The GPs have spoken. A plague of “heath hoaxes” is upon us, promoted by those who should know better – the famous and the rich. The most useless of these alternative treatments, according to a survey of doctors carried out by the isurance firm Aviva, is called “cupping” and is associated with Gwyneth Paltrow. Then there is that old favourite of Princess Diana’s, colonic irrigation.
If the rest of the top 10 allegedly useless medical trends were abandoned, several mini-industries would collapse. Food intolerance testing, detox programmes, macrobiotic diets, aromatherapy, reflexology, vitamin B12 injections, extreme yoga and overnight stays on health farms all stand condemned.
It is fair to say that one of the reasons people – almost all of them women, it is widely assumed in the reports – turn to celebrity diets and cures is that they have lost faith in the conventional medical way of doing things.
Cupping has been pretty good to Gwyneth by the look of things, so why not try that rather than risk embarrassment asking a doctor about everyday matters of diet, exercise and stress? GPs are not exactly known for their smiling tolerance, a fact borne out by this rather sweeping survey. What, some people may wonder, is so wrong with detoxification or even extreme yoga? If aromatherapy or reflexology work for some people – for whatever reason – should they be dismissed?
The survey is a useful reminder of how a fixation with fame has worked its way into the cultural bloodstream. The one sickness for which the medical establishment has yet to find a cure is our culture’s obsessive celebrity disorder. The fantasy island of the famous, occupied by a small, privileged elite, has become a general object of yearning. Children grow up dreaming that one day, through some act of inexpressible magic, they will be transported there from the grey mainland where their parents and peers live.
For some time, the rise and fall of the famous – their hell-and-back journeys into the dark worlds of addiction, infidelity and, worst of all, obscurity – have played out like tales of the Greek gods, providing the civilian world with models of good and bad behaviour. Over time, unsurprisingly, these people have become gurus, possessed of a wisdom about health and living well that is denied to the rest of us.
It is easy, and wrong, to be snobbish about these things. I have attended a literary reading by two senior novelists at which the question and answer session involving the audience quickly moved from books to life, marriage, children, getting, staying sane. It felt like mass therapy.
Now a series of pamphlets, called “19 Raptures” and written in aid of the Rehabilitation of Addicted Prisoners, has brought the celebrity diet approach to addiction and psychiatric problems. Will Self has written an essay on self-obsession, Billy Childish contributes his thoughts on alcoholism. Some of the pieces are excellent and thought-provoking – Beth Orton’s description of smoking to remain close to her father, a chain smoker, after he had died is particularly good.
Yet nowhere in the pamphlets does anyone address the curious and now almost universal malaise of fame addiction.