Why Wellness Is the New Way to Look, Feel, and Act Rich

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Health is wealth.Photo: Getty Images

“It’s a very similar concept to the Hermès Birkin bag,” Sophie Doran tells me. She’s the Paris-based managing director of Luxury Society, a company that analyzes the luxury industry. “Money is one thing, access is another.”

But we weren’t talking about a purse; we were talking about an appointment with Dr. Frank Lipman — guru to Donna Karan, Arianna Huffington, Kevin Bacon, and Bobbi Brown, not to mention both Gyllenhaals and, inevitably, Gwyneth Paltrow. An initial consultation with Lipman, 61, is $800 for about an hour and a half — and you won’t see him for at least a month after you make the appointment, maybe more. But that time with Lipman — whose recent book has the tough-love title 10 Reasons You Feel Old and Get Fat: And How You Can Stay Young, Slim, and Happy! — is now the height of luxury in a world where the old adage that one can never be too rich or too thin remains as true as it is politically incorrect. Perhaps that’s partly why Lipman, like many modern gurus, says that his regime is about wellness, not slimness. “It’s about optimizing the functioning of the system,” he explains. “If you can improve function of your organs, then you’re going to feel great. That’s not a concept we have in Western medicine.” He calls his specialty functional medicine.

Here are some other things you can buy these days in the name of wellness: gluten-free, vegan meal delivery from Sakara Life for around $100/day, $195 mesh leggings from Michi, a session of reiki for $175. Within a ten-block radius in the Flatiron District, there’s SoulCycle, the Fhitting Room, AKT InMotion, Flywheel, Y-7, Exhale, Uplift, Chaise Fitness, Bari Studio, Bandier Studio B, the Movement, Mile High Run Club, and Shadowbox — all ranging from roughly $25 to $37 per class.

“When I think of even five years ago and using language about wellness, people would cock their head to one side and be unsure of what I was talking about,” says Anni Hood, a former spa manager turned luxury wellness consultant from London who has worked with Jumeirah and La Prairie. “The boom we’re seeing, it’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

Meanwhile, normal status symbols are beginning to seem almost pedestrian. You can rent a Chanel bag online or pretend you have your own driver with Uber. Doran says that “luxury has significantly shifted from being a way to signal one’s belonging to a socio-economic group, to a form of self-actualization.” Part of that can be attributed to the growing number of actually wealthy women, but a bigger part of that is generational: Millennials are finding their own definition of luxury. “People questioned what was so luxurious about a key ring covered in a logo that could have paid their rent for the month,” she explains. “Consumers began to search for luxury that would make their lives better,” she says.

One way that idea has trickled down to the 99 percent is what she describes, in brand-speak, as “luxury for one’s selfie.” “The methods by which we formerly whitened teeth, smoothed cellulite, or battled ageing were generally kept secret,” she says. “Now, we tweet about them. Having a #spaday, and tweeting photographs of faces obscured by mud masks, has become just as much a status symbol as posting a photograph of a new purse.”

We once called all of this pampering. Now we justify it as self-care, necessary time spent for our health — physical, spiritual, emotional. Even the time involved in all of this is itself a kind of luxury. If, in a week, you carve out five hours to work out, five hours to prep clean meals, two hours for sheet masks or massages or meditation, that’s a lot of time to devote to the purification of the self. And that’s on the low end of things. It reminds me of the hours Marie Antoinette supposedly spent on her toilette each day.

But many current bougie-wellness activities feel more New Age than Old Europe (except, of course, for the price tag). After a 90-minute medicine healing I once did, which involved an intuitive reading (I was told I’m too susceptible to other people’s energies), an extraction of a “pretty major female spirit” from my body, and a lot of burned sage, I was left feeling clear and relaxed and $200 poorer. The good vibes lasted for all of ten minutes. In some ways, spending on wellness is the ultimate in wasteful consumption. All of these treatments, these endless hours of supervised cardio, the expensive stuff we put in our bodies: They’re all just absorbed in one way or another. The calculus people — and I certainly include myself — make with themselves is that it’s more virtuous, more puritan, than spending on a purse. It’s self-improvement.

Hood tells me the role of the guru is big right now. Anyone who has ever booked a personal trainer knows there is a certain glory in paying for someone’s undivided attention; a person whose job it is to make sure you do as you’re told and to help you realize whatever vague goals you dream of. But it’s more than that: Everyone needs a priest when wellness is a religion.

As in many sects, the promise of a better life — and maybe even a kind of immortality — is key. “There’s so many myths around about food, about exercise, about stress, and the biggest one is about ageing,” Lipman tells me as he crosses his legs to sit down on a sofa in his office. “I mean, yes, we all get old, but do we have to break down and do we have to gain weight, do we have to lose our minds and memories, do we have to have aches and pains as we get older? I don’t believe it.”

