Jess Ainscough, Belle Gibson and the New Purity Movement: How Nutritionism and Pseudoscience Overtook the Fundamentalist Focus on Bodily Integrity and Acceptable Femininity

During George W Bush’s reign I hate-read, in earnest, the numerous accounts of the decidedly-American purity movement by journalists, ex-devotees and critics. The stories of father-daughter ‘purity balls‘, purity rings and an unnerving focus on female sexual purity infiltrated and shaped the arse-end of Bush’s legacy and in part, I believe, contributed to the demise of dominionist domination in the American political arena.

In Australia, its take-off was far less assured: despite the popularity of Hillsong and all her hideous little bastard offspring, sexual purity was less of a big deal here than abroad. Our religion has always been a little more mainline, our big preachers less televised, their political influence (Toned Abs notwithstanding) positively piss-weak in comparison. 

This isn’t to say that undercurrents of misogyny and calvinistic ‘just-world’ thinking don’t exist here: to wit, comments by clergy that Jill Meagher may not have been murdered had she not been out so late at night are mealy-mouthed nods to the notion that female sexuality is a corruptible, dangerous force, turning even the most mild-mannered of repeat parole breachers and serial sadists into murderers. However, the backlash this received prompted the diocese to apologise publicly for the statements – an idea unthinkable had it been Pat Robertson or James Dobson commenting.

Our form of asceticism is thus not of the dancing and drinking variety: more, it is of the dietary abstinence kind. Its proponents are not bland-faced, plainly dressed and dour of disposition, but fashionable, charismatic and able to sell wholesale the notion that our bodies are only moments away from total corruption and ruin lest we so much as think of a hot chip sanga made on white bread.

My first introduction to Jess Ainscough – the regrettably deceased and even more regrettably influential ‘Wellness Warrior’ blogger – came in 2013 thanks to her tantrum against a Byron Bay cafe who dared serve her a burger that may or may not have been fully organic. Ainscough, undergoing the thoroughly discredited, dangerous, fraudulent cancer ‘treatment’ as espoused by the Gerson Clinic (seemingly only run in Mexico and Hungary – so legitimate right now) said of the incident:

I felt dirty. I felt like I needed to give my insides about 10 showers. I was so shocked that I just hung up the phone, but I wish I’d told her that her since her “cancer fighting” burger contains pesticides it is actually cancer causing.

This is a reasonably hyperbolic approach. There are few who practice evidence-based medicine who would be at all worried about a potentially unwashed bit of cos, and probably more who would be happy if people ate just one meat-free, fat-free meal in between bong-binges and all night drinks on their Byron holiday. The way Ainscough carried on, however, you’d have thought Manna Haven Cafe had offered her a suitcase full of ebola. The thought that one meal is unlikely to undo multiple years of disciplined neurotic eating is equally unlikely as it is uninspiring: just like religious faith imperilled by reading Harry Potter, a form of treatment can hardly be very good or worth keeping up if it can be undone by one lousy vegan burger. More than anything the experience made me feel sympathetic for Ainscough: imagine the thing that is jeopardising your health is one lame, meat-free, fat-free, fun-free burger. And imagine one’s last years of life spent hovering over an enema bucket while you slavishly prepare a bloody juice every hour every day of your life, never enjoying the simple pleasures of nutella sandwiches with a perfect bread:nutella ratio of 40:60, or sipping a coldie on one’s front deck after a blistering party, or a Sunday afternoon spent with builder’s tea, scotch fingers and a similarly introverted friend.

More detrimental than a regimented adherence to organic food, or paleo, or macrobiotics, or raw veganism, or any other highly restricted diet is a fervent rejection of conventional, evidence-based medicine. Such as with nutritionism, it shares extreme chemophobia and a confusing approach to bodily purity which sees ‘unnatural’ interventions such as surgery, chemotherapy, controlled antibiotic use, vaccines and anaesthesia as sullying and toxic.

