behind a Netflix series on a murky industry

“Wellness”, like its signature vague branding, has a loose, unfixed meaning. It can describe the pursuit of greater stability. It can mean a $4.2tn, high-growth industry of products and services from goat yoga to health boutiques to Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop jade vaginal eggs. It can indicate a never-ending burden for women – the rebranding of “having it all” for 2010s consumer feminism. The gauzy, overused umbrella of wellness now encompasses a vast universe of practices, products and refashioned belief systems, with varying risks and scientific grounding, which have surged in popularity over the last decade on social media and internet forums.

(Un)well, a six-part Netflix docuseries, delves into this murk of wellness – sometimes promising, sometimes scammy, occasionally dangerous – to examine this expansive, lucrative web of wellness, and the confusing sludge of information online. “There’s a lot of conflicting information and misinformation out there, and there’s not a lot of hard data and testing done,” executive producer Erica Sachin told the Guardian on the motivation behind the series, which was filmed over the course of 2019. “We felt like it was the perfect time to look at this industry that’s blowing up and try and help to sort out some of the fact from the fiction.”

Related: The Business of Drugs: inside the economics of America’s longest war

Similar to The Business of Drugs, another explanatory Netflix docuseries which explores the economics of narcotics through capsule episodes delineated by drug type, (Un)well breaks down wellness through six specific trends: essential oils, tantric sex, consumption of human breast milk, fasting, ayahuasca and bee-sting therapy. The conclusions and narrative depend on the trend at hand; the first episode devotes considerable time to the two main businesses, doTerra and Young Living, hawking an emblematic product of the wellness craze: essential oils. Both companies do over a billion dollars in annual sales; both are multi-level marketing firms who cultivate networks of believers and concentrate profits at the top. (The series references a lawsuit alleging a pyramid scheme, which is illegal, against Young Living.)

Essential oils offer a clear entry into the double-edged sword of wellness: how a practice with some legitimate health benefits can be warped into a big-business cure for our age of anxiety. The use of essential oils – aromatic substances derived from plants – has been around for centuries, and studies suggest certain oils offer minor benefits to sleep (lavender) or headaches (peppermint). On small levels, it can make a huge difference; the series follows Julie Marshall and her autistic daughter Sarah, 15, as they seek aromatherapy with essential oils as a last-ditch effort to treat Sarah’s insomnia, which exacerbates her mood swings and frustration. The family exemplifies a central tenet of wellness’s appeal: “People are anxious and exhausted from the medical field and the pharmaceutical industries, and they’re looking to take control of their own health,” said Sachin.

But if the allure of wellness is “part curiosity, part necessity”, it’s also “very big business”. (Un)well traces how capitalism subsumes understandable interest in essential oils into a dubious billion-dollar industry. There’s the at-home influencers peddling promises, unbound by the strictures of medical claims, through Instagram profiles and Facebook groups. Young Living and doTerra, meanwhile, skirt Food and Drug Administration rules on medical claims by returning to the staple hazy language of wellness culture: “vitality”, “energy”, “healing”, “balance”.

Later episodes follow tantric sex, a westernized riff on ancient Buddhist and Hindu scripture which purports to self-actualize through full-body orgasm; the episode explores how the treatment could help reconcile past sexual abuse in individual practice, or invite abuse, as several horror stories of women groomed for sexual abuse by tantric “healers” attest. There’s the practice of consuming breast milk to build up muscle, which is both expensive and dangerously unregulated. An episode examines the questionable – and, again, dangerous without serious medical supervision – practice of fasting, from the intermittent fasting regimens beloved by Silicon Valley bros such as Twitter’s Jack Dorsey to the more intense, scientifically controversial days-long fasts.

The episode on ayahuasca traces both the impact of the psychoactive root’s burgeoning tourism industry on indigenous communities in Peru and the real, if under-studied (and with serious risks when combined with psychoactive prescriptions), promise of psychoactive substances on conditions such as PTSD and clinical depression. The final installment, on bee-sting therapy, delves into the allure of another “natural” substance, from trendy bee venom use in cosmetics to literal bee-on-body stings as a treatment for a range of chronic illnesses.

Though the efficacy and economics of each treatment differ, the episodes largely stick to a similar gradation of characters: individual case study frustrated by a legitimately byzantine and expensive healthcare system who seeks help through alternative treatment; true believers of the treatment, often with their own businesses; scientists with fact-based cautious optimism or dismissal; weary skeptics and cautionary tales. “We made a very conscious decision not have a host or a narrator, so that we could let the characters speak for themselves,” Sachin said of the production. The ethos was, “let the people tell their own stories” to present the viewer “with different perspectives but to let them make up their own minds”.

The cumulative reveal is that the magnetism of wellness is, like its promises, vast and suffusive, drawing on universal human desires for control, transcendence, an explanation, belief. A big part of the allure is “a disillusionment with the medical field and the pharmaceutical industry”, said Sachin. “It’s a human desire, I think, to want to take control of our lives, our health, to strive to self-improve.”

That, and the weight of social media influencing – easily accessible, often aesthetically pleasing avenues through which many seek unproven or holistic treatments outside mainstream medicine. The episode on bee-sting therapy, for example, follows Kerri, a 24-year-old woman who struggles with chronic Lyme disease (an all-encompassing extension of the tick-borne infection that has morphed into an identity and community outside mainstream medicine). A follower of Kerri’s Instagram page, on which she posts about her struggle with Lyme and her embroidery to over 52,000 followers, pointed her to the potential of bee-sting therapy for chronic lyme. The series follows Kerri to California, where she attends a bee-sting workshop with Brooke Geahan and her company, The Heal Hive; Geahan built her business on Instagram captions detailing her journey to getting well, as opposed to chronically sick with Lyme, which she credits to diligent application of bee stings.

The series tagline asks: “Do these wellness trends live up to their promises?” (Un)well doesn’t offer any neat answers. “I don’t think it’s black and white,” said Sachin. “It’s much more complicated than that. That’s why I think it’s important to hear from the different sides, to be able to listen and take in the information and then synthesize it, each person for themselves.” In some case studies, the treatment helped – essential oils could be a placebo or it could not, but either way, Marshall’s daughter sleeps more easily. Tantric sex healing could be a racket and opens many avenues to potential abuse, but an individual session left one man feeling more prepared to process past trauma. Ayahuasca can lead to psychosis when combined with anti-depressants, but helped one woman grapple with the death of her husband and daughter.

The hope, said Sachin, is that the audience will consider the many examples and hold the different scopes of scale – “consider the different points of view, and then they can make up their own minds”.

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