In December 2018, many months before Marianne Williamson entered our public and political consciousness, actress and lifestyle influencer Gwyneth Paltrow made headlines after she seemed to suggest that she was responsible for popularizing yoga as a wellness activity in the United States. “Forgive me if this comes out wrong,” Paltrow demurred, “but I went to do a yoga class in L.A. recently and the 22-year-old girl behind the counter was like, ‘Have you ever done yoga before?’ And literally I turned to my friend, and I was like, ‘You have this job because I’ve done yoga before.’”
Paltrow’s self-aggrandizing response isn’t completely wrong; for more than a decade, she has built a personal brand by urging other white women to eat, exercise, and live exactly as she does. She’s among a group of white well-to-do women (like Williamson) who have made self-help and “wellness,” arguably the newest euphemism for “skinny,” into a highly individualistic and often unethical billion dollar industry of aspiration. A minute or two spent browsing Goop.com offers a window into Paltrow’s vision of health: One can purchase a wide variety of luxury lifestyle products including a $15,000 gold dildo (now marked down to $11,500) and an $80 crystal-infused water bottle. One of the most popular items on the site is a dietary supplement dubbed “High School Genes”; priced at $90 for a 30-day supply, it’s billed as a “comprehensive nutritional regimen designed to provide intense support for normal glucose and energy metabolism, as well as cellular health.”
Goop also offers advice columns on sexual health, in many cases suggesting diets or enhancements that are not only prohibitively expensive, but also run directly counter to medical advice (google “jade vaginal egg” for a prime example). Goop’s ridiculous and often irresponsible recommendations have earned Paltrow consistent criticism for years, but she has stood firm, insisting that her exorbitantly priced products are simply an opportunity for consumers to exercise “autonomy over their health.” Paltrow’s ongoing success typifies the North American belief in health as a personal, individualistic enterprise—a consumer experience that can be bought, sold, and of course promoted on Instagram. It’s a symptom of the same phenomenon that in recent decades has fueled everything from anti-vaccine propaganda to essential-oil proselytizers to, yes, yoga and mindfulness devotees. This attitude toward health is deeply narcissistic, of course, and it is also dangerous.
Necropower and Health
In my research on wellness trends, I have discovered that Paltrow and Williamson are far from the first celebrities to introduce the United States to the individualistic, cost-prohibitive, and beauty-centered idea of health that yoga industries typify. As soon as celebrity product endorsements and cheap print media existed, so did a steady stream of wealthy white women—celebrities—whose bodies and therefore whose health or fitness routines inspired the masses, or at least those who could afford it. One of the earliest celebrities to endorse yoga-for-health, for example, was Norma Jean Mortenson, better known as Marilyn Monroe, who is said to have credited yoga-inspired exercise routines for her much-admired physique.
The earliest examples of aspirationally fit women’s bodies emerged well before Monroe, though, in the early 20th century, where the influence of film culture and modern dance elevated dancing (read: sexual) female bodies from the entertainment realms of vaudeville and burlesque. No longer base and bawdy, dance in colonial-cosmopolitan spaces like New York, London, and Paris was now art performed by well-bred white women like Ruth St. Denis and Louise Brooks—and in many cases it was an art built upon racist and Orientalist themes, often involving dancers who appeared in black- or brownface.
Ruth St. Denis performing in brownface in Yogi (1911) and Nautch (1908) debuted in Vienna. Courtesy New York Public Library
These dancers were also among the first to introduce consumer forms of exercise to the U.S., notably in Los Angeles. This is the circuit that brought us Jane Fonda in the 1970s-80s, Suzanne Somers in the 1990s, and today, Gwyneth Paltrow. Indeed, in the U.S. context, wealthy white woman wellness extends from Hollywood and is precisely how what was otherwise known as “New Age” became a commodified and now politicized identification known as “the yoga vote” in the United States.
In other words, there is a long, complicated history behind the sexualized construction of white, normative femininity and “healthy” bodies, which stretches from early dancer-actress-icons like Joan Crawford through the housewives looking to “relax” in the postwar era, to the insta-yogis we see today.
Taken as a whole, this history reveals how normalized the belief is that some people are healthy and therefore beautiful, and that their manner of living is the ideal to which all can and should aspire. Postcolonial scholars like Achille Mbembe, using Michel Foucault’s theory of biopower and biopolitics as a point of departure, have interrogated this notion, naming this phenomenon “necropolitics“— how certain bodies are understood as less deserving of health than others. Necropower, like biopower, is built upon colonial racism (and supported by its economic injustices). Necropower explains why we as a society readily accept and support the notion that some bodies deserve access to health and wellness while others (fat, disabled, minority/migrant etc.) do not.
