Ozlem Demirboga Carr is not really into all that woo‑woo stuff. “I’m definitely a full-science kind of person,” says the 41-year-old telecoms worker from Reading. She doesn’t believe in crystals, affirmations or salt lamps. But she did find herself unusually anxious during the UK’s Covid lockdown in March 2020 and, like many people, decided to practise yoga as a way to de-stress.
“I tried to be open-minded and I was open to advice on trying to improve my wellbeing and mental health,” she says. So she followed a range of social media accounts, including the “somatic therapist and biz coach” Phoebe Greenacre, known for her yoga videos, and the “women’s empowerment and spiritual mentor” Kelly Vittengl. The Instagram algorithm did its work. “I suddenly found myself following so many wellness accounts,” she says.
When the deployment of the Covid vaccine got under way, Carr began to see posts that troubled her, ranging from polite concern about the social consequences of mass vaccination, or the politics underpinning it, to full-blown rejection of the science. “The conversation and tone of their posts shifted,” she says. “At first it was all about self-care and being part of a community that is caring for each other. But then they started to speak more about how there should be a choice when it came to vaccines. They were saying things like: ‘My body, my choice.’”
Carr watched as Greenacre posted an Instagram story describing vaccine passports as “medical apartheid”. Vittengl went further. In a post in July, Vittengl, who is unvaccinated, compared vaccine passports to the social polarisation witnessed during the Holocaust and spoke about the “mess” caused by the “ideology of the western medical system”. “We aren’t being shown the full picture,” Vittengl concluded, in a post that was liked by Greenacre. Greenacre subsequently invited Vittengl on to her podcast, where Vittengl discussed the pernicious influence of “big pharma” and celebrated the work of the controversial doctor Zach Bush, who has been called a “Covid denialist” by researchers at McGill University in Montreal.
Such views are anything but exceptional in the wellness community. If anything, they are on the milder end of the spectrum. Anti-vaccine or vaccine-hesitant attitudes are as abundant in online wellness circles as pastel-coloured Instagram infographics and asana poses on the beach at sunset. “People are really confused by what is happening,” says Derek Beres, the co-host of Conspirituality, a podcast about the convergence of conspiracy theories and wellness. “Why is their yoga instructor sharing QAnon hashtags?”
In May, the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) found that just 12 influencers were responsible for nearly 65% of anti-vaccine content on Facebook and Twitter. “Many of these leading anti-vaxxers are alternative health entrepreneurs … They’re reaching millions of users every day,” says Callum Hood of the CCDH. “This is a serious problem. Vaccine hesitancy has become a difficult and entrenched obstacle to dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Included within the CCDH’s “disinformation dozen” are Joseph Mercola, a US wellness entrepreneur called the “most influential spreader of Covid-19 misinformation online” by the New York Times; Dr Christiane Northrup, a wellness expert who helped popularise the notorious Covid pseudo-documentary Plandemic by sharing it with her 560,000 Facebook followers; and Kelly Brogan, a contributor to Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop wellness platform. Mikki Willis, the director of Plandemic, is well known in the California yoga scene, while David “Avocado” Wolfe, a conspiracy theorist and raw food advocate, is a regular figure at anti-vaccination protests across the US.
Away from the CCDH’s list, other prominent figures include the yoga instructor Stephanie Birch, who has posted QAnon hashtags on her now-deleted Instagram account, and Krystal Tini, a wellness influencer with 169,000 Instagram followers, who has consistently posted anti-vaccine content, including one post that compared lockdowns to the horrors inflicted on Polish Jews in the Warsaw ghetto. Comparing vaccine deployment to historic atrocities such as slavery and the Holocaust is a routine trope in anti-vaccine wellness circles; the Los Angeles wellness and beauty guru Shiva Rose recently compared vaccines to McCarthyism, slavery, the Cultural Revolution, the Spanish Inquisition and the Holocaust, all in one post.
Beres says many of these wellness influencers are “using cult leader techniques in digital spaces”, sowing fear and hesitancy about the Covid vaccine among their followers, one Instagram post at a time.
