Before my interest in theology, I was an occasional dabbler in the thoughts and practices of the ‘New Age’ as well as a keen user of Instagram. Like many other women of my generation, I was oft swept up in fashionable but vague trends concerning my ‘wellness’, an umbrella term for various diets, types of exercise, meditation, pseudo-religious philosophies and even skin care products.
This phenomenon was explored in depth by theologian Tara Isabella Burton in her excellent book, Strange Rites. Before I had even read Dr. Burton’s book, however, I had already noticed this creeping mix of crystals, yoga, veganism, tarot cards, and influencers — all of whom were attractive, thin, and young white woman, using words and phrases like ‘manifestation’, ‘self-care’, and ‘living your truth’.
As Burton points out, these online communities behave like religions. Healthy eating gurus, for example, might use the phrase ‘clean eating’ to describe eating foods that are natural and unprocessed. The choice may be a healthy one, but the phrase can imply that those who do not or cannot make these same diet choices are, by default, unclean or impure.
In 2019, Yovana Mendoza, an influencer who claimed to eat only uncooked vegan food, was caught enjoying cooked fish at a restaurant in another influencer’s video and was subsequently hounded for days on social media for this transgression. After being excommunicated by her fanbase, she posted a 33-minute video explaining how she’d reincluded eggs and fish in her diet after suffering serious, debilitating health problems like missing her periods for two years.
Her experiences of being hounded online once she changed back to a conventional diet have been repeated several times with other former vegan influencers. What wasn’t commentated on at the time was that the dozens of influencers like Yovana Mendoza would never have accumulated their large cult-like followings if aspirational young woman did not have a profound interest and a visceral desire for ‘purity’ especially if it comes with the added side-effect of thinness.
As religion retreated from mainstream life, the ‘wellness industry’ pulled the most remarkable coup by redefining the concept of purity as what you consume rather than what you do, or the moral state of your soul…