Analysing the 'wellness-industrial complex' an episode at a time

Analysing the 'wellness-industrial complex' an episode at a time

On the podcast Maintenance Phase, Ms Aubrey Gordon explores what they call the “wellness-industrial complex”.

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) – Ms Aubrey Gordon collects vintage diet books. She has amassed almost 100 titles, including the 1973 volume Slimming Down. The book, which featured chapter titles such as The Breadstick Conspiracy and Two Martinis Into Connecticut, began her collection.

And while the idea of mixology as nutritional strategy might seem absurd to a reader today, Ms Gordon said that so much of the current thinking about what is now known as wellness is just as “hilarious and wacky”.

On the podcast Maintenance Phase, named after the concept of sustaining post-diet weight loss, Ms Gordon and journalist Michael Hobbes spend each episode exploring what they call the “wellness-industrial complex”, debunking health fads and nutritional advice.

While health, weight and wellness are important issues, much of what Americans understand about them is hollow marketing, Mr Hobbes said.

“Most of us have confidence that we understand these wellness issues, but we don’t realise that we’re literally just regurgitating things that we saw in a Nike commercial,” he said. “And wellness is the perfect encapsulation of that. A lot of the things under wellness are just rebranded or misconstrued data being sent back to us by a company.”

Wellness has two definitions, Mr Gordon said. One is new language being used by weight-loss companies that have figured out that “dieting is less popular than it used to be” and the other lives as “a very amorphous term that we attach all kinds of things to”.

“Vitamin companies are selling wellness,” Mr Gordon said. “Mattress companies are selling wellness. Your work has a wellness programme. It’s sort of seen as this uncontroversial way to talk about health.”

The show is No. 1 in the health and fitness category on Apple podcasts. Episodes investigating the obesity epidemic and the problematic history of the body mass index led the podcast to its first million downloads on the listening app last month (August).

Since the podcast began in October 2020, the hosts have done deep dives into anti-fat bias, eating disorders and the roles both television personality Dr Mehmet Oz and talk-show host Oprah Winfrey have played in the weight-loss industry. They have also investigated popular diets, such as keto, Weight Watchers, celery juice and the master cleanse.

In the show’s introductory episode, the hosts talk about how few health-focused podcasts are sceptical of wellness. For Ms Gordon, 37, her scepticism grew out of her personal experience of “20-plus years of straight dieting and mostly staying the same size”.

“Being a fat lady and trying to do all the things that fat ladies are supposed to do took me right there,” she said. “I’ve been doing all the things and it’s not really producing the result that I’ve been promised for, you know, the majority of my life. At a certain point, you kind of got to go, well, maybe it just doesn’t work.”

For Mr Hobbes, 39, who has done extensive reporting on obesity, watching his mother’s struggles led to an interest in weight fixation. “She was always trying so hard, like swimming five times a week and eating a bowl of carrots. The discourse around obesity was always like, well, they’re not trying hard enough. I know other people who are trying pretty hard and not succeeding.”

Ms Gordon and Mr Hobbes said they have earned lots of positive feedback, but the e-mail they have received from researchers and clinicians were some of the most meaningful.

Ms Lisa DuBreuil, a clinical social worker at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, also operates a private practice in Salem, Massachusetts. She heard about Maintenance Phase on social media and became a regular listener.

She is not hearing anything she does not already know, but said she loved how the show made those topics more approachable and “really fun to listen to”.

“To be able to have these kinds of resources and get information in an entertaining, interesting, but also very factual way is wonderful,” said Ms DuBreuil, who is in recovery from an eating disorder.

The pandemic has only intensified the United States’ decades-long moral panic about fatness, Ms Gordon said. But it has also intensified a counternarrative. She has noticed more conversations centred on body positivity and more health professionals spreading the message that “it’s actually okay if you gain weight while you’re surviving a pandemic”.

“It’s been a really fascinating moment of everyone sort of processing his or her own body image stuff and his or her own weird beliefs about fatness and health in this very public way,” she said.

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