Wellness, Womanhood, and the West: How Goop Profits From Endless Illness
Since Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop launched in 2008, the site has earned its reputation as the internet’s kooky rich aunt. From detoxes to cleanses; vitamins to clean food; vaginal eggs to vaginal steaming and recurring features by a self-described “Medical Medium” (a man who diagnoses disease via spirit guidance), Goop has built a small digital empire. In between primers on how to wear denim jackets and a curated shop featuring Ulla Johnson jumpers and Marni sandals, Goop peddles “wellness,” the site’s iteration of health content, sleekly packaged as lifestyle content, much like the primers on fashion and food that also populate the site. The blend of alternative medicine and lifestyle, combined with Goop’s breezy and innocently inquisitive tone, has served Goop well. The brand is successful enough that it entered the supplement market earlier this year when it launched Goop Wellness, a line of high-priced vitamins.
According to the site’s press release, the vitamins, packaged with witty names like High School Genes, are “supplement regimens that address the acute needs of modern women.” The vitamins are peak Goop: wellness, gender, and healthy alternatives intermingle in an appealing minimalist package. But they also typify Goop’s approach to what they call “wellness.” The vitamins promise to address a variety of sketchily rendered symptoms that are the result of modern fatigue or of some lurking physical problem that Western science has yet to embrace. While the symptoms and their causes might be necessarily abstract, what’s more concrete is the sufferer: women. In particular, women who can afford $90 for one month of supplements. Wellness is necessarily mindful, but it’s also expensive.
At Goop, wellness isn’t simply conscious striving; instead, it’s framed as either a conversation or lifestyle choice or discrete ideology. The mysterious workings of Eastern medicine exist in an appealing opposition to the cold imperviousness of Western medicine. Western medicine is part of modernity’s churn and, as such, has often ruinous results; Eastern medicine, necessarily pre-modern, presents a holistic approach both foreign and resistant to the corrosive effects of modernity. Since Western doctors refuse to embrace the broad concept of wellness, they necessarily over rely on medication, refusing to acknowledge the healing effects of simple alternatives like herbs, spices, fruits, vegetables, vitamins, and detoxes. Since these healing agents are supposedly untapped by Western doctors who refuse to see their potential, they are, of course, almost magical approaches to nearly any disease or disorder.
According to Goop, there are many underreported epidemics sweeping the nation. In the last year alone, the website has alleged some of the following outbreaks: allergies, Chronic Fatigue, chronic stress, thyroid disorders, Epstein-Barr, fibromyalgia, adrenal fatigue and postnatal depletion. The nation, but particularly Goop readers, are sick with epidemic diseases, many medically unrecognized (i.e. postnatal depletion, adrenal fatigue), that only Goop and its contributors are brave enough to identify and discuss. Illness might be persistent at Goop, its mysterious symptoms might haunt readers but, on the site, any appearance of illness is banishes. Its models are slim and healthy, their hair shiny, their bodies flattered by the high-end designer clothes and organic beauty products sold in the Goop store. Illness might lurk and toxins might corrode but appearing either tired or sick is simply not an option.
Yet, there are many diseases and disorders that threaten healthy bodies, like the Epstein-Barr Virus which is, according to Goop, more dangerous than the medical community would allow you to believe, lurking in dark corners of the body, harboring everything from cancer to general discomfort. “Medical communities are only aware of one version of EBV, but there are actually over 60 varieties,” a Goop post from 2015 claimed. “Epstein-Barr is behind several of the debilitating illnesses that stump doctors,” it continued. These claims are typical of the style Goops’s wellness writing: a kernel of truth blown into a conspiratorial blend of ignorant “Western” doctors who suffer from misguided pride. EBV (better known as “mono,” most people have been infected with EBV) can rarely lead to other diseases, such as Guillain-Barre, a syndrome affecting the nervous system, and some cancers. It is not, as Goop claims, responsible for arthritis, fibromyalgia, or the common side effects of menopause.
