What is a time of joy for many women was my darkest hour.
I fell into the wellness scene by accident.
There are people who start blogging for the sake of becoming an “influencer,” but for me, it came as a (rather pleasant) surprise when people started reading my ramblings and liking my Instagram photos.
I’ve suffered from Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a connective tissue disorder that causes chronic pain, fatigue, migraines, nausea, and daily dislocations, pretty much my whole life. When I was 23, it got much worse. I started writing as a form of catharsis — a way to get thoughts and feelings out of my head so I didn’t end up smashing things against the wall.
Six months in, I suddenly got much, much sicker overnight. I couldn’t sit up or eat without passing out. I’d developed PoTS, autonomic dysfunction that meant that my body stopped being able to regulate itself; histamine intolerance, reacting to everything from soap to avocado; and, most recently, ME/CFS.
Bed-bound, with medications making me even more ill, I was desperate to feel better. After seeing eight of the top doctors London had to offer and quickly exhausting the help they were able to provide — the benefit of having little-understood and funded conditions! — I made an appointment with Doctor Google. I pretty quickly found food blogs and diets that I’d never heard of.
Bright-green concoctions and “energy balls” made from dates and raw cacao promised to heal me. Beautiful women with glossy hair and massive smiles, their bodies twisted into some impossible yoga pose on the beach, told me so: After all, they’d been as ill as I was. They, too, had thought their lives were over before they were 25. But with a drastic diet overhaul, meditation, and positive thinking, they were healthy and living once again.
I’d found hope.
Why the hell hadn’t the doctors told me about this? Why was I taking drug after drug that made me sicker and sicker until I genuinely thought I was going to die?
After a particularly horrific New Year’s Eve spent on the sofa sobbing into steak and champagne that I couldn’t eat or drink, I decided that I would start from scratch and turn to “food as medicine.” What did I have to lose?
Because I was too lazy to write everything down, I joined Instagram so I could use it as a food diary. I didn’t know much about it at the time, apart from I’d heard it was that app that you could use to put a filter on your Facebook pictures to make you look a bit less blotchy.
What I found was a whole social network with weird rules and a hierarchy that had totally eluded me until that point — a place where looks seemed to trump qualifications and “belief” and “feeling” held more sway than evidence and fact. The earnest, perfectly designed posts I read added a friendly air of innocence to a potentially dangerous spreading of misinformation. At the time, I didn’t even think to question them. It didn’t even occur to me that this couldn’t be true.
I started posting pictures of my meals, accompanied by how I was feeling that day. I added hashtags, scrolled through feeds, and followed the shiny, glossy women in the photos I saw online. I bought books about how going vegan helped cure disease after disease. I watched the documentaries they recommended on Netflix that talked about how diet and lifestyle, not medicine, was the key to good health, no matter how sick you were.
I started shopping almost exclusively at Whole Foods. It disgusted me how expensive it was, and it’s no wonder that wellness seems to be the preserve of posh white women. I became terrified of the “toxins” present in the foods that I thought could be making me sicker. I kept posting pictures, taking time to pile mounds of pretty berries on top of smoothie bowls and towering stacks of pancakes. I gained more followers. At the same time, I came off my meds because the side effects made me 10 times sicker than I was in the first place.
Then I started to feel better. I was told that I was doing the right thing. I was constantly bombarded with messages and pictures that backed up this worldview. I became obsessed.
But then I got sicker. My symptoms returned. I couldn’t get out of bed; I couldn’t function.
Yet I stuck with it and spent all my energy in the kitchen.
I think here’s an important place to say that I generally consider myself a person of above-average intelligence with good critical-thinking skills. Many of my science-minded and skeptic friends’ eyebrows raised as I told them about my new plans to guzzle green juices all the livelong day and go vegan, gluten free, refined sugar free, low histamine, high nutrient, rotation, anti-inflammatory, etc., etc.
Eventually, I became orthorexic, eating only things I thought were “healthy.” I went to see a homeopath.
Later, I was furious with myself — I can’t believe I went to see such a quack. The scary thing is that there are naturopathic hospitals run on the U.K.’s National Health Service, bringing scientifically debunked “therapies” into the mainstream. It’s funny what desperation to feel better and be “normal” again will do to a person.
