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Faculty Spotlight

Colleen Derkatch





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“Wellness” as Incipient Illness: Contemporary Health Discourse and Dietary Supplements

In this project, I examine the ways that the idea of wellness is framed in public discourse, across domains such as advertising, popular media, the internet, medical and health clinics, and the consumer marketplace. Wellness has become ubiquitous in contemporary North American culture: we can buy wellness-oriented products, such as books, magazines, candles, yoga sets, body care products, pet foods, cereals, and teas; and we can visit wellness spas, clinics, veterinarians, and even hotels offering wellness-package deals. We can protect our wellness by taking dietary supplements such as vitamins, minerals, and herbal preparations, and track the products we consume on our smart phones, along with our diet, exercise, moods, and even sex lives. In each of these cases, the idea of wellness is an important marketing tool. But what are we really talking about when we talk about wellness? What does it mean to protect our wellness, and what are we protecting ourselves from?

The focus of my research is on the ways that the idea of wellness—a self-perception that encompasses physical, psychological, social, and spiritual domains—is framed in public discourse as a form of incipient illness, an illness-in-waiting that must be carefully observed and protected. My study aims to illustrate that the medically-oriented illness model not only supplies the very terms in which we think and talk about wellness; it also provides the terms in which we think and talk about ourselves as consumers, citizens, and persons with bodies. The processes through which wellness is mapped onto an illness model are fundamentally discursive in nature, centred on persuasion. These processes occur at the level of language itself, deeply embedded in a pervasive illness-centric, pharmaceutical-oriented inscription of ordinary health problems as serious medical concerns (e.g., menopause).

To illuminate this conceptual mapping of wellness onto an illness model, I am focusing particularly on dietary supplements and the discursive activities surrounding their marketing and use. Dietary supplements, such as high-dose vitamins and herbal remedies such as echinacea and ginkgo, are promoted widely in public discourse as a means of promoting one’s wellness. However, I argue that the terms in which supplements are defined and described in wellness discourse are embedded within an illness framework, in which supplements do not enhance the well body as much as they treat one that is poised to be ill.


Dr. Derkatch’s research and teaching focus on rhetorical theory and criticism, particularly rhetorics of science, medicine, and health. Dr. Derkatch received the 2013 Ryerson Faculty of Arts New Faculty Teaching Award.