At Goop, EBV is treated as a mysterious illness, impossible to detect with standard medical tests, but evident by its clear symptoms. The good news is that, again according to Goop, those who have EBV (not the kind found in the standard lab test administered by Western doctors, but the other kind that Western doctors don’t know about) “can conquer the virus” between three months and a year. All a reader has to do is buy certain foods, herbs, and dietary supplements and the virus will somehow disappear. This kind of advice is typical of Goop’s approach: viruses, or any disease and disorder, can be “conquered” by consumption. Simply buying the right foods or supplements will result in a body immune from hidden diseases. Health is treated as the body’s natural state; disease, necessarily framed as unnatural, is the result of the interference of that state. The disease-free body, Goop consistently implies, can be reconstituted simply by following the advice a handful of revolutionary healers who have the unique ability to see the truth. At Goop, Dr. Alejandro Junger, a cardiologist turned detox evangelist described by The Cut as “Paltrow’s favorite detox doctor,” is the most prominent.
Junger is already a familiar name to some. In addition to his numerous posts on Goop, he’s authored books touting the restorative benefits of clean eating and detoxes and done the daytime television circuit, making multiple appearances on The Dr. Oz Show. At Goop, he’s the embodiment of the alternative medicine truth-teller, often touted as a Western-trained doctor who cast off his training in search of answers in the East. (In Goop’s framing, “the East,” a place that’s never identified as an actual geographic location, doesn’t have cardiologists or pharmaceuticals. It is also, the literature implies, free of disease.) Junger rarely advises medication. Instead, he touts the power of clean eating and detoxes as the only method to restore health. According to the site, Junger was a primary consultant on Goop’s vitamin line, particularly Why Am I So Effing Tired?, a package that promises to end feminine fatigue:
Dr. Junger’s expertise on the oft-misunderstood energy drain known as adrenal fatigue was invaluable to engineering a vitamin/supplement regimen that could help to actually rebalance the pervasively, perpetually overtaxed system. (As was his keen understanding of Eastern medicine—many of the selected ingredients were sourced from ancient Ayurveda.)
Adrenal fatigue seems to be one of both Paltrow and Junger’s pet disorders. According to Junger and other alternative practitioners, stress affects the ability of the adrenal glands to do their jobs and, as a result, the glands are “run into exhaustion.” The result is fatigue and depression, but it can also include a range of symptoms from infertility to low blood pressure to insomnia. When Goop launched its vitamin line, Junger called adrenal fatigue “a world epidemic,” in an interview. One of adrenal fatigue’s victims was, of course, Paltrow (she was cured by Junger when her liver was “unclogged”). To be clear, endocrinologists do not consider adrenal fatigue to be an actual medical condition. “The concept of the adrenals burning out… doesn’t make sense,” one endocrinologist told the Washington Post. But at Goop, it’s not only real, it’s inevitably a plague.
Here, as with EBV, adrenal fatigue fits the familiar Goop pattern: a pronouncement of an epidemic, a diagnosis based on a handful of vague symptoms, and the promise of an absolute cure that can be easily, if not cheaply, obtained. Paltrow’s celebration of Junger is typical of Goop’s reverence for a new kind of expert, a kind of visionary who rejects modernity (in Goop-speak, “Western medicine”) in favor of a romanticized vision of natural, pre-modern (i.e. “Eastern”) practices. Perhaps ironically, suspicion of modernity—its accessories as well as its grinding effects on women’s health—haunts Goop’s wellness content. But where Junger’s alternative medicine practices are perhaps more familiar—detoxes and supplements are now familiar staples in lifestyle content—other Goop experts are more creatively inclined in their approach to medicine.
In addition to Junger, Goop’s list of experts includes Anthony William, a self-described medical medium, who was introduced to Goop by Junger (Junger wrote the forward to William’s book, Medical Medium). William appears to have no traditional medical training but claims to, “[…] scan the body from afar, and with the help of ‘Spirit,’ explain what ails or does not, whether it’s a benign growth near the liver, an over-taxed adrenal system, or a rare blood disorder that might become a nuisance.” In a separate post, Goop explains that the “Spirit” first visited him as a toddler and “beckoned him to stand in front of his grandmother, put his hand on her chest, and say ‘lung cancer.’” The Spirit, which Goop notes in invisible, has “been with him ever since.”