Lipman sells his own products, branded Be Well. Chief among them is his 14-day $239 cleanse, which consists of three shakes a day (a blend of North American–grown organic yellow-pea protein, fiber, amino acids, spinach-juice powder), packs of pills (a blend of magnesium, sweet wormwood, grapefruit, and more), L-Glutamine capsules for sugar cravings, and small lunches and dinners following his low-carb, high-fat program. Part of what I and his adherents find appealing about all of this is how complicated it is, the idea that lean protein and vegetables aren’t the answer and that there is some super-secret knowledge that I can pay for that will lead me to optimize my body into superwoman status. Or at least to fit in my APC jeans again. And yet, what this all amounts to is a no-grain, low-sugar diet high in healthy fats. (Also — and perhaps this is the part of the advice you’re paying through the nose for: Avoid GMOs, preservatives, factory-farmed meat; take a daily probiotic; eat fermented foods; exercise; and have a sense of passion and community.)

I call Dr. David Spiegel, director of the Center on Stress and Health and medical director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at Stanford Health Care, to see what he has to say about the kind of medicine that Dr. Lipman practices, which fuses Western approaches with nutrition and mind-body treatments. “Modern medicine is bottom-up and treats the body as a machine, fixing the parts with medication. But learning to manage your body better with diet, exercise, and sleep, there is a scientific basis and rationale for it,” he tells me. In other words, we know that simply treating your body well is as essential to good health as seeing a doctor when you’re sick.

But he’s wary of any kind of packaged cleanse. “I’m suspicious immediately of anyone touting something that he’s selling. And cleansing has been around for an extremely long time, but I’m not sure there’s much evidence that shows a lot of good.” And he’s not exactly persuaded by celebrity endorsements, criticizing “over-pampered, wealthy people for whom spending money is a sign of how important they are rather than something rational. Celebrities often don’t get the best health care. They can get taken like anyone else. And they have more money.”

I like to play a game where I imagine whatever strange health supplement I’m excited about that week — powdered Japanese mushrooms, dried mulberries, protein shakes — and picture them packaged in an old-timey style. Like, if someone whipped out this cleanse on The Knick, would I snicker? Probably. And yet I really, really want to believe. I am constantly on the lookout for any solution to my lifetime of yo-yo dieting. It’s particularly seductive to think there’s a solution out there if I just throw enough money at the problem.

Lipman asks me about my sleep (some insomnia), whether I meditate (does yoga count?), digestion (fine), how often I get up to pee at night (at least once), my dieting history (checkered), and whether my hair is falling out or thinning (no). He puts me on his cleanse and says my mantra needs to be low-sugar, low-carb, and hands me a powdered probiotic with “refrigerate” written on the cap in Sharpie. For additional support, he brings out Courtney Blatt, one of his six health coaches, whose rates begin at $150 for a 50-minute session. Blatt once worked in marketing. (“I used to be a Swedish Fish person. I can’t even, like, look at them now.”) She, like all of Lipman’s coaches, trained through the online courses given by the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. He seems to understand that his clients lap up all this personalized attention. He asks me if I want a little acupuncture while I’m here or if I want to talk about any other health issues besides just nutrition. He seems like he would listen attentively as long as I wanted, even though it’s clear he’s always moving between clients.

I went home and watched The Great British Bake Off. The show’s parade of trifles and pies usually lulls me into a Valium-like relaxed stupor but instead a life without sugar starts to bum me out. I write Blatt asking her if she has advice for those moments — she was my coach after all. She wrote me back a day later, which I guess is fine. I mean, I was emailing her, not calling 911.

“Allow yourself a bit of high quality dark chocolate or some chocolate chia seed pudding,” she wrote. “It’s all about getting out of your head. Distract yourself. Call a friend or family member, start a Pinterest board, meditate, work on your vision board, organize your closet, take a walk outside (if it’s nice out).” She signed it “Does this help??”

I’m never going to distract myself from food via Pinterest, that’s for sure. But in the following days I dutifully eat salmon and greens and cleanse shakes and have lunch dates at Hu Kitchen and Dimes. I would never tell friends I’m on a diet — so gauche these days — and yet I have no problem telling them I’m doing an expensive cleanse, for wellness. It’s conspicuous non-consumption. Restriction is fine to discuss as long as it comes under the guise of “clean eating.” And so I become the kind of person who makes a turmeric (“The Superhero Of Spices,” according to Dr. Lipman’s newsletter) and ginger paste with sea salt and coconut oil and store it in my fridge to mix into shakes or drink as tea. I do find that all of this elaborate taking care of myself seems to be helping, at least in a performative mind-game way. Going to all this effort makes me feel like I’m doing something to fix myself — and isn’t that worth any price?

My father stays with me for a weekend and notices the tower of shake boxes stacked on my kitchen counter and on top of my refrigerator. I tell him I am seeing one of Gwyneth Paltrow’s health gurus. He’s the kind of person who would be mildly impressed but also would never do it himself. He opens up a shake mix, sniffs it, and wrinkles his nose. “And he put you on Slim-Fast?” he asks. I correct him. “It’s Fancy Slim-Fast.”