Even though I only made $9 an hour working as a clerk at the thrift store, I still liked buying $3.50 + tax kombuchas from the health store because at the young age of 19 I believed that drinking these sugar-laden, probiotic beverages would be worth it. Were there better things I could have been spending my money on? Absolutely. I could have been eating something other than boxed soup and cold cuts for lunch. I could have been saving up to buy a more comfortable pair of shoes to work. I could have bought a book on health and nutrition and read that instead. But, no. I had to have my kombuchas, which were expensive to me at the time, because I thought that the invisible and frankly also intangible health benefits would somehow counteract the things that were truly troubling me: my anxiety, my constant fatigue, my hangovers which I caused by drinking too much liquor that some random man had bought for me the night before, my nagging sense of being overweight at 125 pounds. Those kombuchas were going to cure me. If I drank enough of them, one day I’d wake up and my skin would be glowing. I wouldn’t be bloated. I’d wake up in a good mood. Men would want to fuck me, and women would want to be me.
But that never happened. Instead, I was just out $3.50 (plus tax) and filled with a sense of superiority to everyone who didn’t drink kombucha. I guess you can’t really put a price on that, but if I could it would be the price of all those kombuchas I drank over the years. Of course, I eventually came to my senses and realized that drinking kombucha didn’t really make me feel that much better. So I stopped drinking kombucha, which in turn made me feel morally superior to all those plebian kombucha drinkers as I drunkenly stumbled my way into the next fad: coconut water. Long story short, I don’t drink coconut water anymore, either. But after coconut water came the ashwaganda supplements and kava root teas. Of course I had a yoga phase. I dabbled in vegetarianism, had a brief stint with veganism, and at one point I was all kale everything. I switched up my face wash, bought an expensive moisturizer, and drank my collagen every day. Nowadays, I’m doing HIIT workouts, eliminating carbs and exfoliating.
Throughout it all, I drank all the fucking time. Saying that now, well, duh, of course I felt like shit because I drank all the time, did coke, stayed up late, fucked around, overslept, underslept. You know, all the standard things that fucky young things do when they’re in their 20s. There’s something to be said for the cognitive dissonance of spending half of my disposable income on getting fucked up and the other half on cures for getting fucked up. You’d think that somewhere along the line, I would have picked up on the message that if I drank less, maybe I wouldn’t feel the need to treat myself with all these hippie, woo-woo pseudo cures if I didn’t intentionally make myself feel like shit. But, then again, now that I think about it, of course I never heard that. If I didn’t make myself sick with liquor, then I would need to find a cure.
Which explains the strange coexistence of the health and wellness industry in America, which is hellbent on overconsumption, alcohol and working ourselves to death. Who will buy a cure when no one is sick? And while, yes, I could launch this rant into a missive about everything that is wrong with the health care industry today and accessibility to medication, I’d rather take a look at the more pedestrian presence of ‘health’ in our culture. The way that we experience what it means to be well within the sickness of the market forces that dictate the way we buy our way into our own wellness.
Within American culture, ‘health’ doesn’t simply mean “the way you feel good in your body.” No. Instead, health has become a class indicator that we must wear like designer clothing in order to separate the healthy from the unhealthy. The rich from the poor. The beautiful from the ugly. Health has a pantone-approved color palate. Health has a myriad of hash tags. Health is in partnership with a handful of brands – juiceries, gyms, and therapists – so that we know what health looks like without ever really knowing what it should feel like. Health is a dewy glow on Instagram. Health is a twenty six inch waist. Health is acai bowls and celery juice. Even though none of those things actually translate to health in the truest sense, it is what we have come to believe health really looks like. We are so separated from our own health that we don’t even know what ‘healthy’ actually feels like, which is great from a marketer’s perspective because your product doesn’t even have to work if your customer can’t tell the difference. Health as a product is just a distraction from genuine health.
Health that isn’t accessible isn’t true health. Of course we know that poor people are kept separate from their health in the most egregious way possible, but if health is being gate kept, can it really be health? If these so-called cures are really that effective, then why haven’t we as humanity cured ourselves, down to the very last one of us? If kombucha was really going to cure me, wouldn’t we all be drinking it? Wouldn’t the market have released an affordable kombucha for the guy on food stamps? And wouldn’t it be worth it for him to drink kombucha, too? Or is kombucha just another sugar pill that at the end of the day didn’t make me any healthier and by extension any happier than anyone else.
The kombucha is just the carrot on the stick, the one that makes me think it’s okay to drink like this, or to work like this, or to live like this. At the end of the day it doesn’t actually do anything for me. Drinking one kombucha one time or drinking it every day – I can’t say that here I am, years later, really patting myself on the back for drinking all those kombuchas. I still hate getting out of bed every day, I still hate my body, I still hate. It’s still hard for me to rectify the decisions I’ve made with my life, but at one point kombucha made me feel better about those decisions.
At one point did my pursuit of my own health become toxic consumption? And if the pursuit of health can just become another mindless aspect of our participation in capitalism, can it ever truly be healthy? Or is it just a different way to dress up the same thing that is making us sick.
After listening to a podcast on anti-dieting, I’ve decided that anti-health is the next cure I will explore. Unless you are my doctor or the CDC, I’m not doing it. I’ll stick to my iron pills and my 8 glasses of water and my exercise 3-4 times a week, and that’s it. It will certainly be cheaper than anything I’ve done before. Maybe if I stop obsessing over the minutiae of my diet and my exercise and my skin care routine and my vitamins and my minerals and all this so-called health, I’ll have the mental space with which to examine the things that are really making me sick. Maybe if I stop spending time trying to have my image of health validated on the Internet, and if I stop using other people as the litmus for what health should look like, then maybe I’ll start to feel healthy again. Maybe if I give myself time – which, by the way, is my time – and stop giving it to the cures, to the images of health, to the performance of health – maybe I’ll find something there. (Speaking of time: if you did that quick math at the beginning of the essay, you noticed that I made $9 an hour and spent $3.50 (+ tax) on my kombucha. Thinking about my net income, I basically worked 30 minutes in order to afford my kombucha. I would have been better off working 30 minutes less than drinking that kombucha. But that time is gone forever, so instead I just pledge not to sell thirty minutes of my time to the health and wellness snake oil industry.) If I do, I promise I won’t try to sell it to you. I probably won’t even post it on Instagram. Or write about it again. Because it’s my health. My health is about me, and seeing as I don’t like to post about my sicknesses on the Internet, why would I flourish my health there either? All of it – good or bad – is something I want to keep to myself.
It’s not lost on me that I’ve started to feel incredibly angry about health in the midst of a pandemic and also while the air outside is unbreathable. Maybe there’s something about watching the health of myself and everyone around me slip away that has made me realize that I never actually knew what health ever was. Now, maybe I never will.