement respectability not afforded to UFO spotters or 911 truthers.

At its most extreme, wellness claims it can cure cancer. Cancer is often not curable – this is a terrible, upsetting fact. It is senseless how many people die from this disease. Conspiracy theorists crave order from chaos – they want a truth that makes more sense than life just being a random, unfair mess. It is much easier to believe that if you just eat all the right foods you can survive, rather than rolling the dice with a selection of invasive and painful treatments. An unwell person cannot be blamed for buying the answers sold by charlatans – it is in our nature to find hope wherever we can – but the people who espouse wellness cures are selling conspiracy theories that endanger lives.

The logic seems to go that the enactment of wellness, the practice of its minimalist and beautiful obsession with the “natural”, will yield what it promises. But what happens when it doesn’t work? What if eating well and meditating changes nothing?

The late Jess Ainscough was diagnosed in 2008 with epithelioid sarcoma. Unfortunately, the best option available to her was a forequarter amputation – the removal of her arm and shoulder. Faced with a terrible decision, she chose the “natural healing” of Gerson therapy instead, a treatment with no scientific basis that her mother also used to try to fight her own fatal breast cancer years before. Gerson therapy involves a variety of supplements and daily coffee enemas. Jess also ate clay to “detox” her body.

Epithelioid sarcoma is rare and relatively slow to progress. Jess survived it for seven years and documented her journey on her blog as the Wellness Warrior. She looked healthy, athletic, and photogenic. She became extremely good at marketing herself and her journey, and quickly built up a formidable audience. Jess was both a follower and advocate of wellness, which makes her story all the more tragic.

Perhaps due to her cancer’s indolence, it must have seemed like Gerson therapy was working. But inevitably her condition deteriorated, and her final blog posts revealed she eventually returned to conventional medicine and was consulting an oncologist. It was too late, and she passed away this year. Her blog is now empty, save for a tribute from her family, and her YouTube channel has been cleared of all videos.

The lack of substance in the wellness movement could be forgiven if all it offered was its pleasant aesthetics, if it was just another style, like normcore or health goth. But its insistence on “healing” and its bizarre, inconsistent obsession with the “natural” leaves it ripe for exploitation by the Belle Gibsons of this world.

Wellness is a privileged performance in an age of high aesthetics and low certainty. By the logic of wellness advocates, health can be seen, and it is beautiful.

Jessica Alice is co-director of the National Young Writers Festival and poetry editor of Scum. She tweets @jessica_alice_. Feature image via The Whole Pantry.