As an approach it bears numerous similarities to the sexual abstinence movement: it is focussed on femininity and women, with numerous appeals to natural fertility, sexual desirability and some fallacious exhortations that we ‘know our bodies better than any doctor’ and to ‘make our own choices and do our own research’. Practitioners are predominantly not evidence-based: Cyndi O’Meara, anti-vaccination nutritionist and friend of the harbinger of epidemic doom Meryl Dorey, brags about having “never taken an antibiotic, painkiller or any other form of medication in her entire life” – as though this qualifies her to offer health advice. It is a classic naturalistic fallacy: the idea that somehow, these anachronistic refugees of a wholesome, organic Arcadia are here to save us is as offensive as it is silly. Arsenic is natural. Asbestos is natural. Great white sharks and funnel-web spiders are natural – and they are obviously not good for us.

Conventional medical treatment – especially chemotherapy – is always framed by the wellness movement as ‘burning, slashing and poisoning’, and indeed, this is true. There is good reason why, as treatment, it is limited to cancer, or hepatitis C, or ulcerative collitis: it is because it is so efficacious and destructive to cancer cells that it can do damage to other non-cancerous cells, and for this reason it is strictly administered and monitored. For some forms of cancer, patients are advised to avoid unprotected sex with their partners, so teratogenic are their treatments, and many women become infertile as a result of chemotherapy or surgery. It is not hard to see a bald cancer patient, or one with extremely photophobic skin and eyes (as my own mother suffered from when receiving cancer treatment) and to see poisoning and corruption at work. It is a very fire and brimstone kind of threat: go natural, or spend eternity in the circle of hell set aside for ball-busters, single mothers and the criminally unfuckable.

It is this fear of lost femininity – and the fertility, beauty and wholeness which stand as proxies for traditional, conservative femininity – that pseudoscientific hacks play at, and it is not a huge stretch to point out that their view on femininity and its proxies of conventional heterosexist allure and maternal instincts as being so natural and ingrained is one that is inherently problematic to feminist discourse and the notion of performed gender. It is also not a huge stretch to argue that an essentialist, naturalistic ideal of conservative femininity – combined with a disdain for synthetic hormones and surgical intervention – is inherently transphobic and exclusive. (The wellness movement, with its recommendation for expensive organic food and for unverified therapies that cost more than a bulk billing GP appointment, is already exclusive economically, needless to say.)

Belle Gibson did it particularly well in her own fraudulent tirade against evidence-based medicine. She railed against the government for ‘giving her cancer’ through the Gardasil injection, and the likeness to a predatory, unthinking rapist is drawn. The ‘rape’ analogy is especially frequently drawn in anti-vaccination circles surrounding consent, and as a feminist who is particularly cognisant of rape culture and issues with consent (especially with young people and children) it is concerning and insulting to the medical community and to all victims of sexual assault and abuse. The frequent calling-cry of antivaccine proponents or opponents of chemotherapy is to beware the toxins: a call which is hugely ignorant pharmacologically, yet devastating in playing into the fears of a largely ignorant community who are not scientifically literate while being very afraid.

Gibson was an especially interesting case: at times, her message was unpalatable (her twitter posts about Gardasil were far less likely to be shared than her pilfered ‘bliss ball’ recipes). However, when she was on-message was when she was at her best: beautiful, dignified, holding her equally photogenic son aloft in photography as if to highlight her feminine credentials. She managed to be the perfect amalgamation of the Victorian era ‘angel of the house’ ideal – beautiful, resigned, devotedly maternal, pure – and the twenty-first century wellness pin-up – wealthy, photogenic, business-savvy, zen. That she was ‘suffering’ with her cancer was all the more symbolic; it provided a cheap, accessible form of empathy to her readers, and her ‘survival’ literally elevated her to miracle-status. She was in every way the Mother Theresa of the movement: both in her superficial facade of kindness and charity, and in her more real apathy to the suffering of those in her care, and in her financial avarice and ethical disinterest in where the money came from, be it from deposed Romanian dictator or desperate Instagram fans. Hitchens surely would have had a field day with her.

