We all think of exercise, nutritious food, and mindfulness as being super healthy for us. For the most part, they are. But Sherri Smith, author of the new thriller The Retreat, believes that there’s a more sinister side to wellness and self-care, too. Here, Smith writes about the dark side of the wellness industry and explains how it inspired her latest novel.
It was a bad date that inspired The Retreat. A friend of mine had met a man at a retreat in Arizona. She lived in Winnipeg, and he lived in Toronto. They shared a lot of the same passions: a fervent love of yoga, “clean” eating, and belief in a certain guru’s teachings.
When the retreat was over, they continued to talk online and text several times a day. My friend checked out his Instagram photos, where her new beau did warrior poses in front of various tourist spots and atop plenty of rocks next to water. Each photo was usually captioned with messages meant to inspire a life of meaning and intention. My friend was smitten.
She excitedly made plans to go to Toronto for the weekend to visit her new long-distance beau. She arrived at the airport, expecting to be swept up in a whirlwind romance. When he wasn’t there to greet her, she didn’t worry too much at first and went about collecting her luggage, grabbing an herbal tea, and making a loop around the airport. She texted him. No response. She texted again. Nothing. When she called, there was no answer. She made a few more rounds of the airport hoping to find him, getting panicky that she had misunderstood something, or possibly had given him the wrong information. She began to imagine the worst: a car crash, a violent mugging, him lying on the sidewalk, bleeding and gasping her name.
Nearly two hours later, he finally messaged her—“Hey! I was on my way to get you but traffic sucked and the sun is out. I realized sitting in my car this afternoon just wasn’t following my bliss.” He told her to take a cab to his place instead.
Obviously, my friend was devastated and spent the night in a hotel before returning home the following day. Her experience was my starting point, and I became interested in how the wellness industry can promote a certain level of apathy towards others in the name of self-care. This man who was so preoccupied with his own wellness had displayed little sympathy for my friend.
Wellness is ultimately a manifestation of privilege. The imagery used to hawk products most people can’t afford are thin, white, usually cis-hetero, female, and affluent. The food people must eliminate to be their “healthiest” selves are the foods affordable to lower income households. Trending wellness merchandise or diets that promise wellness are superfluous, based on pseudoscience, and result in little more than a placebo effect for its consumers.
So this is where I was working from: an urge to access that apathy under the surface of an exclusionary industry that presents itself with beaming goodness or what I consider the dark side of the wellness industry.
It’s probably no accident that the body count in The Retreat is high.
When not writing, Sherri Smith spends time with her family and two rescue dogs, and restores vintage furniture that would otherwise be destined for the dump. She lives in Winnipeg, Canada, where the long, cold winters nurture her dark side. She is the author of Follow Me Down and The Retreat.