7 Books About the Scam of Wellness

Ling Ling Huang recommends literature that show what self-care is and isn't, who it serves and who is excluded

Woman dropping oil on her arm next to candle and flowers
Photo by Chelsea shapouri on Unsplash

It’s no coincidence that wellness has become a trillion-dollar industry at the same time that most people have been affected by failing public health systems and government agencies. Self-care has become a best-selling product, a buzzword that anyone can use to increase their bottom line. Because of this, it can be impossible to parse what wellness is, and to imagine methods of self-care that don’t come with a staggering cost. 

In my novel Natural Beauty, a talented pianist is forced to give up a promising career in order to care for her ailing parents. She stumbles upon an opportunity to work at Holistik, a high-end wellness and clean beauty store, and finds herself seduced by the promise of becoming her best self. She slathers on products, ingests pills, and submits to procedures, all in the name of endless self-optimization. But something sinister lies beneath Holistik’s glossy veneer, an ugly truth that threatens to consume her. Natural Beauty is ultimately a journey of self-love through the horrors of a commodified wellness industry. 

Below, I present a list of books that, together, begin to form a clear picture of what wellness is and what it isn’t, who it currently serves, and who it excludes. The illness of wellness lies in wellness that tries to exist within capitalism, participating and becoming an extension of it. All of these books have also informed me, one way or another, in my own journey with self-care. 

Flawless: Lessons in Looks and Culture from the K-Beauty Capital by Elise Hu

Hu moves to Seoul as the first-ever Korea and Japan bureau chief for NPR correspondent and takes a deep dive into South Korea’s beauty industry and how it impacts society and women at large. In this astonishingly researched and unputdownable book about topics like the prolific plastic surgery procedures being invented everyday to burgeoning feminist movement, she dissects the myriad ways beauty ideals intersect with geopolitical tensions, class, and societal issues, as well as articulating technology’s part in enabling and accelerating beauty culture. Among the many pressing questions Hu asks: How does beauty intersect with sexist power structures? Who benefits when women expend so much energy enhancing themselves?  Where is unchecked consumer beauty culture leading us to? Nowhere in the world are there such clear lines drawn between beauty and social and economic success than in South Korea. Flawless manages to provide an in-depth look at the history of Korea, which very well may be the future for the rest of the world. 

Self Care by Leigh Stein

Devin and Maren are two female co-founders of a wellness start-up, Richual, who try their hand at helping women in their quest for self-care. They genuinely want to heal the world with their new venture, but even the best intentions are ultimately waylaid by the market economy. Not only are they unable to deliver on their promises of a self-care community for women, but they struggle to achieve any kind of work-life balance because start-ups are so enmeshed with ideals of productivity that are the antithesis of wellness. This book provides an interesting counterpoint to the others on this list because it’s a look at how our insecurities are co-opted from the POV of those doing the co-opting. Maren and Devin learn the hard way that it’s impossible to truly serve people in the labyrinthine capitalist system, and while that may sound brutal, Stein kept me guessing and thoroughly entertained the entire time.

Aesthetica by Allie Rowbottom

Former influencer Anna Wrey seeks to undo  all of her previous surgeries with a new procedure, Aesthetica, which promises to restore your natural face. Scenes of her readying for the procedure in the present are cut with flashbacks that show the harrowing history that brought her to this point. She has spent her life learning to read the desires of men, ignoring her own, and surgically adapting to exterior preferences. It’s a deeply powerful and sad depiction of influencer culture, the pursuit of beauty and youth as leverage for power, and the choices women make, which are limited and designed to make us believe we are in control. Rowbottom is so effective at showing the absolute hollowness of getting all the things we’ve been conditioned to want, it’s frightening. This anti-fairy tale cautions us: be careful what you wish for, because your wishes are not your own. 

Who is Wellness For? by Fariha Róisín

Part heartbreaking memoir, part analysis of the cultural ills in service of the wellness industrial complex, this book is a necessary tool for understanding the co-opting of wellness, which should be available for everyone, not just people who are able to afford it. My heart broke for Róisín, who has had to interrogate wellness because of her own highly traumatic adolescence. The bravery and wisdom with which she shares her journey and wisdom is remarkable. This book pinpoints the current hoarding of wellness that perpetuates the violence of colonization and epistemicide and asks the question, how can we be individually well if we aren’t well collectively? 

Intact: A Defence of the Unmodified Body by Clare Chambers

The world is constantly telling us that our bodies are not good enough. We learn bodily shame from the media, from companies who stand to gain from our insecurities, and from each other. That shame leads us to value our exteriors more than our feelings. In order to reconnect with our bodies, and to begin seeing ourselves as subjects rather than objects, Chambers introduces a thought that is becoming evermore radical in this day and age: the body is good enough exactly as it is. Chambers believes that refusing to modify our bodies is an act of rebellion and an assertion of autonomy. Intact has profoundly changed my relationship with my body in addition to introducing me to the concept of collective bodily liberation. 

Rest is Resistance: A Manifesto by Tricia Hersey

An absolutely vital book that addresses and provides a real antidote to many of the ills of wellness. As a society, we’ve normalized and internalized exhaustion as a necessity. We are praised when we work ourselves to the bone. Hersey, the Nap Bishop, shares the small personal moments, the histories of her family and people, that led her to the solution and the gift of napping. She addresses the importance of resisting the frenzied pace of our culture and provides exercises and meditations for liberation practice so that we can “no longer be ravaged by this culture’s incessant need to keep going up matter what, to produce at all costs.”

This is a book about self-care that uses the term in the way Audre Lorde initially meant it. As someone who fully participates in so-called grind culture, this book was often difficult for me to read. I am thankful for the ways it has disrupted previous ways of thinking, pushing me to consider myself as someone who has value even when I am not producing, creating, or consuming. 

The Gospel of Wellness by Rina Raphael

The Gospel of Wellness is about the big business of selling health, and it is full of ugly truths about the way our fears and needs are being exploited. To read this book is to receive an education on the importance of marketing copy and how it’s used to scare us into opening our wallets, which leads to more anxiety, more open wallets and into a cycle that feeds itself. 

Wellness simultaneously “empowers and enslaves women,” and Raphael helpfully gives us the tools to distinguish between the two. Brilliantly and scientifically researched, this book is neither sanctimonious or overly cynical: Raphael is a fantastic guide through the many hidden traps awaiting women, in particular, who want to be well in a world that consistently fails us. 

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