Goop has published multiple posts by William that outline his “common sense…nature-based cures” for everything from EBV to adrenal fatigue, a host of thyroid disorders, fibromyalgia and multiple sclerosis. For each, William recommends a diagnosis from the “Spirit,” followed by supplements and a healthy diet, particularly one rich in “unwashed” blueberries. Taken together, William promises a full recovery from all of these diseases, disorders, and ailments. At first blush, William’s advice might not seem like “common sense” (to be clear, fibromyalgia and multiple sclerosis are both painful, chronic disorders and do not have a cure) but at Goop, his fantastical claims are synonymous with common sense.
In addition to the spirit healer, there’s Ann Louise Gettleman, a “nutritionist and long-time advocate for integrated medicine” who advises on the dangers of Wifi and exposure to electronics. Among Gettleman’s claims are that Wifi should be removed from schools and that women who are pregnant or trying to conceive should stay “at least 15-20 feet away from anyone talking on a cell phone or texting to avoid second-hand cell radiation.” There’s also Dr. Habib Sadeghi, who argues that antibiotics, antihistamines, and flying can all cause cancer. If that all sounds too mainstream, there’s also the “longtime earthing-movement leader” who believes that walking barefoot can “reduce chronic pain” by allowing “free radicals” to “flow between the earth and the body” and an alignment specialist who has identified “stress containers” in the body that, inevitably, can cause “some of the most persistent and chronic diseases of our time.”
At Goop, everything from cell phones to shoes, flying to surgery is a potential source of danger; but it’s particularly dangerous for women. Goop treats its wellness content with a certain feminist flair, one that hints at empowering women stripped of their health and, by extension agency, by Western medicine that arrogantly refuses to acknowledge their pain and resists the “common sense” solutions of Goop experts. The so-called epidemics, the site is always clear to note, disproportionately affect women. Paired with the rejection of Western medicine is another thread that runs through Goop’s coverage: that modernity and medicine have ruptured a sense of real womanhood grounded in alternative medicine’s concept of naturalism.
Another Goop supplement, The Mother Load, was developed by Dr. Oscar Serrallach, an Australia-based alternative practitioner whose book is soon to be published by Goop’s press. Serrallach’s work has been featured a handful of times at the site where he’s done interviews and written about what he calls postnatal depletion. The disorder, which is not medically recognized (indeed, Serralach and Goop seem to be the only resources on the topic), encompasses a range of vague symptoms that can occur, according to Serralach, up to a decade after the birth of a child:
It is the common phenomenon of fatigue and exhaustion combined with a feeling of “baby brain.” Baby Brain is a term that encompasses the symptoms of poor concentration, poor memory, and emotional lability. Emotional lability is where one’s emotions change up and down much more easily than they would have in the past, e.g. “crying for no reason.” There is often a feeling of isolation, vulnerability, and of not feeling “good enough.” It is experienced by many mothers, and is an understandable and at times predictable outcome associated with the extremely demanding task of being a mother from the perspective of both childbearing and child raising.
Some of the symptoms sound similar to postpartum depression, though Serralach claims that they are different, while others sound like the routine complaints of motherhood. (To be very clear, if you are crying for no reason or feeling isolated after the birth of a child, please visit your OB and don’t read Goop.) On first glance, Goop’s push of postnatal depletion might not seem particularly eyebrow-raising: What’s the harm, after all, in taking a couple of vitamins? There’s likely very little harm, but Goop’s editorial perception of motherhood reflects the site’s overall treatment of gender—one that is a fundamentally essentialist, suggesting that there is an authentic way to be a woman, plotted out by nature and disrupted by modernity.
According to Serralach, postnatal depletion is the result of what he’s termed “the mother wound”:
[A] burden that manifests in mothers, and is passed on from generation to generation. It’s the pain and grief that grows in a woman as she tries to explore and understand her power and potential in a society that doesn’t make room for it, forcing her to internalize the dysfunctional coping mechanisms learned by previous generations of women. The mother wound reflects the challenges a woman faces as she goes through transformations in her life in a society where the patriarchy has denied us ongoing matrilineal knowledge and structures.
