From Nine Perfect Strangers To Lorde: Is The Cult Of Wellness Over?

Gory, close-up sequences of blender blades ripping through fruit flesh for mysterious smoothies; immaculate, almost laughably immovable blonde hair; Nicole Kidman’s ruthlessly icy gaze. These images will be burned into your brain, if – like many – you’ve been watching Amazon Prime’s current hit show, Nine Perfect Strangers.
Juxtaposing this jarring imagery with the polished aesthetics of Instagram wellness, the series – created by David E. Kelley of HBO’s Big Little Lies and based on the 2018 book by Liane Moriarty – centres around a group of strangers at Tranquillum House, a Goop-style wellness retreat presided over by Kidman’s menacing guru, Masha
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Without any spoilers, the series delves into each of the characters, why they are seeking help and healing, and the unorthodox (to put it mildly) treatments that Masha provides them with. It’s a pretty scathing portrayal of the current state of the wellness industry, and it isn’t the only one right now. The last couple of years have seen a steep rise in art taking a dig at wellness culture, including tracks from Lorde's latest album, Solar Power, Apple TV+ show Truth Be Told, documentaries covering the downfalls of disgraced gurus, and many more. The question is, why this sudden flurry of wellness-critical media?

Nine Perfect Strangers and 'Mood Ring' look at how the wellness aesthetic is part of its power as it can be so easily replicated to earn people's trust (and money): biotin-overdosed hair; willowy, white bodies; hushed and mesmerising voices; carefully curated, minimal and earthy décor.

There’s always been a light-hearted scepticism of wellness trends, particularly bizarre therapies like Gwyneth Paltrow’s vaginal steaming or the viral trend for sunning your butthole. Increasingly, however, there's an awareness of deeper problems in the industry: cultural appropriation, racism, fatphobia, the promotion of pseudo-science. 
Physical and mental health were key concerns in the past 18 months of the pandemic and this has highlighted issues within the popular wellness industry. Many people used this unplanned time at home to delve into wellness and self-care, with Forbes noting that "increased health consciousness has fuelled the wellness industry into overdrive." Yet it is undoubtedly a position of privilege to be able to use a global pandemic to invest in R&R. It relies on being time- and money-rich, which the wellness industry also demands. Although the pandemic is not specifically mentioned in any of this new, critical media, it is telling that much of it has followed an event which has so starkly emphasised health inequalities. 
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COVID-19 has also highlighted a huge mistrust of science, from COVID-deniers to the promotion of unsafe or pseudo-scientific DIY treatments, not to mention the anti-vaccine movement. A wellness influencer promoting yoga and vitamin supplements is obviously wildly different from a staunch anti-vaxxer, however the rise in wellness criticism could indicate an overall pushback against any kind of pseudo-science following the devastating effects of misinformation during the pandemic.
Nine Perfect Strangers asks why we seek self-improvement and how much we are willing to pay for it – literally and emotionally – without knowing the details about what is being done to us. Images of fresh produce, idyllic grounds and tranquil staff suggest health and rejuvenation yet the repeated sequences of food preparation – like the grotesquely beautiful smoothie-making – alongside pervasive allusions to the guests’ readiness for the ‘protocol’ play with the audience’s ideas about the nature of wellness. 
The series does not shy away from showing the murky underbelly of the wellness industry and the ways in which it can prey on desperation and naivety. Health drinks, superfoods – even relaxation itself – are no longer benign as the guests are interrupted by sudden blood tests and slowly unravel from fasting-induced hunger, descending into a sort of primeval madness which shows how the pursuit of health and happiness can spiral into ill-advised actions.

Increasingly, however, there's an awareness of deeper problems in the industry: cultural appropriation, racism, fatphobia, the promotion of pseudo-science. 

