It is no secret that an appetite for ‘wellness’ exists in our contemporary social sphere. The pressure to participate in a holistic, toxin-free lifestyle is becoming more and more intense, mediated through celebrity culture, social media marketing, and the growing popularity of ethical consumerism. With this rise in our global awareness, there has been an influx of consumer anxiety. For-profit corporations can no longer be trusted to make the choices that benefit consumers. Are those eggs cage free? Are your apples organic? Does that bottle have BPA? Is your coffee fair trade? We have been led to believe that it is not up to the producers but, rather, up to us, the consumers, to decide what kind of ethical or material poisons we are going to allow into our lives.
The roots and consequences of consumer anxiety are clearly visible in the history of one of the most in-demand products in the holistic lifestyle market: Essential oils. These quaint 5-15ml bottles of highly concentrated, plant derived oil claim to possess the natural cure to all ailments imaginable. Essential oils will supposedly help relieve stress, calm aching muscles, and reinforce immunity, all without the toxicity and impurity of modern day pharmaceuticals.
While this might sound like some hippy, anti-capitalist conspiracy, what is most fascinating about essential oils is that they point to a much broader phenomenon. It is true that these Ayurvedic remedies resonate with holistic, yogic lifestyles, yet the puritanical and biblical ‘anointing’ undertones of the oil industry appeal to a completely different demographic.
Currently, the largest essential oil distributor in the world is a US based company named DoTerra. Before DoTerra, most essential oil brands emphasised the mystical energy fields and harmonic frequencies of oils to reiki masters and yogis. However, DoTerra’s marketing team did not hesitate to step out of the ‘shamanic healer’ niche, and take advantage of the mistrust that plagues our consumer generation more broadly. DoTerra markets their oils as household essentials, as fundamental components of a holistic family life. Their products are healthy alternatives to the unregulated, chemical- filled poisons that are sold to unsuspecting mothers by the greedy and impersonal detergent, food, and pharmaceutical industries.
Despite the bohemian beginnings of essential oils, DoTerra has its main headquarters in the Mormon concentrated state of Utah. The company’s founders often cite DoTerra’s connection to conservative Mormonism as a huge advantage; both because of the church’s abundance of stay at home mothers and its already established networking potential.
But what was probably even more advantageous to the growth of the industry was the Mormon church’s historical mistrust of federal oversight. This mistrust—that the government and corporate world do not hold the wellbeing of the individual as a priority—is not only at the core of radical conservatism, but is also fundamental to many brands of leftist feminism.
The marketing of holistic and natural products to women in particular capitalises on the fear of non-consensual intrusion (in this case of bad chemicals) and promises a kind of empowerment that comes with taking the health of your body and household into your own hands. This fear is very present in the ideology of sexual purity found in conservative Christianity. Surprisingly, it is also fiercely present in the discourse of most liberal feminist circles.
The use of essential oils crosses the political spectrum. It speaks to an increased desire for self-sufficiency that is fueled by a fear of institutional deceit, abuse, and fraud. It is fascinating to see how, in an age of extreme political division, this fear constitutes an increasingly rare moment of clear common ground.
Image: Abi Porter via Flickr