It all started with a muffin recipe and the Master Cleanse—at least, that’s how Goop chronicles the birth of Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness empire on their website’s timeline. In this fantastical retelling of Paltrow’s climb to alternative health infamy, she baked her dad a dairy-free, gluten-free, sugar-free muffin, got really into cupping, and then felt compelled to share her insights with the world via a newsletter. With each additional rung climbed toward success—two best selling cookbooks, brick and mortar stores across the country, and a Netflix show—Paltrow’s brand has been laughed off. After publishing her second cookbook, the Atlantic said Paltrow was officially embracing her role as an object of ridicule while the New York Post said she’s “embarrassingly un-self-conscious.” Last week, in a photo posted to Instagram, Paltrow looks particularly blonde and serene and holds a book by her face, announcing not only her newest project, but Goop’s most recent expansion: they now sell health books through Goop Press.
As her brand continues to grow and morph into new iterations of the same monster, it’s time to pause the laughs for a moment and really examine what this newest endeavor is selling and how Goop has been able to be so wildly successful in the first place. With words like “repair the gut,” “brain fog,” “hormone imbalance,” and “clean eating,” Paltrow’s newest project Intuitive Fasting reads like a litany of pseudoscientific trends that have been weaponized against women. Of course, peddling health remedies with little to no scientific backing to women ready (and able) to open their wallets is not new for Goop. But this book, written by her “friend and functional medicine practitioner” Will Cole, feels different. That is, it feels particularly insidious to publish a book about fasting amid a pandemic marked by illness, loss, and financial precarity. Moreover, it invokes the language of intuitive eating—an approach used by clinicians to treat eating disorders—while promoting a fasting regimen that can easily slip into disordered eating including binge disorders.
To be clear: Intermittent fasting has mostly been studied on animals like worms and rats and long-term physical and psychological effects on humans are unknown. Regardless, Goop is seemingly reaching a new breaking point: Not only can the company now provide a platform for other “health experts” through a publishing press, but they’ve built such a strong foundation of lies that they can now credibly promote…not eating. Readers have to dig through layers of misinformation, but the gist of Intuitive Fasting is that eating three meals a day can be harmful and lead to inflammation, weight gain, and various chronic health issues. As a solution, the book provides a 30-day fasting plan, which Paltrow began with a six-day bone broth cleanse. If words like “cleanse” and “fasting” trigger alarm bells for you, Cole and Paltrow smooth this over by insisting their book is anti-diet. In a February episode of the goop podcast, Paltrow says “it’s not counting calories” and “it’s not punitive.”
In addition to her continually surprising levels of missing the mark (not eating saved you in 2020?), this newest project is the epitome of her expert ability to repackage harmful, sexist ideas into her plush, aesthetically pleasing, girlboss marketing. But make no mistake, we can’t fully blame Paltrow for a problem that’s much bigger than overpriced serums and tonics promising to detox your body. Goop’s success is merely a symptom of a systemic, historic problem in healthcare. Modern medicine was built off the experimentation on women’s bodies (with consent from white women and through force on enslaved Black women). For instance, surgery as we know it would not exist without the exploratory surgeries on women’s bodies in rooms full of onlooking men (many before the creation of anesthesia and antibiotics). Even today, there’s a long list of illnesses associated with cis women’s bodies that continue to be regarded as mysterious and incurable—from endometriosis and fibromyalgia to borderline personality disorder.
Sexism still continues to shape patient-doctor interactions leading to medical gaslighting, misdiagnoses, and the normalization or disbelief of women’s pain (a phenomenon that’s only worse for women of color due to racial biases in medicine). It makes perfect sense, then, that thousands of women would flock toward a zeitgeist (slipped as it is between the sort of stereotypically feminine and vagina-centric marketing that makes it feel empowering, and therefore safe) that positions itself as intentionally anti-doctor and promises to heal those who doctors ridicule. But we should all be concerned about vulnerable women being encouraged to partake in an eating plan that’s a slippery slope toward disordered eating. While Paltrow is perceived as a leader in this modern “wellness” movement, she’s merely capitalizing on the pervasive othering, disregarding, and harming of women in medicine. Though we shouldn’t continue laughing at Goop’s various pursuits, we also can’t scapegoat Paltrow for problems that existed long before she began promoting vagina steaming. In other words, as long as medicine continues to leave people with uteruses behind, the market will be ripe for Paltrow’s style of pseudo wellness.
We should all be alarmed by Paltrow’s power to repackage deeply harmful ideas under a glossy veneer of girl-boss feminism.
Take her Netflix show, The Goop Lab, for instance. The limited series promoted a slew of empirically dubious, financially unattainable remedies, but it also included a boundary-breaking episode about pleasure that’s undoubtedly feminist. The episode, titled “Our Pleasure Is Ours,” not only explicitly discusses the importance of women’s pleasure through the feature of legendary sex educator Betty Dodson, but also features dozens of photos of vulvas to counter porn-centric vulva imagery. There’s even a scene in which a woman is shown learning how to have an orgasm with a Hitachi wand.
It was radical and benefitted all people with vulvas, but that doesn’t detract from Goop’s constant promotion of potentially dangerous ideas about our bodies. So while Goop’s primary customer base is wealthy white women in their 30s, the ideas she sells make their way toward women who are even more disregarded by our healthcare system: Black and brown women and girls and those of low socioeconomic status.
We should all be alarmed by Paltrow’s power to repackage deeply harmful ideas under a glossy veneer of girl-boss feminism and if we don’t address the U.S. healthcare system’s deeply misogynistic nature, women will continue to be susceptible to whatever Paltrow sells them. In that same podcast episode, Cole tells us “You don’t need a doctor, you can lean into it yourself.” Doctors might not save us, but neither will shiny, repackaged eating disorders or douching. Perhaps Cole—and Paltrow—should listen to the Maya Angelou he [awkwardly] quoted mid episode: when you know better, do better.