Kidman’s Masha is sinister. We don’t know her motives, qualifications (besides a desire to "fuck with" her guests) or really what she is doing to her clients and therefore she appears as a personification of many of the problems people see in the wellness industry. She shows that a lack of qualifications and questionable science can be ameliorated by a bit of coercive manipulation and an aspirational or trustworthy aesthetic – in this case, slim, white womanhood. Unsettling the audience appears to be the show’s method of questioning the wellness industry. From the beginning we know the guests are paying exorbitant amounts of money for Masha’s mysterious ‘protocol’ and her philosophy of healing through suffering, which is only the first in a long line of warning signs that Tranquillum House is perhaps one big scam. Or something much worse. 
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"Mood Ring" – a single from Lorde’s most recent album – offers a more light-hearted and satirical take on wellness trends as a substitute for real spirituality or emotional work. The opening lines immediately link emotional wellness with appearance: "Can’t seem to fix my mood / Today it’s as dark as my roots." 
The accompanying video sparked much discussion around Lorde’s dig at wellness culture, with the artist even sporting a wellness-influencer blonde wig. Both Nine Perfect Strangers and "Mood Ring" look at how the wellness aesthetic is part of its power as it can be so easily replicated to earn people’s trust (and money): biotin-overdosed hair; willowy, white bodies; hushed and mesmerising voices; carefully curated, minimal and earthy décor.
Lorde also addresses the insidious cultural appropriation and whitewashing of traditional Black, Asian and indigenous practices. "Let’s fly somewhere eastern, they’ll have what I need" criticises Westerners' jaunts into eastern spirituality or sacred indigenous practices before getting back to their regular lives which are probably in no way aligned with the beliefs of those whose practices they appropriated. Besides being culturally insensitive, this is often physically harmful. The huge demand for trendy wellness products has irreparably damaged some sacred and highly prized resources; the South American Palo Santo wood, for example, is now an endangered species. Profit-oriented wellness is damaging not only us but also the communities and resources it appropriates. 
Therapist, author and YouTube sensation Kati Morton argues that the industry has "to prove to us that we have a problem and that their product will fix it" even if this is not truly the case. She goes on to say: "Financial stress is one of the most common stressors and by spending more on things like that we could be adding another stressor to our list." Morton adds: "I always tell my patients and viewers that taking care of ourselves shouldn’t cost us a ton of money. It’s really in the basic needs (like eating regularly, getting enough sleep and drinking enough water) that we improve our resilience and overall mental health." Like Lorde, this suggests that nothing material changes after shallow engagement with the whitewashed, capitalist spirituality of wellness. We remain the "sad girls" looking into the mood ring, only with less money in our bank accounts. 
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Besides being culturally insensitive, this is often physically harmful. The huge demand for trendy wellness products has irreparably damaged some sacred and highly prized resources.

Lorde is not the first artist to tackle wellness in recent years. British singer-songwriter Nilüfer Yanya’s 2019 album Miss Universe features a satirical interlude throughout where she voices the automated menu for WWAY HEALTH™, an imagined, sinister healthcare corporation. Morton believes this "healthy scepticism" of wellness "is a direct result of the wave of influencers pushing one product one week only to claim another one works best for them the next." Who can blame us if we have trust issues around these products and treatments?
In addition to Nine Perfect Strangers' dark iteration of the wellness guru, the latest season of Apple TV+ show Truth Be Told relies heavily on the outwardly wholesome aesthetics of the lifestyle guru to create unease around the troubled character Micah (Kate Hudson). The show revolves around a classic – if ridiculous and convoluted – whodunnit plot in which closed case investigator Poppy (Octavia Spencer) is called upon by childhood friend Micah to investigate the murder of her husband. Once again, the blonde hair is out in full force: Micah is the Paltrow-esque owner of wellness and lifestyle organisation Shelter (note the manipulative name hinting at a place of refuge), which comes complete with the millennial pink branding and TED-style talks we have come to expect from these new-age companies. Hudson’s Micah is cold, exuding none of the warmth expected from her position, which instantly brings her under suspicion and forces audiences once again to confront what can be lurking behind the carefully constructed guru façade. Only two episodes have been released so far but it definitely seems like it's all going to go a little culty.
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Art reflecting our distrust and predicting the downfall of wellness is undoubtedly gaining traction. Let’s not forget Paltrow’s viciously reviewed, stiff and oft illogical 2020 series The Goop Lab; 2019 documentary Bikram, which exposed Bikram Choudhury (founder of the hot yoga practice which bears his name) as a predator and abuser; and 2020 six-parter (Un)well, which explored the pros and cons of the very lucrative wellness industry.
At the end of the day, wellness has many attractions, a main one being its ready-made remedies touted for their ability to heal all sorts of vague emotional ailments. In a time where comfort and certainty can be hard to come by, it's undeniably enticing. Lorde acknowledges as much in her email newsletter: "We’re living through wild times, and it’s tough to begrudge anyone the methods they employ to feel sane, questionable though they may be." However, surely the very fact that we are living through such difficult times means that we should be questioning these treatments, their efficacy and ethics as wellness becomes an increasingly exploitative and capitalist venture?

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