They maintain, however, that they are misunderstood or misrepresented. When contacted by the Guardian, Greenacre distanced herself from Vittengl’s comments on her podcast. “It would be incorrect and misleading to your readers to suggest comments from a third party reflect my own,” she said. She also said that she used the term “medical apartheid” to refer to “the use of discrimination and segregation based on medical status, for example treating people negatively based on their medical status by use of Covid vaccine passports”, rather than anything relating to historical discrimination based on race.
Vittengl, meanwhile, stated that she is “not against the western medical system … However, I do feel that the industry has been heavily taken over by big pharmaceutical companies who are primarily concerned with finances over health.” She defended the work of Bush. “He is compassionately trying to help find more answers,” she said.
Carr, however, decided to unfollow both women. Now, when she wants to practise yoga, she watches the Sweaty Betty YouTube channel.
We have had more than a decade of the modern iteration of wellness. A decade of vagina candles, chia bowls, coffee enemas and spirulina shots. A decade of burnt-out, anxious, unhappy women seeking to detoxify their bodies, rebalance their chakras and recentre their divine femininity, ideally while losing weight. The global wellness industry is worth about $1.5tn (£1.1tn) – and for every saintly Yoga With Adriene there are thousands of grifters pushing untested therapies on impressionable people.
Although the modern iteration of wellness rose out of the primordial goop of the late 00s (Paltrow, the high priest of wellness, founded her lifestyle brand in 2008, originally as a newsletter), the origins of the movement go back to the hippy counterculture of the 70s. Then, as now, wellness presented itself as a remedy to the travails of modern life. It was structured around three tenets: robust individualism, distrust of western medicine and a commitment to self-optimisation, usually through restrictive diets and vigorous exercise regimens, designed to stave off disease and death for as long as possible. In her 2018 book Natural Causes: Life, Death and the Illusion of Control, Barbara Ehrenreich wrote: “Wellness is the means to remake oneself into an ever-more perfect self-correcting machine, capable of setting goals and moving toward them with smooth determination.”
In the 70s and 80s, Ann Wigmore proselytised the ability of a raw-food diet to cure cancer, diabetes and Aids. “There is this belief that if you stay true to a certain lifestyle and only ingest a particular kind of food and drink, that guards you against disease,” says Carl Cederström, the co-author of Desperately Seeking Self-Improvement: A Year Inside the Optimization Movement. “You create a strong armour around yourself by living healthily.”
By contrast, western medicine – in particular the pernicious influence of big pharma – conspires to keep the masses sick. “There’s this suspicion about science,” Cederström says. “You often hear the rhetoric that modern civilisation is poisoning our lives, poisoning our food, and we need to find ways of living clean again, by cutting ourselves loose from a society that is constraining us and forcing us to live an inauthentic, unnatural lifestyle.”
The polluting tributary in wellness’s fresh, clear stream has always been its unwavering insistence that health is a choice rather than something genetically predetermined or socially ordained. Few wellness practitioners say outright that people who are morbidly obese, have type 2 diabetes or have a mental illness suffer by their own hand: they instead couch their judgment in euphemisms and misdirection.
“Wellness has very strong ties to the self-help movement,” says Cederström. “And what you find at the core of these movements is the idea that you should be able to help yourself.” Rhonda Byrne, the author of the bestselling self-help book The Secret – which portrayed the power of positive thinking as a curative to all of life’s ills – once claimed that the victims of 9/11 were in the wrong place at the wrong time due to their own negative thoughts and outlook on the world.
“A more general theory as to why people would happily tune into the ideology of wellness, and in particular this individualistic attitude, is that it is in some ways self-flattering,” says Cederström. “We live in a culture that connects morality to health. If you have a good, middle-class life, you’re encouraged to believe that you deserve it. If you’re poor and unhealthy – well, you didn’t work hard enough.”
For nearly 50 years, the world of wellness has viewed health as something that can be shrugged on or off at will, like a cashmere sweater. Doctors are to be distrusted and individuals should take responsibility for their own “wellness journey”. Then the Covid vaccine programme began – and this anti‑scientific attitude metastasised into something far more harmful. “This is a very long-running thing,” says Hood. “We’re seeing that erosion of trust in mainstream medicine flowering now. And it’s very dangerous.”
