The tote bag I was given upon crossing the threshold of In Goop Health—a day-long wellness conference for Goop’s community—is the perfect tote bag. Not too wide, not too tall; the straps are generous enough to accommodate the bulk of a winter coat, but did not slide off my shoulders once I stripped down to the athleisure I was encouraged to wear to the summit. The bag was excellent. It was exactly what I wanted, without even realizing it. That’s what Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop wants: to physically manifest a solution for spontaneous, brand-new problems. Goop wants to give you everything you want, while making it seem like it’s what you need.
It’s standard for women’s publications to attend and report on events such as this; the wellness industry is targeted aggressively at women and the “toxins” and “impurities” that pain us so feverishly that it would, I suppose, be foolish to miss this. Jezebel did not attend last year and this year, we were not granted a press pass. So my attendance was as semi-willing participant, skeptical but still receptive to any new ideas or life changes that might come my way. (This description fits my approach to life more generally, as well.)
Goop’s domination prevails in how the brand name itself has become a sort of shorthand for a certain set of beliefs: that yoni eggs are good, supplements even better, and that medication, inflammation, adrenal fatigue, and postnatal depletion are the quiet enemies killing us all. Underscoring all the articles espousing detoxing your shower, crystal-infused water, and releasing fear is the quiet insecurity that the way we live our lives in its current iteration is bad and there are things one could buy or do to change it for the better. Preying on this insecurity to move products is how brands work, but the wellness industry places the onus for betterment completely on the individual. It’s a way of thinking that’s willfully ignorant of other, larger issues that might make “wellness” or capitalistic ideals of “self-care” inaccessible. Writing in Baffler, Laurie Penny homes in on the uneasy link between self-care and neoliberalism: “If you are miserable or angry because your life is a constant struggle against privation or prejudice, the problem is always and only with you,” she writes. “Society is not mad, or messed up: you are.” The idea is that improvement is a necessary, expensive, and individualistic pursuit, and that if you want to get better and be clean, you’ll spend the money and time required to do so.
For Goop’s acolytes, every day could be the day your life changes forever. “We’re all one step away from a major life change,” Goop’s chief content officer Elise Loehenen told me on the phone. “You’ll probably come back from the summit and want to become a shaman.” She laughed, I laughed, but then I thought about it for the rest of the night. As an extremely gullible person who is willing to give almost everyone the benefit of the doubt, my fear of getting gooped was high.
Loehenen said that “the bigger goal” of the conference overall was not necessarily to move a lot of product or capture web traffic via past life readings and Ayurvedic therapies. “The bigger goal is that people have or experience some sort of paradigm shift, where maybe you leave and you’re thinking about things in a slightly different way,” she said. That paradigm shift has already happened; Goop’s pervasive concept of “wellness” has mainstreamed to the point where websites—especially those aimed towards women—have branded their health coverage under a new banner. Wellness is a murky, slippery catch-all for anything intended to benefit the self; Goop’s insidiousness is in its subtlety. Nothing under the site’s wellness section will tell its readers explicitly that they’re bad people, but the suggestion is clear: there are things in your life that are “bad” and the only way to fix it is through gumption, self-determination, and lots of money.
“Experiential activations” like in Goop Health purport to somehow express the feeling of community through artfully arranged, exceedingly well-planned experiences that are part Instagram bait and part brand loyalty indoctrination, without providing any actual community. In 2018, “community” apparently means anything, including “experiences”—gussied-up pop-up shops replete with activities, panels, food, and perks meant to reward fans and possibly convert skeptics. The ticket levels—denoted by a leather tassel one wears around one’s neck and clearly visible to everyone at all times—are named Ginger and Turmeric. For devotees of GP’s lifestyle empire, coughing up $650 for a Turmeric ticket or an astonishing $2,000 for the Ginger is a necessary indulgence; a “health-defining day” that you wouldn’t want to miss. I was expecting opportunities to purchase at every turn; knowing myself and my own gullibility, I set aside money just in case I lost my mind and spent $185 on face oil. (In the end, I did not buy that or anything else.)
To its credit, In Goop Health was restrained—elegant, even—in its messaging. The vegetable wall that greeted summiters upon arrival was faintly ridiculous: a giant feature wall covered in kale, radishes, and beets that wilted in a desultory fashion over the course of the day. Every soft surface to sit on was considerate; you’d lean back in a chair and realize there was a cushion in exactly where you wanted it. For my hydration needs, large bottles of Bai antioxidant water were placed in rustic wood crates throughout the space. At one point I walked past a woman completely asleep on a sectional sofa near the entrance. She slept there for at least a half hour and nobody bothered her.
Goop’s aesthetic, furniture-wise, is a less oppressive version of the mid-2010s obsession with mid-century modern design—knockoff Herman Miller Eames chairs and hints of brass and ceramics. In other words, to my great surprise, there was little Instagram-bait. At no point did it feel like a version of the Museum of Ice Cream but for Goop acolytes; instead it was like stepping into a very nice Airbnb listing, full of plush sheepskins, blankets, and thoughtful touches of greenery.
