Cultural appropriation in wellness and the modernization of medieval medicine

Fad wellness is more than just the fashion of health, it’s often the fashion of other cultures. In the latest addition to a growing corpus of surprisingly insightful food-related reporting, Bon Appetit considers how the wellness industry has coopted Indian food traditions and what that means. This sits right at the nexus of some of my favorite hobbies – cooking, writing history, and trashing Orientalism. So, consider this a follow-up to my thoughts on wellness as the modern medieval, except with more racism.

The Wellness movement should be the antithesis of “traditional” cooking, since it’s all about modernizing and pseudo-science. But through the magic of Orientalism, long-standing traditions can become new and fashionable if you take them out of context and set them up in a new space where the testament of history is proof of efficacy. To be clear, I’m not arguing about whether Ayurveda or other traditions of diet-based medicine do or don’t work (I think they’re probably a mixed bag) – I’m concerned with what happens to us socially when we selectively borrow cultural elements to lend authority to a fad.

When I talked about medieval medicine in the modern world, there were fairly low stakes, because medieval culture isn’t organically present now, and so rehabilitating choice elements of it doesn’t impact any social order in today’s world. But when there are people who do still practice this tradition, and the tradition is invoked as a kind of ancient wisdom, it pushes all those people who live by it back into the past by association.

In fact, medieval medicine worldwide was largely based on diet, because medicine was largely preventative. But in the course of the Scientific Revolution, which was obsessed with elevating Man to a place where he could control Nature, focus shifted to curative medicine, medicine that was designed as a focused attack on disease. There’s a whole debate about why the Scientific Revolution was a European phenomenon, and my personal theory is that the Protestant Reformation signaled an era of criticizing the institutions of religion as domineering and impenetrable – in medicine, this meant articulating a divide between God’s ability to create disease and Man’s ability to fight it. This divide didn’t exist so much outside of Protestant-conflict areas, not because those peoples were so much less critical of their belief systems, but because their systems of medicine had developed in tandem with religious traditions, rather than in opposition to them. For newly woke Protestants (and Catholics who were invigorated by the conflict), it was important to test the boundaries of God’s influence and attempt to take charge by imitating acts of Creation. In that line of thought, curative medicine is a human Creation, distilling natural ingredients to their most potent essential parts and therefore distancing them from their natural state, in order to use them according to a human design.

The medical system that developed out of this impulse is highly compartmentalized and concerned with addressing individual ills rather than preventing illness broadly with diet and activity. This compartmentalized, man vs nature system also came up as the concept of race was being developed, and so it positions itself against non-white societies as part of an ideology of modernization. This divide played out on the issue of spices, which were integrated into holistic medical systems as part of diet, but refined into distinct medicines in the compartmentalized system of medicine. Racial ideology developed in part as a fuel to justify conflict and competition between major world empires, and so even though Europeans had previously eaten heavily spiced food in an earlier time, growing competition with Eastern empires, particularly the Ottomans, partially cut off access to spices and made them first a taste delicacy and then a symbol of dirty uncouthness.

As we in the US move toward rehabilitating preventative medicine, we see dietary medicine as part of our past. But because we see Asian cultures in the present practicing this kind of medicine, and because we have already established this association between Asian food, timelessness, and a lack of sophistication, we see Asian cultures as living in the past. This, incidentally, is the basic definition of Orientalism, which makes this my first post about Orientalism (how did it take me so long? this is one of my favorite/most hated historical topics). In the ideology of Orientalism, Westerners of means typically believe that imitating Asian lifestyles will transport them back to a simpler time, before the advent of modern technology made life so much more complicated.

But when we imitate, we continue to compartmentalize, cherry picking the aspects of these medical systems that we think will help with our specific issues. This is exactly what comes across in the Bon Appetit article: 

The cherry-picking of Ayurvedic tenants is worrying to Kadri. “This is just normal food for a lot of people, so suddenly wrapping it up as a superfood with magical properties is just gimmicky,” she says. Ratnam is also concerned about what this selectiveness means from a health perspective. “People in America are always looking for quick-fix solutions, and I think this is contrary to what the true philosophy of Ayurveda is about,” he says. To him, Ayurveda means creating balance and intention. Plates of ghee-roasted meat with tall glasses of “golden milk” for every meal isn’t that.

Taking bits and pieces of another tradition and intentionally inserting them into ours is problematic – it delegitimizes an active culture to take peices of it and use it in this way without any understanding of the larger system of context that actually makes it work (and that is the definition of cultural appropriation). As Ratnam points out, the concept of Ayurveda is more about balance than it is about the specific foods. So in our compartmentalized mindset, we believe we can take just the lesson from that philosophy that applies to the problem we want to solve – fatty food is bad for you, but it’s not bad if you use a healthy fat, so let’s make equally fatty food but now with coconut oil! – and then throw out the whole culture when we discover that approach doesn’t work (it turns out coconut oil is still fat).

But it would be equally disingenuous to take on an “ancient” tradition whole hog, because systems of medicine are about finding the right cure in the appropriate context, and the context of modern America is not the same as the contexts in which Ayurveda was and continues to develop. We approach these traditions with skepticism because we frame them as ancient, which to us means “based on superstition and derived through randomness”, even though, really, these are modern because they exist, have aged into, the modern world. They are not lost in time and suddenly uncovered in the modern world, but rather have grown over time, and so they are just as modern as post-Scientific Revolution medicine is in the West.

And yet the language of Orientalism has bled into even the way native proponents of this tradition talk about it: 

But Ratnam continues to be optimistic about the role of Indian food stateside. “America is definitely getting browner, and I think people are embracing spicier food more,” he says. He just hopes that Indians can own and lead this moment in the health space. After all, he says, “India was 5,000 years early to the wellness movement.”

The modern world as a whole has so thoroughly embraced the idea that this tradition is timeless, that spice and flavor are the antithesis of whiteness, that even an Indian chef in the West presents his own culture in this frame. And yet there is a way to organically and respectfully absorb new cultural elements without decontextualizing them or diminishing them. It involves combining contexts, rather than replacing one with another. That doesn’t mean living in India as a tourist for 6 months, or even for a lifetime. It means no longer seeing that culture as foreign and coming to see yourself as naturally a part of it because it exists around you. You know, the way we do with new elements that develop in our own culture.