Goop is heir to a long tradition. As I learned while researching my new book, The Gospel of Wellness: Gyms, Gurus, Goop, and the False Promise of Self-Care, America has always had wellness rituals, and they reveal volumes about our anxieties. Our cures tell a story about our pain. We are a self-care nation, though arguably one that still lacks the fundamentals of well-being.
Nineteenth-century America was awash in patent medicines and alternative health schemes. Hucksters sold beef-blood tonics to revive “pale and lean” women. “Obesity bath powders” claimed to melt away pounds. Herbal “puke doctors” sold oral purgatives and enemas laced with cayenne pepper to “re-balance” the body.
One of the most famous of these “medicines” was Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound. In the late 1800s, Pinkham, a Massachusetts entrepreneur, invented this popular health tonic, which featured her matronly face on each bottle. For a time, it was advertised in every newspaper, sat atop every pharmacy counter, and was a part of popular culture. It even inspired folk songs.
The “natural” herbal remedy promised to cure “all female ‘weaknesses,’” claiming to restore health, vitality, and beauty. Pinkham’s ads sympathized with their target audience: “overworked” women. The ads described how the American woman was stressed, overburdened, and ill from too many duties. She cared for the kids, did the shopping and the cooking, and sometimes worked outside the home, all while trying to look good and stay cheerful. “I’m Simply All Worn-out,” read one ad.
Pinkham captured what was then an untapped market by publishing health pamphlets and writing an advice column that addressed hushed-about conditions, such as menstrual cramps and menopause symptoms. It was, long before influencers, a unique marketing strategy: building a personal connection with the audience.
She sold millions of bottles and became a trusted household name, the most recognizable woman in America—the Oprah of her day. But hers was hardly a miracle cure. The concoction contained a benign assortment of herbs suspended in 19 percent alcohol.
America has always had wellness rituals, and they reveal volumes about our anxieties.
Pinkham’s customers lived in a rapidly changing America. With industrialization and urban living came new diseases, new technology, and gnawing anxiety. And mainstream medicine didn’t always help patients: physicians’ extreme methods, such as bloodletting and ovary removal, just made conditions worse.
Herbalists and alternative healers preyed on those dissatisfied with a lackluster medical system, identifying a gap that could be filled with tonics, a bit of empathy, and mesmerizing ad copy. (Often their elixirs were safer than the medical alternative.)
Their advice? Leave doctors alone.
Herbalists and alternative healers preyed on those dissatisfied with a lackluster medical system, identifying a gap that could be filled with tonics, a bit of empathy, and mesmerizing ad copy.
But their popularity can’t just be chalked up to an anti-Establishment ethos or a capitalizing on uncertain times. These pseudo-medical substitutes also took off because of our country’s DNA. We are a pathologically optimistic nation, tempted by a hasty remedy. We want to believe in a simple and easy solution, be it a tonic back then or a supplement today.
America has long been a hopeful nation. We ventured out West to secure golden fortunes. We built the dream factory of Hollywood. We put a man on the moon. Today, hope fuels the $4.4 trillion wellness-industrial complex, a bloated market that can just as easily mean CBD toilet paper as it does meditation.
The dark side of optimism, however, is gullibility. We’re also the country that falls for snake-oil salesmen polishing jade vaginal eggs. We love a quick fix, a cure-all claim dolled up in pretty branding. Besides, it’s easier than what’s actually necessary: lobbying for real structural solutions to why we’re so stressed, so unwell, so lonely.
Almost every popularized wellness trend feeds off of consumers’ hope that they can reach some glittering ideal—attain a future free of aging, sickness, and stress. It’s magical thinking sprinkled with a consumerist mandate. We’re told we can manage the chaos ruling our lives by following a laid-out plan: eat “right,” meditate, then buy or do all this stuff. It’s belief in belief.
This is why it is often difficult to persuade someone out of a wellness product or trend lacking scientific evidence: their belief is not necessarily based on science or logic but on psychology. This industry is ultimately selling something far more potent than a clean bill of health. It’s selling the seductive mirage of control.
Rina Raphael is a journalist who covers health and wellness. Her book, The Gospel of Wellness, is out now from Henry Holt