Essentially, the “mother wound” is the result of the Western patriarchy that has scarred women for generations, a scar so deep that it’s handed down generationally, from mother to daughter, and results in fatigue and postnatal depletion. The “mother wound” cannot heal but can be transformed by investing in “sisterhood” and reconnecting with a kind of essential femininity. Motherhood done consciously, Goop suggests, can lead to “society…regain[ing] its strength and meaning.” No wonder the mothers of Goop are so tired.
There are other assertions about motherhood that follow the Goop pattern: Serralach claims that women’s brains shrink during pregnancy, the result of nature rewiring the brain. Like all of the site’s health content, those claims are based on a very creative interpretation of a single study. But they get to the heart of a particularly female purpose (trans people do not seem to exist at Goop), that biology is central to womanhood. As Serralach writes, “understanding motherhood as part of the heroine’s journey and discovering self-actualization through this process.” A return to femininity, to natural womanhood informed by a romanticized vision of a primitive, non-Western, premodern past—one where race and colonization are never mentioned—underpins much of Goop’s pseudo-empowerment health narrative.
Take, for example, one of Goop’s most infamous posts, “Better Sex: Jade Eggs for Your Yoni.” The post is an interview with Shiva Rose, an actress and “curator of lifestyle website thelocalrose.com,” in which Rose introduces Goop readers to eggs made of jade and quartz (for sale in the Goop store) meant to be inserted into your vaginal canal. The jade eggs, Rose Shiva says, are an ancient Chinese practice, though that appears to be a specious claim (I could only find references to the practice at yoga and alternative medicine websites and none in scholarly journals). Regardless of the history, Rose claims that the eggs can “cultivate sexual energy” and “increase orgasm” through cleansing your “yoni” or womb. She tells Goop:
The word for our womb, yoni, translates as “sacred place”, and it is a sacred place—it’s where many women access their intuition, their power, and their wisdom. It’s this inner sanctum that we can access when it’s not in use creating life. Sadly most people use it as a psychic trash bin, storing old or negative energy. I see it as a place to celebrate ourselves as sexual, powerful beings, or as mothers, not a place to carry negative or un-dealt-with emotions.
Here, as with Serralach, the restoration of health is located in female biology. The idea that the womb is the physical location of feminine power and health is, in fact, an ancient idea—one that for centuries was used to label women hysterics. But at Goop, that particularly handling of gender remains unchallenged because it fits the site’s approach to wellness: the West is coded masculine, modern, and unfeelingly rational, where the East is primitive, mystical, and emotional. It’s why the site can recommend a vaginal steam to cleanse “your uterus” and “balance female hormone levels” without a hint of irony.
If Goop’s health advice seems questionable, then to one demographic, the site’s approach is welcome: namely, wealthy white women. A 2016 study found that Americans spent $30 billion on alternative health care, including detoxes and complementary physicians. Study after study has also shown that rich, educated white women are the most likely to spend on everything from supplements to homeopathy regardless of the effectiveness (most, however, report that complementary medicine is effective despite evidence otherwise). It’s clear that Goop has identified its target audience and produces tailor-made content for the site’s consumers. And they’ve done so with incredible success. In 2015, the brand expanded into book publishing and it will soon begin publishing a magazine with Anna Wintour. This year, it also launched in Goop Health, a day-long conference coming in June to Los Angeles that is designed to “bring our most requested and shared wellness content to life.” Lena Dunham and Cameron Diaz will appear alongside Goop experts like Serrallach and Junger. Ticket tiers are named after different gemstones, and range in price from $500 to $1,500.
But then, Goop’s wellness model is built to endure; since illness will never cease to exist, the brand will always have another epidemic to make, another unconventional doctor to prescribe cures, another miracle food, and another myth of the East to create. But after medical mediums, yoni eggs, vaginal steams, adrenal fatigue, and mother wounds, it’s hard to predict what causes and cures Goop will prescribe next.