The importance of authenticity in the wellness industry

October 2020

Ruth Cooper-Dickson, the founder of Champs, is familiar to many at Fora for her on-going series on positive psychology issues, but for the Restore20 festival she was also joined by wellness experts Ban Hass and Toral Shah. The three discussed how authenticity has become a key focus in the burgeoning $4.5 trillion Wellness industry and they shared their own perspectives and discussed the pressures they have faced as influencers. In the process, the discussion was a rallying call for more diverse and authentic voices within the wellness community. 


Toral is a nutritional scientist and founder of The Urban Kitchen, writing extensively about food and health. “Healthcare professionals have a code of ethics, but when influencers look to promote themselves, their content can be more of a sales technique than about wellness,” said Toral. For some wellness influencers the pursuit of money was behind the drive to present the ‘perfect life’ that actually undermined their audience’s sense of wellbeing. Toral’s challenge to the wellness industry was to ask, “What is my intention? Am I posting something that will make people insecure for profit?”


Ban Hass is a personal trainer and fitness instructor and described the pressures that social media can bring to influencers and their audiences alike. “Productivity guilt is a massive thing, especially when faced with hyper-productive influencers doing their fifth workout of the day,” explained Ban. While home workouts have helped many, it may create stress and anxiety for others. Ruth cited recent official figures showing that the lockdown had produced the biggest recorded drop in wellness and a similarly substantial rise in anxiety.


Promoting perfection is neither healthy nor authentic. “When we’re authentic it’s about fully appreciating who we are – the good, the bad and the ugly. That’s when life becomes more interesting,” said Toral. But, as the expert panel discussed, it is the social media platforms themselves and their algorithms that heavily influence what audiences get to see. “People need to recognise that the platforms like Facebook and Tiktok are trying to push a particular image. Critical thinking is essential,” explained Ban.  


Both Ban and Toral are passionate about the socio-economic issues that underpin wellness. “Wellness is so much more than a kale smoothie. You cannot talk about wellness without bringing up issues of patriarchy, racism or poverty,” said Ban. But both believe that social media platforms actively suppress discussion of these issues through what’s called ‘Shadow-banning’. Ban described how viewing figures tend to drop sharply whenever such issues like racism or privilege are raised, although such action is not officially acknowledged. The effect is often to marginalise authentic and diverse voices from the discussion. In contrast, mainstream voices get amplified.


The panel agreed that it’s not just about what the content is; it’s about who is sharing it. Biased algorithms are preventing true equity and equality. The systemic reasons behind a lack of authenticity need to be confronted and while some brands, such as Gymshark, have taken steps to diversify their feed, these are just initial steps and there’s a lot further to go. “So many brands have put up performative posts after the death of George Floyd but haven’t changed their practices,” said Toral. Ban agreed, highlighting that,You can’t just post a black square on your Instagram feed. You need to speak up, even when it costs you money.”


The panel emphasised that everyone can and should promote authentic discussions about Wellness and the societal issues they reflect. It doesn’t matter if you have just a handful of followers – we can all address the biases that silence marginal voices on social media, amplify certain messages and promote unhealthy or damaging ideals that actually undermine people’s sense of wellbeing. But a particular responsibility lies with those individuals and brands with the furthest reach. As Toral concluded, “If you have the privilege of a platform where people listen to you, use it well.”


For more information on our Thrive series with Ruth Cooper-Dickson, and to sign up for up-coming sessions, visit our what’s on page.