I arrived starving and desperate for coffee; I drank two cans of bougie La Colombe “draft lattes,” housed a slightly twee piece of avocado toast topped with a perfectly sliced egg and immediately got in line for a B-12 shot, where women were pulling down their pants and offering up their bare hips for the needle. Mine was administered to me in the arm by a nice man in scrubs who patted me on the arm when I winced at the needle. (No explanation was given for his choice to use my arm instead of my hip.) The avocado toast set off a small personal feeding frenzy within me, consisting of a citrus salad, roasted beets with yogurt, a piece of gingerbread with ghee, a “brassica bowl” that tasted delicious, a turmeric chia pudding, and a cup of bone broth. Every portion was artfully arranged and the size of two passed h’ors d’ouevres at a nice wedding. It was, again, perfect. I ate consistently through the day and was never full.
All this, by the way, happened before the opening remarks. Once they finally began, Karen Newell, an “innovator in the emerging field of brainwave entrainment audio meditation” led us through a binaural beats meditation intended to “open our heart spaces” for the day ahead. Every day should start with a check-in, Newell told us in hushed tones. This is true, according to her, whether you’re a CEO or a truck driver; I’m not sure how many people in attendance were CEOs, but by my estimation, not a lot were truck drivers. We inhaled a deep breath, repeating “Let go” in our heads as a collective mantra for a room of mostly women and a few men clad in athleisure and Minnetonka leather slippers—the promised “footwear surprise” we were told to expect a few weeks before the event. Sufficiently relaxed, having “let go” of whatever we needed to “let go,” with our “heart spaces” activated, we were ready to receive Gwyneth, who floated onto the stage. The summit, she told us, is for the Goop Woman, who is curious, open-minded, brave, and a thought-leader unafraid to ask questions. “We love science and data,” she said with a beatific grin, a claim I was not sure I believed, given Goop’s historic advice to: detox your body with a coffee enema; consult Anthony Williams, the “Medical Medium,” about the true origins of thyroid cancer, who will tell you that its root cause is a simple equation of “virus + toxins=Cancer”; and shove a hunk of rose quartz inside your vagina and hope for the best. She added, (to me, more believably), “but we also love the unexplained.”
Leaning into the latter half of that statement was Laura Lynne Jackson, a mother of three, a high school English teacher, and a self-described psychic medium. Per her assessment, the other side reaches out to us with what I considered an alarming frequency, like telemarketers or the Greenpeace street team vying for our attention. She conducted a few impromptu readings, letting the spirits pull her to those whose relatives were speaking the loudest from the other side. Using what sounded like some good guesses and intuition, Jackson delivered easy aphorisms with specificity. (“This is going to sound really weird, but does someone in your family really like Cheetos or chips? And football?” she said to a woman whose mother had just died of cancer. The woman said that there was; Jackson asked if they happened to be an Eagles fan—an easy guess, no offense, for an audience that was likely based in and around the Northeast. When the woman confirmed, Jackson said “Well, I’m supposed to pass on the message that he will be very happy.”)
The day was structured loosely enough that I didn’t ever feel rushed. There was plenty of downtime between panels and the various activities one could participate in were brief and well-spaced. Men walked around the space in knee-length rough linen aprons taking trash from people’s hands and ferrying it away. My first activity involved something called Nasya. In honesty, I selected this because it was one of the only things left when I registered; I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was just a lovely facial massage with a thick collagen cream and a gentle shoulder rub at the end. Before this activity, a woman standing next to me near a garbage can took a sip of Diet Coke from a bottle she pulled out of her purse. “Don’t tell,” she said when she saw me looking. “I don’t want to get kicked out!” I ran into her and her friends multiple times throughout the day and they were always so, so thrilled to be there.
Most of the attendees at the conference were white, taut, and blonde—in GP’s image, I suppose. Courtney Oliver and Latressa Fulton were standing next to me at a table eating something green out of a jar and chatting. When I asked Oliver, one of the few women at the summit who wasn’t white, what she hoped to get out of the day, she emphasized something that felt strangely absent from the day: connection and community. “I wanted to see who is in this space and who is interested in this space. I wanted to see how many women of color and how they’re embracing their health,” she said. “I believe in the Goop mission and method...in our own different ways, we both embrace the health space and so we wanted to see different ways we could bring it back to our culture and our community.”
“Community” is one of those words that can be stretched almost beyond recognition, but what I saw at the summit was definitely not community. Pursuing a better you is not an inherently individualistic endeavor, but Goop’s idea of community is really just a conversation between oneself and the goddess GP. The site’s About Us page makes this explicit: “[Goop] has always been a place for GP to introduce some of the incredible experts who have mentored her throughout her life, and a place where readers can find suggestions about where to shop, eat, and stay from a trusted friend—not from an anonymous, crowd-sourced recommendation engine,” it reads. The suggestion is that Gwyneth knows best and that one should trust her implicitly. The faceless crowds that populate comments sections and Amazon reviews are just regular people, after all—never mind what they have to say. Community, in Goop’s mind, is a one-way street, with little room for outside thought.