Another frightening thing was that as more people started to follow me, they looked to my diet as something to replicate and asked for advice on a whole host of things. I’m guessing that the numbers slowly ticking up next to my username gave me supposed legitimacy. This made me really uncomfortable, and it goes right to the heart of one of the biggest dangers of wellness bloggers.
I have exactly zero qualifications to be offering diet advice to anyone, let alone people who are sick. Nor do most of the wellness bloggers out there. Personal experience doesn’t count, which is something that most people don’t seem to realise. I can barely count on one hand the number of wellness bloggers I followed who actually had any legitimate nutrition qualifications, a.k.a. not bought off the internet or in naturopathy.
I totally appreciate that people have a right to share what they want online, but as a blogger, I think you have a responsibility, whether you like it or not, especially when you have thousands of people (often young girls) hanging on your every word and wanting to emulate you.
It’s very easy to forget that for many of these women, their shiny, happy health is part of their brand and how they make money. I know bloggers who were sicker than they made out, suffering from chronic illnesses or severe eating disorders all the while presenting the perfect, aspirational Insta-life that their followers gobbled up.
Sometimes they pass thoroughly debunked dietary theories off as fact (hello, alkaline diet) or advocate for seriously dangerous therapies like Gerson (the idea that juicing will cure cancer). While this may seem innocent, in my opinion it’s a self-perpetuating cycle. This information gets passed on to impressionable and desperate people who think, “What’s the harm?”
But there is harm in advocating restrictive diets and encouraging people to stop taking drugs and use food as medicine. At best, people eat more fruits and veggies (no one can say that’s a bad thing); at worst, people die because they eschew lifesaving treatment in favour of the “natural path to healing” based on “ancient wisdom” — the most famous being “Wellness Warrior” Jess Ainsclough, who tragically died after choosing juicing over further medical treatment for her cancer.
The language is pseudo-religious. Self-responsibility is king. The diet didn’t work? You’re not trying hard enough. You’re not better? You’re clearly too negative and don’t believe you can, and that’s the only thing standing in your way, something I’ve been told online several times — I sent back the dictionary definition of the term “chronic” illness.
I know a lot of people come to write about wellness from a place of wanting to help others. I did and still do. But when wholly unqualified bloggers are held up as experts, we have a problem. When the media splashes them across their pages, unsubstantiated views are legitimised, and people get hurt. I now only write about my personal experiences, and will never go into details or encourage other people to copy what I’m doing. I have a responsibility to my readers.
I got out of wellness slowly. I’m almost embarrassed to say that I spent thousands of pounds on a “health coach” course from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, a favourite of wellness bloggers’. I wanted to help others, but my time there made me realise that everything I had been holding onto was dangerous nonsense. I saw the logical jumps being made and unqualified people being held up as experts.
The final nail in the coffin was Deepak Chopra and his “quantum” woo-woo. In one of the mandatory Skype group discussions, I got into an argument with a woman in the U.S. who said that belief in Jesus and faith would be a cure and told me we should “agree to disagree.” I argued that facts are facts, but she believed that feelings were more important, even when it came to medicine and nutrition. Post-fact isn’t just just something that can be applied to politics. I realised that the same logic was being applied by many in the wellness industry, and I finally understood how ridiculous I had been.
I started reading skeptic blogs written by experts in science-based medicine and journalists who debunk bad science: I'm a huge fan of The Angry Chef, the Science-Based Medicine blog, and medical doctor/writer/academic Ben Goldacre. I reengaged my critical-thinking facilities and deleted anyone from my Instagram feed who advocated healing through food or passed off quackery as fact. I surround myself with other blogger friends who have been through the same, and we help keep each other grounded. Even now, it can be hard. That desperation to feel better still shows up sometimes, and the wellness thoughts of self-blame and restriction come creeping back. But I’ve got them under control now.
Wellness bloggers can make others feel less alone and give them hope, like they once gave me. But one tale of recovery and beautiful Instagram pictures hardly tell the whole story and, in my experience, are not something to be held up as an inspiration to follow. We just can’t afford that.