After Eat, Pray, Love
Recent wellness fads—the YOLO/Instagram versions in particular—aren’t necessarily the result of celebrity exercise regimens or the media-fed desire for a “hot” body. In many ways, the 2006 bestselling self-help novel/travel diary by Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love, popularized a way of living that has since come to shape notions of beauty, health, and practices of womanhood in the U.S. context. Joining a larger body of work set in the global South in the post-9/11 era, the memoir particularly valorized yoga, but also alternative forms of medicine and “self-care” as a means by which white women could “find themselves” as well as claim their sexuality outside of the confines of marriage. Feminist scholars like Shefali Chandra have noted the capitalist and Orientalist logics at the heart of such engagements; “Skillfully navigating between twentieth-century imperial history, the rise of the War on Terror, and a barely contained obsession with Hindu female sexuality, each of these texts is driven by the conviction that India, and Indian women, will heal the mind and body of the white woman. India enables the American woman to cure herself” (Chandra 2014, 488). EPL was the book that launched the yoga-as-exercise craze—aided and abetted by consumer athleisure brands like Lululemon—repackaging an old Orientalist tale of white folks traveling to formerly colonized places to rejuvenate, feel sexy, and learn tolerance, but always on their terms, of course.
Since the advent of Instagram celebrity/influencer culture, this is the “take-what-I-want-and-call-it-#blessed” logic of leisure-wellness that underscores the steady onslaught of Instagram posts under the tags #selfcare, and which for all intents and purposes has demonstrated that black or brownface no longer requires face paint, just the vapid excuse of “good intentions” backed by all the monetary advantages of whiteness. In many ways, this is how health and wellness for white women operates as an extension of white supremacist and necropolitical thought, today often occluded by the reductive logics of “cultural appropriation.” These are the social logics which brought us preternaturally fit Madonna during her Ray of Light phase and today positions women like Williamson as heir apparent to the Eurocentric racial power dynamics that encourage white women to embrace self-indulgent consumer-driven ignorance and call it “enlightenment.”
To be sure, claims to “New Age culture” as something that can be bought or sold, taken on or off at will exposes the nefarious logics of American imperialism and its deathly, necropolitical impulses. And when aligned with so-called women’s issues, like access to healthcare, claims to feminism tend to excuse impact and instead center intentions. This mechanism, by which white women are taught to see themselves as perfect victims in turn feeds the self-centered rhetoric of “my best interest at any cost.” This is what many postcolonial feminists refer to as imperial feminism—a recognition that white women’s liberation has always come at the expense of black, indigenous, and women of color. Put another way, the mechanisms by which “white women wellness” operates in 2019 is just the latest iteration of imperialist thought by which white women capitalize on their racial privilege to get their own needs met and in the process uphold the very white supremacist patriarchy that plagues our society at large.
And if you have been following the conversation on wellness trends and its target demographics, the data is unequivocal: economically privileged women in the U.S., white women, turn to performative spiritual+wellness trends, like yoga, to participate in the production of an elitist womanhood through Orientalist escapism and virtue-signaling, most notably in contemporary settings like social media.
But there’s a darker, less apparent outcome for this trend: Keeping in mind underreporting rates among populations that lack access to adequate healthcare and especially mental healthcare, recent studies have suggested a link between affluence and anxiety disorders. In other words, yoga and its attendant, if racist aesthetic practices have arguably become a wellness activity wealthy white women turn to in order to cope with mental health challenges. This new finding is puzzling—indeed, it is hard to separate cause from result at the moment, that is, are more wealthy white women experiencing mental health issues because of the pressure to conform to unattainable body image standards? Or are we simply hearing more about mental health epidemics in this demographic because our society is more attuned to wealthy white woman wellness needs? The answer is likely “both.”
Instagram and its influencers clearly capitalize on the aspirational aspects of the fad by selling the idea that participation in yoga is not only going to improve mental health, but also, paradoxically, offer followers+consumers a sense of individuality. For example, a common phrase among white women who participate in commercial yoga industries is that it has helped them “find themselves” and “accept” their bodies. However, this is the same fitness culture that has borne witness to unprecedented rates of eating disorders, including a new diagnosis known as orthorexia nervosa—an obsession with eating healthy or “clean.” Despite the supposed logic of self-love and acceptance, yoga cultures appear to be engendering new and dangerous forms of conceit and controlling tendencies.
To this point, studies on yoga often note the incongruous logic that seems to underpin white women’s attachment to fitness trends like yoga—a logic that reveals that the “love and acceptance” attitudes are quite superficial and even destructive. Indeed, in yoga studios, one can observe white women’s claims are not about acceptance, but rather a desire for a “safe space”—a euphemism for homosociality—a recognition that women feel less safe when men are present and that white folks feels safer around other whites. Many white women describe feeling safer around other white women, but can’t quite reconcile how their sense of safety relies on exclusionary and often structural forms of inequity.