Before Catherine Gabitan, who is 31 and lives in northern California, became an “overcoming self-sabotage” coach, she worked in the service industry. Gabitan usually rose to manager roles easily, but despite the promotions she never felt that she was fulfilling her true potential, as an A-grade student with a college degree.
She smoked cigarettes, drank coffee and alcohol and ate processed foods. Despite her best efforts, she could never kick these habits. “One of my initial inspirations for becoming really healthy was to make sure I had a really clean body, so that I could be the healthiest vessel I could be in order to have the healthiest baby,” Gabitan says.
In early 2020, Gabitan bought a $199 lecture series from the self‑sabotage coach Jason Christoff. Christoff, who also styles himself as a nutrition and exercise expert, shares misinformation about the Covid vaccine on his public Facebook page and his Telegram channel.
When contacted by the Guardian for comment, Christoff responded: “Maybe you should look into who sponsors your own newspaper, but that would get you sacked.” He subsequently wrote a blog linking the Guardian to a plot by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reduce the global population by 10-15%. “Is the Guardian and their sponsors watching out for public health or are they colluding to decrease population and public health, in order to place the remaining population under firm tyrannical control?” Christoff wrote.
Christoff helped Gabitan to realise that, for years, she had not believed herself to be worthy of “a higher level of health”. She explains: “My subconscious beliefs regarding why I didn’t feel worthy of having a business or learning to invest, or why I drank alcohol or smoked cigarettes – all these things were related to what I felt worthy of achieving.”
Christoff’s lecture series had the invigorating quality of an ice bath after a sauna. Almost immediately, Gabitan embarked upon what she calls her “health journey”. She quit coffee, smoking, alcohol and gluten. She began exercising three times a week and eating only organic, locally produced food. She also quit the service industry, rebranding as a self-sabotage coach.
When the Covid vaccine programme began, Gabitan, who is unvaccinated, began sharing anti-vaccine content on her Instagram page. “Injecting poison will never make you healthy,” she posted on 8 July. “We’re taught that ‘germs’ and genetics make us sick so we don’t have to take responsibility for our toxic lifestyles,” she wrote on 23 July. “Could other people’s need to micromanage what we put on or in our bodies be a projection of their poor health history and inability to take responsibility for their own health?” she asked on 16 August.
Gabitan sees health through a hyperindividualistic moral frame. She takes control of her own health; if other people won’t help themselves, why should she? “I don’t smoke and I don’t drink,” she says. “I spend a lot of money investing in the highest-quality foods available to me. I believe in natural immunity and supporting my immune system. I’ve taken radical responsibility for that, especially over Covid. And there are other people out there who are still drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes who want me to protect their health, but they won’t even protect their own health.”
In this, Gabitan exhibits the logical fallacy of wellness: the idea that the human mind is a drill sergeant and the organs of our body obediently fall in line. “You may exercise diligently, eat a medically fashionable diet, and still die of a sting from an irritated bee,” Ehrenreich said in Natural Causes. “You may be a slim, toned paragon of wellness, and still a macrophage within your body may decide to throw in its lot with an incipient tumour.”
Gabitan does not need the vaccine, because she is a shining paragon of health. The people dying from Covid are people with disabilities, or those who are already sick, obese or old. What happens to them is nothing for Gabitan to trouble herself about unduly, as an able-bodied member of the wellness community.
“A lot of the people that are experiencing hospitalisations from Covid had a lot of other co-morbidities, right?” Gabitan says. “Or they are overweight. If our government had promoted a healthy lifestyle, healthy eating, from the beginning … that would have done a lot more to prevent some of these hospitalisations by actually encouraging people to become the healthiest versions of themselves. Right. So, for me, one premise is people taking responsibility for their own health.”
It sounds, I respond, as if you are saying that, when people get sick, it is their fault; not bad luck, because anyone can get sick at any time. “See, I don’t think it’s just bad luck,” she says. “I think part of it is people taking responsibility for their own health, to make sure they’re not putting toxins in their body – and the other part of it is not being exposed to pollution.” Nobody close to her has died from Covid.