The pseudoscientific wellness community, despite invoking messages of ‘free choice’ and escaping from the patriarchy of western medicine, is decidedly antifeminist in its goals and semiotics. Feminism – especially second and third wave feminism – has long since railed against prevailing notions of women being the gatekeepers of sexual purity and community morality, or the idea that women and girls are forever sullied because of sexual contact. In particular, third-wave and postcolonial feminism has done much to challenge notions of rape victims being forever ‘damaged’ or devalued by their experiences, and has long since campaigned for the equal rights of women globally to receive quality healthcare in the form of contraceptive cover and family planning, vaccines and treatment of childbirth complications like fistulas with surgery and antibiotic treatment. These are all things that are making a real difference in the lives of women globally: lifespans are improving, risks of maternal and childhood mortality are plummeting, and economic and educational opportunities are possible all because of treatments empirically proven to work – unlike green smoothies and acupuncture, which might make people who can afford them feel ‘more connected with their true selves’. And like the fight against conventional medicine in Australia, so too are pseudoscientific beliefs predicated on irrational notions being used to fight AIDS treatment in Ghana and South Africa, and vaccine programs in Pakistan. These aims too are achieved by manipulating and abusing operant gender discourses about traditional femininity, and made even more extreme and deadly by the vehemence with which this femininity is endorsed and enforced upon women globally.

And, in the end, it is all for nought: Ainscough’s inevitable death was met with callous indifference from the Gerson Clinic responsible for her early death (fobbing off critics with a heartless “she stopped following us three years ago, but like, totes sad, babes”), and from woo pedlars quick to claim that had only she lived a better life sooner, or been even more adherent to Gerson’s dietary restrictions, or been more positive, she might have survived. People die every day of cancer – even if the treatment is evidence-based. But the difference between real doctors and the charlatans is the phrasing. With evidence based practitioners, the cancer killed the patient, or the treatment failed. I am yet to see a publically renowned, media-prominent doctor berating or criticising a patient for not being positive enough, or for not attracting the right energy, or for not eating enough organic food. The wellness crowd do. The wellness crowd say illness is a personal moral failure: a manifestation of negativity, poor choices and a failure to keep oneself pure.

There is little to distinguish the wellness industry from the cold, harsh doctrine that we are all born fallen and that our demise is deserved of Calvinist theology. There is no light, or kindness, or healing, or warmth. It is boldly antifeminist, anti-humanist, and anti-evidence. And just as feminism rejects the idea that a body is degraded or unworthy due to sexual impurity, so too must it fight the notion that we are undeserving, unwholesome or less-than because we choose medicine as our medicine, or dare to imbibe in the less-than organic.

To conclude, I don’t believe Jess Ainscough operated under nefarious intent. (The same cannot be said of Gibson, who lies like a lying liar who lies.) Like most in the industry, she found a medium which was profitable, connected her with an audience of millions, and which relied on the trends of the time in terms of conservative self-interest, narcissistic arrogance and special snowflake syndrome. Unlike the others, she sold a fatal bill of goods, and those who promoted her uncritically, even in the absence of evidence or logic or the actual fear that justified Ainscough’s actions to some degree, deserve to be brought into the spotlight and challenged for their culpability in spreading this message.

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5 thoughts on “Jess Ainscough, Belle Gibson and the New Purity Movement: How Nutritionism and Pseudoscience Overtook the Fundamentalist Focus on Bodily Integrity and Acceptable Femininity

  1. Agree with the “wellness” movement sharing (or just doing an exceptional job of appearing to) a common ancestor with harsh old School Calvinism. It seems to tap right into the intrinsic tendency of many to believe in a “Just World Hypothesis” – and it does seem to canonize many of the same Victorian “feminine virtues” as conservative Christianity, just with a large side serving of malignant narcissism.

    I’m almost grateful for the advent of Belle Gibson – in the wake of her downfall.

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    • The Just World hypothesis is guilty for a lot. For all the love, light and ‘kindness’ these people purportedly have, a lot of what they do is good old fashioned classist victim-blaming. Ben Goldacre’s writing on Gillian McKeith and the right wing individualism entailed in nutritionism as a discipline is on-point:

      And that’s the most sinister feature of the whole nutritionist project, graphically exemplified by McKeith: it’s a manifesto of rightwing individualism – you are what you eat, and people die young because they deserve it. They choose death, through ignorance and laziness, but you choose life, fresh fish, olive oil, and that’s why you’re healthy. You’re going to see 78. You deserve it. Not like them.

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