The wellness movement is having a moment. The more luxurious aspects of it were on full display last weekend at the inaugural summitof Gwyneth Paltrow's lifestyle brand Goop, from crystal therapy to $66 jade eggs meant to be worn in the vagina. Meanwhile, juice cleanses, "clean eating," and hand-carved lamps made of pink Himalayan salthave all gone decidedly mainstream. I myself will cop to having participated in a sound bath—basically meditating for 90 minutes in a dark room while listening to gongs and singing bowls. (I felt amazingly weird afterward, in the best possible way.)
It seems that privileged women in the US have created their own alternative health-care system—with few of its treatments having been tested for efficacy, or even basic safety. It's easy to laugh at the dubious claims of the wellness industrial complex, and reasonable to worry about the health risks involved. But the forces behind the rise of oxygen bars and detox diets are worth taking seriously—because the success of the wellness industry is a direct response to a mainstream medical establishment that frequently dismisses and dehumanizes women.
To be fair, the American health-care system is generally unpleasant for everyone: impersonal, harried, and incredibly expensive. "The doctor-patient relationship has been slowly eroding, not only with specialization and the fact that people now see panels of doctors, but because emergency rooms are slammed, there are insurance-coverage problems, et cetera," Travis A. Weisse, a science historian at the University of Wisconsin, told Taffy Brodesser-Akner in an article for Outside magazine. "It can make a patient feel devalued."
The medical system is even more terrible for women, whose experience of pain is routinely minimized by health practitioners. In the emergency room, women routinely wait longer than men to receive medication for acute pain. At the gynecologist's office, severe period-related pain is often dismissed or underestimated. Ingrained sexism means that doctors may regard women as either earth mothers or hypochondriacs; that is, either women possess deep wellspring of internal pain control that they ought to be able to channel during childbirth, or their pain is psychological in nature—a symptom of hysteria.
Conditions that affect women at higher rates than men, including depression and autoimmune diseases like fibromyalgia, are much more likely to be dismissed as having a psychological rather than a physiological source. Chronic fatigue syndrome sufferers are still instructed to rely on exercise and positive thinking, despite research that indicates these measures do not cure the condition. Many women with autoimmune diseases, endometriosis, or even multiple sclerosis go undiagnosed for years, despite multiple trips to doctors and specialists—all the while being told that their symptoms could just be stress.