Gabitan also believes the vaccine to be dangerous and ineffective. “The vaccine doesn’t stop transmission,” she says. (The vaccine is thought to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus to other people, although this protection wanes with time.) She is concerned about the impact of the vaccine on her fertility – this is a common fear among the vaccine-hesitant and is particularly prevalent in wellness circles, which are mostly female – and doesn’t trust data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the US health agency. She prefers to get information about the vaccine from Telegram, the Children’s Health Defense (a group founded by Robert F Kennedy Jr that is a major source of vaccine disinformation) and Project Veritas, a far-right conspiracy theory site.
As a result of the research she has conducted over the last year, Gabitan’s distrust of medical science now extends beyond the Covid vaccine. If she had children, she would not vaccinate them against any disease. She would reject modern medicine in virtually all cases, excepting broken bones. Modern medicine is “designed to deal with symptoms, not the reason the symptoms showed up in the first place”, she says.
I ask Gabitan, who is affable and willing to answer all my questions, why she agreed to speak with me, given our dramatically different perspectives on the vaccine. “To have open dialogue, even with people with different opinions, is the only way that we can heal what’s going on in the world,” she says. I tell her that many people would find her attitude selfish and disturbing. “I don’t want to be callous,” Gabitan says. “Because my goal is to help other people live the healthiest life that they can. That’s my passion in the world.”
I am certain that she believes it.
Gabitan’s views are by no means a reflection of all wellness practitioners. Deepak Chopra, the famed yoga and meditation expert, has urged people to get vaccinated. “It’s mistaken and unfair to use a fringe group as the tar that stains everyone else,” Chopra wrote in a blog in June. But Gabitan’s attitude is an example, however extreme, of how the ideological structures of wellness may support anti-vaccine attitudes.
Before Conspirituality’s Beres worked in technology, he was a yoga instructor. “Even though I’ve been involved in the yoga and wellness world since the 90s, I’ve always been sceptical of a lot of the claims,” he says. “When you get into yoga, there are a lot of health claims that sound OK if you’re at a nice yoga studio in a major city, but don’t reflect reality.”
He sees people like Gabitan as the logical end point of 50 years of telling people that virtue is to be signalled with striated abs and a rippling musculature. “When you live in a country where even a relatively modest middle-class lifestyle is way above what the rest of the world can sustain, it’s very easy to get locked into anecdote and your circle of friends,” Beres says. “You think: I drink smoothies and go to yoga and work out seven days a week and eat organic food. Why can’t everyone else do it?”
The US – the avocado stone of the global wellness community – is, and always has been, extremely individualistic. “Everything is about personal freedom and personal knowledge. What we see here is late-stage capitalism merging with hyperindividualism,” Beres says.
The US is also a country without universal healthcare. “If you don’t have insurance, it’s incredibly expensive to get treated,” says Hood of the CCDH. “People develop an interest in looking into alternatives and that’s where wellness influencers step in. You don’t have to spend thousands on doctors. You can just take this supplement or follow this regimen and you will be fine.”
Finally, it is a country where pharmaceutical companies have long behaved contemptibly. Last month, Purdue Pharma paid $4.5bn to settle its role in the opioid crisis, after overwhelming evidence emerged that the pharmaceutical company played down the addictive qualities of OxyContin for many years. Claims about the pernicious influence of big pharma are de rigueur in anti-vaccine circles; Plandemic’s central thesis is that big pharma is suppressing affordable cures for Covid to make money from patented medicines.
“One thing alternate health entrepreneurs have in common with anti-vaxxers is that they talk about big pharma a lot,” says Hood. “It’s no coincidence that the organised anti-vaxx movement has its home in the US. Because there’s a greater profit motive in US healthcare, there’s a level of suspicion.” The irony, of course, is that many wellness practitioners are also motivated by profit. “It’s a business for them, but they’re not open about it,” says Beres.
But to understand why some people may be driven to anti-vaccine attitudes is not to excuse their wider impact on community health, or the distressing implication that they regard the lives of those less fortunate than themselves as having scant value. “Some of the most strikingly nasty stuff I’ve seen with Covid misinformation has come from wellness influencers,” Hood says.
On the subject of nastiness, he refers to a widely circulated meme (shared this year by the TV presenter Anthea Turner, to outrage) featuring a fat person on a mobility scooter asking a slim person to wear a mask. “The implication is that the person in the mobility scooter is somehow morally deficient and doesn’t have the authority to ask someone to wear a mask,” says Hood. There are similar attitudes where vaccines are concerned. “There is this nasty sense from some anti-vaxxer people that the people who have fallen ill with Covid are somehow deserving of it.”
