Home Tech ‘Wellness is a multibillion-dollar cult. Now I see through it’: the clean-living Instagrammer who learned to let go

‘Wellness is a multibillion-dollar cult. Now I see through it’: the clean-living Instagrammer who learned to let go

by Elijah
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‘Wellness is a multibillion-dollar cult. Now I see through it’: the clean-living Instagrammer who learned to let go

Lee Tilghman entered the online world in the early 2010s, with a healthy eating blog she started in college. Influence just became a thing. When she moved to Instagram in 2014, along with the rest of her generation, and presented one of her smoothie bowls, she gained 20,000 followers overnight. “Brands started contacting me to send me products,” she recalls now.

Two years later, she quit her nine-to-five life and moved from Connecticut to Los Angeles. Within a year, she gained another 100,000 followers, an agency and a manager. “I was making over $15,000 per post and working with major food and lifestyle brands who were selling out of everything I posted about.”

Tilghman in an Instagram post. Photo: Instagram/@leefromamerica

Her lifestyle fit the wellness ethos, says Tilghman, 34, who lives in Brooklyn, New York. “I believed that everything in a package was bad. I ate only organic fruits, vegetables and grains, no complex carbohydrates. I was afraid of using unnatural cleaning products and I practiced intermittent fasting from 7 p.m. to noon.”

Content was the only thing on her mind, but her extreme lifestyle quickly took its toll. “My followers told me they loved me, but I didn’t have time to spend with friends. Looking at the comments on my posts, it was like I was undergoing a performance review every day. I remember getting 100,000 followers and being ecstatic for a day before I wanted 1 million.”

In 2018, the internet “semi-canceled” her for teaching too many workshops. “The truth is that wellness is truly inaccessible,” says Tilghman. “I was publicly shamed to the point where I contemplated suicide.” Her ‘healthy’ diet had also caused an eating disorder. She took five months off, lived off her savings and entered a treatment center. “Social media rewards extremes and obsessions, and wellness is dangerous territory. My body was my calling card and I was afraid of gaining weight. It wasn’t just about what I promoted, but also about what I heard and received online.”

When she returned to her social channels, she left behind everything she had become known for. “Social media was still where I managed to make money, so I went back, but I was no longer into wellness,” she says. Instead, she started posting about her life, her dog, fashion and interiors.

“I was eating well and looked healthier too. If I wanted candy, I ate candy. My favorite foods became pasta, sandwiches and Vietnamese. I let myself enjoy life and food and stopped living so rigidly. It was liberating.” However, it led to a backlash from followers. “People said, ‘You’re going from one extreme to the other.’ Some really cared, but others wrote nasty things. Because I had gained some weight, some speculated that I was pregnant.”

Outside of well-being, the number of followers fell from almost 400,000 to 300,000 and her commercial percentage fell by 70%. ‘Financially it was nothing, but it wasn’t worth it. I kept thinking about something a therapist had said: that she didn’t believe there was a healthy way to interact with social media. I wasn’t in love with it anymore.”

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In 2020, Tilghman moved to New York and stopped posting for a while. “I actually ghosted my channels,” she says. “I gradually resumed, but it became normal use, just like anyone else, just with a lot of followers.” Not only has she left wellness behind, she now provides marketing advice, runs $40 workshops on how to stop being an influencer and has a book in the works about her time as an influencer and why she walked away.

“Sometimes I miss those easy early days when I made $20,000 in mail, but wellness is a multi-billion dollar industry that’s like a cult. I see right through it. People on the street still say “hello” every now and then and sometimes people comment on my Instagram saying, “I wish you would just go back to the recipes,” but that’s like telling Bob Dylan to go back to the folk music. I have moved on.”

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