What condition my condition is in
A few weekends ago, I gave into peer pressure and morbid curiosity and queued up Goop Lab: the Netflix series by Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s “lifestyle and e-commerce” company. I knew very little about Goop, except that they sell really expensive stuff, that they were sanctioned for making unsubstantiated medical claims about their infamous jade vaginal eggs, and that the promotional image for the show was hilarious. The show consists of six short episodes, each featuring a wellness trend, treatment, or subject. Every episode is hosted by Gwyneth Paltrow and Goop “chief content officer” Elise Loehnen, who has the screen presence of a stunned hostage. And in each episode, a trim, young collection of fresh-faced Goop staffers try out the featured treatment, exercise, or experience. If that doesn’t already seem like a potential HR nightmare, the show adopts a “monster of the week” format where the monster in each episode is the personal trauma or health struggle of someone that Gwyneth and Elise directly employ.
There’s something to hate in every episode, and that something is usually pseudoscience coupled with the truly insufferable dynamic between Gwyneth and Elise. The first episode, however, is about the therapeutic potential of psychoactive drugs — which is actually not pseudoscience. This episode still manages to strike a number of sour notes: using not so great images to illustrate the ancient and “primitive” nature of psychedelic healing, the fact that a crew of white Goop staffers fly to Jamaica to take psilocybin mushrooms (because sale and consumption of psychedelic drugs is not regulated in Jamaica), that they take mushrooms under the guidance of several white “shamans” who make very interesting use of the term “western” to refer to places other than Jamaica (Kingston is less than two hours from Miami by commercial jet). Their attitude to actually doing mushrooms is baffling; it looks miserable, more akin to childbirth or a grueling root canal than something tons of bored teenagers do for fun every day with no guidance besides maybe a cursory glance at the Erowid vaults. In what quickly becomes a Goop Lab signature, they talk about themselves in the language of valor and courage, in this instance for flying to a poor, mostly Black country to do drugs consequence-free for TV while the devastating reverberations of drug prohibition in the US continue mostly unabated. And while I don’t necessarily recommend taking large doses of psychoactive drugs at, say, an amusement park or Little Italy Days, their guides force them to sit on an enclosed porch for the entire ~4 hours of their trip, swaddled in blankets and wearing headphones. I hope the headphones were at least playing the 13th Floor Elevators.
The mushrooms episode is the first one, and the rest (save for one other) slather the pseudoscience on thicker than a $125 exfoliating face mask. The second episode, “Cold Comfort,” features something called the “Wim Hof method” of “cold therapy.” This time the Goop staff travel to a remote cabin in Big Bear (or something) to study with Wim Hof himself, who bears a jarring resemblance to Slavoj Žižek. In the cabin, surrounded by thick snow, they lay on carpets on the floor and do aggressive breathing exercise while a sweaty and red-faced Wim shouts cryptic wellness slogans at them. The only thing missing from the menacing The Shining atmosphere here is an aerial tracking shot of the Goop G-wagon winding its way up the Pacific Coast Highway. According to this episode, to Wim Hof, and to the proponents hired to do testimonials for the show, breathing exercises and cold showers can cure everything from panic attacks to blood infections. And so, after their breathing training, the Goop crew troop outside to do yoga barefoot in the snow and to jump into heart-stopping cold water. The staffer whose weekly trauma is exposed in order to be addressed by this “modality” claims at the end of the episode to be tapering off her antidepressant medication because, through nearly dying of hypothermia, she discovered that her anxiety and depression are “all in her mind” and can be controlled without meds (presumably with the aid of cold showers and breathing).
There’s an episode about energy healing, in which we learn that “energy” or “human energy” is real, stored in the collagen in your connective tissue, and that somehow we know this even though, conveniently for proponents of energy healing, we haven’t developed technology sensitive enough to actually measure it yet. This episode claims that the double slit experiment (which actually demonstrated the wave-particle duality of light) proved that reiki and by extension human energy are real. We’re treated to the visceral nightmare of observing a live energy healing session, in which a bunch of people in pastel dance gear fake tonic muscle contractions and groan loudly while their energy is “worked on,” bringing to mind a Kate Bush video directed on ten tabs of Bart Simpson acid. (Elise, who is filmed undergoing energy healing, claims she had “an exorcism”). There’s an episode about mediums and psychics, in which a medium claims to communicate with a Goop employee’s dead mother, fucks up “reading” another Goop employee (a camerawoman jumps in to save the day, claiming that the medium is actually reading her), and guides a few skeptics through some exercises that are supposed to demonstrate that if we can’t reach through the veil of reality to the other side and communicate with our dead loved ones — well, that just means we’re just not sufficiently open to it.
