Courtesy of Netflix

February 2, 2020

YANDAVA | ‘The Goop Lab’ and the Snake Oil of Self-Optimization

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It’s become something of a norm to hate on Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s so-called “lifestyle brand,” which peddles items such as psychic vampire repellent spray, quartz crystal-infused water bottles and $95 sex pillows. Ever since the company started taking off, there have been countless parodies, memes and fun-poking opinion pieces made about it, all mocking the brand’s over-privileged tone-deafness and clear disregard for science.

Nevertheless, there’s still an allure to Goop, something Netflix’s new six-episode docu-series The Goop Lab has wisely cashed in on. Like the Goop website, the show’s aesthetic is clean, cool and fun, representing in motion what Paltrow calls the “optimization of self.” And honestly, who doesn’t want to be optimized? I, for one, am all too familiar with the niggling sensation in the back of my mind that I could always be doing more, doing better — eating better, managing my time better, feeling better. Like the Radiohead song, I could be “Fitter, happier / More productive.”

Gwyneth Paltrow knows this. Her response? “How can we milk the shit out of this?” Since its inception in 2008 as a newsletter, Goop has become a multimillion-dollar brand, capitalizing on the self-care and wellness movements that blossomed over the last decade.

In the show, Gwyneth Paltrow and her loyal vassal — sorry, chief content officer — Elise Loehnen interview a variety of “experts” (excluding 90-year-old Betty Dodson, who might have been the only person in the whole show who knew what they were talking about). Then, a gaggle of Goop employees (“Goopers”) subject themselves to various treatments and experiences related to the episode’s topic.

The first episode’s focus, psychedelics, seems interesting enough, but I’ve never seen shrooms look so boring before. The Goopers hop on a plane to Jamaica, drink some mushroom tea and sob for a bit on the floor, which is supposed to reaffirm why taking psychedelic drugs is good for your trauma.

The second episode is not much better. In it, extreme athlete Wim Hof introduces his eponymous cold therapy, breathing and meditation methods, which supposedly allow him to withstand freezing temperatures. The Goopers take a rather unremarkable trip to Lake Tahoe to try them out. There is no mention of whether Hof’s brown-fat levels have anything to do with his cold tolerance or the fact that several people have died attempting his techniques.

The show goes on like this. Yet while the vampire facials and energy healing seem silly and farcical but ultimately harmless on the surface, these (mostly wealthy, white, female) faces point at something much darker lurking beneath. You can look younger, thinner, happier, healthier, they seem to say. But only if you buy these products.

Yes, taking care of your body and your mind is important, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be a priority. Still, once self-care becomes repackaged as a commodity, it begins to prey on people’s insecurities, especially the insecurities of young women (which is ironic, considering how much of the language of self-care is coded in feminism), and reaches the level of obsession. For example, orthorexia, though not formally recognized by the American Psychological Association, is defined by physician Steven Bratman as “an eating disorder that involves an obsession with healthy eating and optimal nutrition.”

Moreover, in a society where many already feel isolated enough, self-optimization offers little comfort in the way of connection. Many of the problems the Goopers seek solutions for over the course of the series are systemic, though belied by the fact that they’re felt on a deeply personal level. Rising health-care costs, anxiety caused by a culture of achievement and a world that’s increasingly more threatening and uncertain and isolation as a consequence of technology and social media are just some of those problems.

Looking at Paltrow and her associates, you have to wonder, at what point does self-care become pure and simple self-centeredness? Seeing them rush around, darting from one pseudoscientific solution to the next, always in search of the next overpriced, under-researched alternative gizmo paints self-optimization as relentless, exhausting and ultimately unattainable. Instead of trying to be better, maybe we could all just be.

Ramya Yandava is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Ramya’s Rambles runs alternate Thursdays this semester.