Social media companies, for their part, are reluctant to take down disinformation. “Social media is the wild west when it comes to health claims,” says Hood. “You can say whatever you want.” Research in 2020 by the CCDH found that 95% of platforms failed to act on Covid and vaccine misinformation reported to them.
Wellness influencers – including members of the CCDH’s “disinformation dozen” – remain on social media platforms with a nudge and a wink. Often, they refer users to their Telegram channels, where they really let rip. (Telegram is unmoderated.) While Northrup has had her Instagram account disabled, her Facebook page links to her Telegram channel, in which she deluges 58,000 people with a flow of anti-vaccine disinformation. Likewise, Wolfe exhorts his Facebook fans to follow him on Telegram, where he unleashes.
Some of the people pushing anti-vaccine content do so in the sincere belief they are working for the public good. “They believe themselves to be martyrs,” Beres says. “They’re fully bought in. They think this is an apocalyptic-level battle they were made for, to be the champions.” But Beres believes others “are like: ‘Wow. I can make a bunch of money here.’”
When wellness influencers start to post anti-vaccine content online, a calcifying effect takes place. Pro-vaccine people unfollow; a few push back in the comments, but ultimately also unfollow, whereas followers who were hesitant about vaccines waver towards anti-vaccine attitudes and committed anti-vaxxers congregate, with applause. Before Gabitan began posting anti-vaccine content on her Instagram account, an average post would get 20-30 likes; now, she can easily get more than 150 likes on a post about big pharma. “The more people get this social reinforcement, the more anti-vaxx they become,” says Hood.
As a result, anti-vaccine wellness influencers get an influx of followers, many of them new to the community. “What happened after Plandemic is that QAnon infiltrated wellness circles,” says Beres. “Yoga instructors started using QAnon hashtags and watched their following grow by hundreds of thousands.” Online wellness is so closely affiliated with QAnon that the phenomenon has been called “pastel QAnon” by Marc-André Argentino, a researcher at Concordia University in Montreal. Carr is baffled by how QAnon, a rightwing movement, has infiltrated what was historically a hippy, countercultural space. “The similarities between rightwing groups and the wellness community scares me,” she says.
This dopamine pull of likes and engagement encourages influencers to skew extreme, all the while positioning themselves as victims of so-called cancel culture or online hate mobs. In an Instagram story posted after Vittengl stated her views on vaccination, she portrayed herself as a victim. “The backlash is unbelievable,” she wrote. “As an energetically sensitive person [someone who feels emotions in a heightened way] it can sometimes be too much. But … not speaking up no longer feels like a choice.” She later tells me: “I understand how this may come off as ‘victim mentality’, but it is a very real and very intense phenomenon.”
Carr finds this narrative maddening. “This community feels like they are being victimised, but they are not victims. They are privileged, well-off people with choices.” Carr is British-Turkish and takes umbrage with how the community co-opts the language of human rights to advocate against vaccines. “That makes me crazy,” says Carr. “To portray vaccines as against human rights … I come from a country where human rights are constantly being diminished.”
In the absence of action from the social media giants, all users like Carr can do is unfollow their former gurus. “In a passive way, that’s my solution,” she says. Many more users will no doubt replace them. “If you’re an ordinary person who’s having doubts about the vaccine and you start looking for answers, you’re far more likely to come across an anti-vaxx source than you are an authoritative source like the NHS or CDC,” says Hood. “These are effective and very intentional ways of radicalising people.”
He hopes that this alignment of the wellness community with anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists will prompt a wider reappraisal of an industry that, for many years, has been replete with charlatans and quacks, profiting from that most fundamental of human desires – a desire for health. “I’m not saying the whole thing is rotten,” Hood says. “But there are broader questions to be asked about wellness and the alternative health industry. This is the end product of telling people they can control their health through willpower and diet. Most of the time, as a society, we don’t think that’s so harmful. But when it comes to the pandemic, it’s quite obvious that it is harmful. Probably the harms were there all the time. But the pandemic has exposed them.”