It wasn’t so many years ago now—maybe around 2016, when the news cycle first started to feel really, constantly cataclysmic—that “self-care” entered the zeitgeist. More than just an instinct to turn inward, self-care can be a necessary and oft-overlooked element of active participation in a scary world: You have to put your own oxygen mask on before helping others; burnout isn’t the road to creating positive change; avoiding compassion fatigue is the only way to stay useful. Sometimes that means doing something just for yourself, or taking some time away from social media, or picking up a new habit like meditation or cooking or running. All good things!
But self-care’s fraternal twin, wellness, offers a more complicated method of coping. Whereas self-care is framed as a strategic retreat before returning to the hard work of world-saving, the pursuit of wellness rarely requires turning back outward at all. The distinction that’s emerged is that where self-care can be actively undertaken, achieving wellness can be a vague, ever-shifting goal post that offers no way of determining when it’s been accomplished. And because it’s so hard to pin down, wellness has created a new foothold for some pretty daring snake oil salesmen. Sometimes they might even try to literally sell you snake oil, but more often it’s an expensive rock to be inserted into a body cavity. (Don’t do that, by the way.)
Fortunately, several smart and hilarious minds are challenging this conception and adding science, inclusivity, and truly thoughtful analysis back into the conversation. The podcasters hosting the shows below honestly assess wellness fads, deep dive into accepted-as-true claims, and explore the kinds of meaningful self-care that might actually make you feel better.
Ever wonder what a calorie is actually measuring? Or why protein became such a major part of American diets? Or why some parts of the culture view being fat as a moral failing? Each episode of Maintenance Phase, hosted by Michael Hobbes and Aubrey Gordon, deploys tons of research and clever storytelling techniques to answer these and other burning questions about wellness and diet culture. The hosts are charming, smart, and bring so much empathy and humanity to what can turn out to be some tough topics. Get ready to unlearn everything you thought you knew about the health “facts” you grew up hearing.
Registered dietitian Christy Harrison helps listeners make peace with food. She calls diet culture a “life thief” that leads to body phobia and disordered eating while pretending to be about health and wellness. Instead, Harrison talks to guests about how listeners can improve their relationships with food, body image, and fat acceptance.
Comedic besties and self-described “hags” Kate Berlant and Jacqueline Novak admit that they love wellness culture, even while they also characterize it as scammy. Ostensibly a show about two hilarious people trying out the strangest wellness fads they can find (note that the podcast’s name is just “Goop” backwards), Poog gets surprisingly deep when Berlant and Novak discuss their insecurities, their health, and how they navigate being a person with feelings in an intense world. It’s like comedy and therapy in a single podcast.
When this podcast started in 2016, host Caroline Dooner mostly discussed the same subjects covered in her book The F*ck It Diet—namely, exchanging the body image issues and disordered eating that diet culture hath wrought for intuitive eating and radical self-acceptance. More recently, the podcast has evolved to look at lots of issues that may seem couched in wellness, but that tend to cause misery. Dooner explores the myths of virginity, productivity culture, and “healthy” dieting in a way that’s irreverent and relatable.
Less about debunking wellness claims and more about reframing self-care, Sarah Marshall (who also hosts the excellent You’re Wrong About podcast, formerly co-hosted by Michael Hobbes of Maintenance Phase—worlds collide!) and Alex Steed are just two friends who like movies and…can’t that be enough? Each episode of You Are Good takes a classic, feel-good movie (think 9 to 5 and Practical Magic) and uses it as a vehicle for talking about feelings, what it means to find comfort, and the hosts’ and their guests’ own unique experiences of the world. The hosts are so kind and respectful to one another that it becomes a lesson in active listening and offering emotional support, making You Are Good the podcast equivalent of a warm bath at the end of a long day.
You know that saying, “If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck?” Sounds Like a Cult hosts Amanda Montell and Isabela Medina-Maté use this general duck framework to assess various trends to determine if they’re merely a healthy pastime or if they are, well, a cult. Past topics include SoulCycle, multi-level marketing, and sororities, and the hosts look for red flags like exorbitant upfront expenses, fans who become more like preachers for the cause, reviews about a fad’s “life-changing” properties, and pyramid-shaped business plans. The show is well-researched, wonderfully produced, and a little dishy—like discussing trends with your best friends over cocktails.
Television critic Willa Paskin wants to figure out how strange cultural ephemera came to be, and of course that means Decoder Ring veers into wellness territory. Paskin and the podcast's producers do firsthand reporting and go deep on history, making each episode feel like an important document that will explain to future generations (or maybe visiting aliens) why Jane Fonda’s workouts were such a big deal, when “hydration” became a fixation, and how storytelling became a buyable product of its own.
Bonnie Roney once had a fraught relationship with food. As a young gymnast, she spent years on restrictive eating plans, often followed by secretly binge eating—which she thought was a lapse in her own “discipline” but which was actually the result of diet culture myths and an anxiety-inducing relationship she’d developed with food. After becoming a registered dietitian and working on her own feelings around eating, she now hosts a podcast that aims to untangle why so many people feel guilt around food, and how to break free from harmful diet culture cycles.
Some wellness trends are silly but essentially harmless. Others, however, can send would-be devotees down a dangerous rabbit hole that leads to things like anti-vax sentiments, pyramid schemes, and even extremist politics. It’s a surprisingly well-trod path, and Conspirituality hosts Derek Beres, Matthew Remski, and Julian Walker want to understand just how New Age pseudo-philosophy started to merge with far-right conspiracies—and how to help people who have gotten sucked in. The hosts cover a new group or individual capitalizing on people looking for betterment each episode, and even keep a running list on their website of so-called "wellness influencers" who have publicly endorsed dangerous conspiracies.
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Cady Drell is a writer, editor, researcher and pet enthusiast from Brooklyn.
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