Episode 4, “The Health-Span Plan,” is about biological age. Biological age is an idea that has been floating around the health sciences for awhile, but to my (admittedly limited) knowledge, there’s not a single gold-standard measure for biological age, or even a firm consensus on what biological age actually is. Never fear, though! Elise and Gwyneth talk to a young researcher who developed a prediction algorithm for biological age using — get this — nine biomarker measures! And the way to lower your biological age, measured by this algorithm, is to starve yourself. One of the Goop staffers tries a vegan diet, Elise delivers a front-facing camera confessional about the challenges of being pescatarian for a few weeks, and Gwyneth, always the best, the most committed, and the most well, does a scientific starvation diet. Naturally, after only (!) five days of eating nothing but reconstituted freeze-dried gruel, Gwyneth’s biological age has been “lowered” the most relative to her comrades.
There is one episode that even fairly skeptical and cutting reviews have praised, which is Episode 3, “The Pleasure is Ours.” This is the one featuring sex educator Betty Dodson and a slideshow of actual human vulvas. It doesn’t traffic in pseudoscience, Betty Dodson is legitimate, and it is kind of cool to have cis women’s sexual pleasure demystified and explained on a TV show, even this one. However, I found even this material off-putting in the hands of the Goop team. Gwyneth notes, while images of different vulvas are presented on screen, that Goop Lab did this to be brave and revolutionary, yes, but also to show viewers at home that we’re “not alone.” Gwyneth: thank you.
Part of the reason I couldn’t vibe with the sisterhood message on this episode of Goop Lab is that sisterhood isn’t a principle or a value, but a corporate and public relations strategy: sisterhood is the deflection for every criticism one might lob at Goop. Not on board with energy healing? But the vulva episode was so empowering. Feeling like Goop is exploiting the well-founded mistrust of the scientific and medical establishments that many women feel to sell horseshit? As women, we’re constantly told that our knowledge doesn’t matter… The show is intensely individualizing: everything is attainable with the right treatment and the right attitude (Gwyneth remarks at one point that she “always says” that “the best wellness is free”); modern-day malaises like depression and anxiety result not from the horrible pressures that crush us but from a lack of discipline and control over your emotions and the alignment of your chakras. Goop exists in a world without sick people where everyone relentlessly seeks “healing” as another mode of self-improvement and self-optimization. But we, the viewers at home, know that all the green juice in the world isn’t going to protect you from the air pollution hanging over Santa Monica, the climate instability that threatens all of us, the relentless stalking pursuit of debt: credit card, student loan, medical. The only time larger societal factors enter into the Goop universe is, again, as a deflection of criticism and a reason not to trust “mainstream doctors”: as women, the patriarchy doesn’t want us to know that you can achieve self-knowledge and self-love for the low price of a Betty Dodson workshop, or that you can acclimate to the strenuous pace of your having-it-all life with cold showers if you feel that something isn’t quite right. Also not very feminist: the cult of personality around Gwyneth herself, with Elise playing the less beautiful, less perfect foil to Gwyneth’s wellness goddess. Not a single episode passes without Elise remarking that Gwyneth will “beat” her at whatever that episode’s subject is. In one case this comes down to a literal pushups contest which Gwyneth, of course, wins (while Elise adoringly coos that Gwyneth is “so strong”).
I felt a profound sense of disappointment as I realized that Goop is the logical culmination of profit-seeking enterprises discovering the sales potential of cults — think Don Draper conjuring up a transcendental Coca-Cola ad from the depths of a beach-side meditation sesh. If Goop had some kind of wacky apocalyptic mythology behind their promotion of wild wellness ideas, I’d be genuinely interested, but there’s no there there — just ice-cream colored sweater-skirt ensembles and an aggressive sales quota for juices that give you diarrhea. Public health and medicine share a lot of the responsibility for why Goop is such a phenomenon: years to get a diagnosis of endometriosis, a high burden of morbidity and mortality attributed to the fact that health professionals just don’t listen to or (at worst, but more often than you think) actively abuse birthing people, centuries of gendered racism built in to the practice of medicine, laser focus on behavior and lifestyle choices as key drivers of health combined with frequently misogynist focus on weight and appearance… is it any wonder that people with disposable income might be attracted to what Goop is selling?
While Gwyneth is doing her starvation diet, she has her daughter Apple film her at home. Her confession, on day three of the diet, that she’s “dying for chia pudding” — equal parts sad, ridiculous, narcissistic, and relatable. In some way, that’s our just desert, and Goop itself the cynical and exploitative photo-negative of our own hubris.