When the world took a turn toward constant bad news, the already-intense chorus of “self-help” tips just got louder. Four Michigan alumni noticed and responded, by moonlighting as writers for the satirical website The Whole Wheat Post. The website boasts headlines like “No fair! This Woman Lost 60 Pounds After Being Stuck On A Desert Island For 2 Years” and “Triumphant At Last: We Have Beat Our Girlfriend At Sex,” bringing much-needed levity to sheltering-in-place. In the content they publish on their site, they enact a playful engagement with the advertising content we as denizens of the Internet are often forced to consume. I caught up with them by phone over the break to get a better sense of what drives their work together.
The Post’s writers are Omkar Deshpande, Tara Dorje, Zofia Ferki and Ethan Szlezinger. The group worked together very closely during their undergraduate careers at the University of Michigan from 2016-2020, writing and working on the editorial board together at one of the University’s esteemed satire publications, The Every Three Weekly. But after graduation, the writers didn’t want to see their working relationships come to an end.
Szlezinger, who majored in English and minored in Political Science while serving as the ETW’s editor in chief, described how they arrived at what he identified as the ‘wellness industrial complex’ — a predatory industry rife with possibilities for satire that were largely left uncommented on. As the pandemic continued and a period of social unrest exploded during the summer, they felt compelled to write more about other subjects such as politics, corporate commodification of social movements and climate change.
“We were an extremely strong team as an editorial board, and we knew that we didn’t want to stop what we were doing after graduation,” Szlezinger said, adding that due to the close-knit nature of their group throughout college it often felt like they “were students by day and satire writers creating content together around a table in the Fishbowl by night.”
At the beginning of quarantine, the group continued to get together over Zoom to write satire and soon realized they could streamline their voices to fill a satirical niche in the media landscape: health and wellness.
“It’s pretty shocking to us that there wasn’t yet a satirical outlet to cover health and wellness,” Szlezinger said. “So much health and wellness media is misleading, dangerous or just total drivel, so I would say that it is the niche that is the most deserving of satire.”
Dorje agreed. She explained that, as someone who majored in Art History and minored in Film and Television, writing concise articles about a central topic is something that felt natural to her when she first started writing for The Every Three Weekly. Now, most of what she writes for The Post is focused on body image.
“It’s interesting because I grew up seeing how this type of personal training has transformed into something used for helping companies,” Dorje said. “We’re seeing (meditation) help different groups achieve increased worker productivity or resilience for combat situations, which is completely antithetical to the practice,” Dorje added, alluding to military resilience training that uses meditation. She also noted the absurdity of how the media endlessly pushes consumers to move toward a better version of themselves for profit at the expense of their actual well-being.
Deshpande, who studied Computer Science, said he believes the corporate world’s use and commodification of wellness culture can be dangerous and misleading. When asked about optimization culture, he talked about the inconvenient truths exposed by COVID-19 and why he felt they were important to write about.
“COVID-19 has kind of exposed how we function in society. You see a lot of (content) telling you to make up the difference yourself when it’s not even your fault much of the time,” he said. “For example, you see all this stuff telling you to buy metal straws. Yeah, you can do that and yeah, hopefully, it’ll help but who’s going to tell the major contributors (of) this problem?”
Deshpande added that the health food industry is a major contributor to the tacitly accepted practice of laying blame on low-income populations, who are statistically more likely to experience obesity because healthy food can be prohibitively expensive: “If you can’t afford to eat healthy food then what are you going to do?”
Ferki, who studied Creative Writing & Literature and German in the Residential College, told me the group wanted to find a way to continue to focus on other aspects of America’s predicament while still illuminating the problematic side of the wellness industry. To ensure they could continue to cover more ground, the group added a news section.
Ferki added that although she personally prefers to satirize politics and dating culture, she found the notion that wellness activities comprise the universal answers to our woes — especially at the height of a global pandemic — to be especially deceptive.
“It’s kind of become this unspoken thing that these things are inherently … the answer, and if they’re not working for you you’re not trying hard enough,” she said.
Ultimately, The Post’s writers identified a unifying goal: their desire to imitate and highlight the absurdity of listening to an algorithm that preys on the consumer’s desire for a quick fix.
Szlezinger further described the act of writing satire as one way to “mimic and destroy” predatory content, which he added has the potential to destroy lives.
“I mean, there’s just so much misinformation out there, and (there are) so many companies promoting dangerous products and information for their own gain,” he said. “It can be really harmful and The Whole Wheat Post is here to offer an alternative to media that can have such a detrimental impact on its readers.”
Daily Arts Writer Sierra Élise Hansen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.