A case study from my research offers a useful example: In response to learning that her suburban, $100/month yoga studio had come under fire for harassing and then banning non-white members, one upper-middle class woman, a human-resources director named Alissa, defended the studio by asserting that she is “just a white woman trying to fight mental illness through yoga. [The studio] helped me a lot. It’s a good place, even if it has done things some people find bad [discriminatory].” Alissa knew that she was supporting a business which was openly and perhaps actionably biased, but she did not care as long as her personal wellness needs were being met. Attitudes like this among the majority white cis-female demographic who participate in health and wellness industries are not rare, despite their troubling insistence on ignoring their own complicity in systems of injustice and marginalization. Indeed, white women’s well-being, including social and economic mobility, can and will be achieved at all costs and in many cases will willingly cosign bigotry and differential treatment.
We know that discrimination produces cascading effects across communities, and Alissa’s example clearly demonstrates how structural or institutional racism works. Though she might be only one person, her willingness to excuse illegal forms of bias so easily offers unsettling insight into her work in human resources. HR departments oversee civil-rights and workplace- equity matters; how effectively can she address these matters in light of her comments?
In this regard, the research on institutional racism tells a larger story about how white women’s social and economic mobility is predicated on the disenfranchisement and continued oppression of historically marginalized populations. This research demonstrates how the so-called “velvet ghetto” or majority-women industries, like human resources, education, nursing, and more recently fitness industries like yoga, but also Cross-Fit, which are all also majority-white, actually underscore broader race+class economic trends in the U.S. Across these industries, there is a constant—women performing their bodily capital, in both raced and ableist forms (read: white-sexy-athletic), in order to preserve their own position and power in a white supremacist patriarchal order. In many ways, this is not a new story, even as the research on white women’s involvement in white supremacist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and today, its modern-day auxiliaries such as the Daughters of the Confederacy or the Junior League garner renewed attention.
Differential access to healthcare, including wellness care in the United States, and the necropower it lays bare, thus exposes what Kimberle Crenshaw once aptly diagnosed as “the false tension between feminist and antiracist movements”—a mechanism scholars like Chenjerai Kumanyika characterize as a willful ignorance; a kind of blindspot not born of a lack of knowledge, but outright denial in the face of evidence and truth. Indeed, attitudes like “my health at any cost” must be understood within a longer history of white supremacy, economic injustice, and what today qualifies as a public health epidemic, which leaves communities of color, like Flint, Michigan, without clean drinking water and bears witness to higher rates childhood diabetes in minority+low-income areas—areas which lack access to both safe recreational spaces and parks and/or grocery stores. It is not a coincidence that yoga studios tend to exist in upper-middle class and majority white areas, next to some sort of “clean eating” juice/coffee bar. What today might appear to be an ambient form of exclusion otherwise marketed by Paltrow as a wellness must-have, is intimately tethered to a larger story of public health and racial injustice, up to and including the kinds of medical experiments conducted on people of color in the early twentieth century, as well as the ableist logics of abortion access that values cis-white women’s bodies above all. As historians like Harriet Washington and Thomas Leonard have both demonstrated in their work, health care, even in its progressive forms, remains inextricably intertwined with nineteenth century racial science, the rhetoric of eugenics, and social Darwinism, which in the U.S. context remains obsessed with maintaining white women’s “purity” at all costs.
So, at the very least, Alissa’s comments capture the limits of one person’s understanding of how systemic racism might affect access to health and wellness for historically marginalized populations. But at the very most, attitudes like “my health at any cost” are logical extensions of a white supremacist capitalist order which equates wealth with access and access with health. It is not only individual access to health and wellness that is essential, no matter how we often we are sold the neoliberal idea that “it’s your workout.” Individual health outcomes are inseparable from community health support, and so we must begin to see what is good for everyone and available to everyone as a must for a healthy society.
In the end, the cult of white women’s wellness must be understood as both a cause and a result of white supremacist necropower. Though its genesis makes sense in a place like the U.S. which has so often and willingly ignored women’s rights to bodily autonomy, such trends still place BIWOC, queer, trans and disabled folks at far greater risk. Recent research on differential treatment in emergency medicine between white and black populations corroborates what I have observed in my decades of ethnographic work in health and fitness spaces—access to healthcare remains shaped by forms of bias that privilege the health of those who look, walk, and talk like those offering care. We must stop capitulating to a deeply unjust and capitalist industry that privileges the health and right to bodily autonomy for some over others. A fair and sustainable society and therefore its approach to health and wellness cannot and must not be reduced to a you win, I lose, zero sum game.
*Thanks as always to Travis A. Jackson for his keen editorial eye. And a special thank you to Rasika Ajotikar, Shenila Khoja-Moolji, and Brooke Delony whose brilliance brought this topic into focus for me.