The focus on the self became more apparent during my second activity of the day, a self-hypnosis session about manifesting my personal destiny, run by Morgan Yakus, the former proprietor of No. 6, a vintage store in Brooklyn that is best known for these ubiquitous wooden clogs. A past-life reading moved her so much that she changed careers—the life pivot Loehenen mentioned to me—and now works as an expert in past-life regression. Slumped on couches like taut seals, we visualized the mantra we’d each written on a thick piece of card stock (for me, “I’m fine with my lot in life”); then put ourself in the visual manifestation of that mantra. We “flew” above the building and to our happy place. All day, the space hummed with a low din that was just loud enough for my shoulders to unclench when I walked into the hush of the bathroom or the shoe cubbies. Hearing Morgan over this din was difficult, but I concentrated hard on my mantra. I did not fly out of the building, but I visualized a beach, thought about a plane ticket for a wedding I’ll be attending over the summer, and then slipped into a nice little moment of respite near the end.
Before my scheduled ayurvedic oil therapy, (at 2:30, which at this point was still three hours away) I asked the volunteer manning the registration iPad if the people she was interacting with today were nice. She gave a wry laugh and said she wouldn’t answer that question for a member of the press. The ayurvedic essential oil therapy was fine. It was like the best part of yoga stretched out over 10 minutes. I don’t believe in essential oils but I do believe in rubbing my temples in oils that smell fantastic and closing my eyes for a spell—relaxing, as it sometimes called.
Goop’s primary concern with women is the loss of our power; everything their various experts spoke about was in service to getting that power back. I was incredulous to hear author Anita Moorjani tell a small but rapt crowd about how she spontaneously recovered from end-stage lymphoma after having a near-death experience and seeing her father on the other side. The key was the realization that she had been living her life in fear instead of love. “The medical paradigm has taken our power away,” she said. “Our bodies heal naturally if we get out of our own way.” As a former “people pleaser” and a “doormat,” Moorjani realized that she was the only person who could save herself; armed with that knowledge and a glimpse into whatever lies beyond death, she did. As my colleague Stassa Edwards wrote, in 2017, Goop capitalizes on women’s pain and the fear of a multitude of undiagnosed illnesses that can be fixed by eating well, taking supplements, and, occasionally swearing off medicine.
During a panel called “Mind Games,” Dr. Kelli Brogan—a woman who once claimed that the notion that HIV causes AIDS is a “meme”— reinforced the theory that depression is caused by inflammation—an actual medical term, though its deployment here is slightly pseudo-scientific—and that an imbalance that requires a shift in perspective to fully address and treat. She espoused tapering off meds as a kind of “spiritual awakening.” Brogan’s point of view was by far the most outré on that particular panel; Catherine Birndorf and Anita Yusim, two psychiatrists also featured on the panel, stressed the importance of using elements of Eastern and Western medicine in their practices—a much safer alternative to pushing “mind over matter” when it comes to clinical depression and chemical imbalances. Getting your power back is solely your responsibility and making sure that power is never taken away again is a task with which GP’s cohort will gladly help, whatever it takes.
In my mind, Goop is synonymous with A-minus to B-minus-list celebrities; out of the random assortment of famous friends at the event, I only saw Bryce Dallas Howard mingling with the crowd. I watched her undergo the same aromatherapy treatment that I did (they’re just like us!), and a few minutes later, washed my hands next to her in the bathroom. The real star power was assembled at the keynote panel, billed as a “no-holds barred talk about changing the female paradigm, featuring Chelsea Handler, Gillian Flynn, Laura Linney, Drew Barrymore, Elaine Welteroth, and GP herself. The subject was vague enough to allow for any discussion to feel like it fit the theme; I’m not sure how the “female paradigm” needs to change, but I do know that GP has some big ideas.
Linney briefly touched on the current “reckoning” women are facing. “When I was growing up, you just had to duck and weave your way around inappropriate things,” Paltrow said in commiseration. “It never occurred to me they were illegal.” No further clarity was given to those “innapropriate things,” but it was certainly not needed. Not a single woman on the stage mentioned Harvey Weinstein by name, though it was clear to me that he was the looming, eczematous specter in the room. As the “first lady of Miramax,” Paltrow’s name has been synonymous with the Weinstein accusers, receiving top billing over Angelina Jolie’s in this New York Times piece from October. I had been waiting for someone to address the real source of women’s pain and power the entire day and here it finally was.
Barrymore doubled down on the Goop’s overall message of sunny positivity and optimism as tools to reclaim power from those who would take it away. “Women have been here before,” she said. “Anger’s not healthy. Go to the polls. Take the power.” It was the most overtly political speech I’d heard in a day that was concerned mostly with soothing away the weariness and exhaustion left by the current political climate, ostensibly aimed at everyone but seemingly not really for the people whose bodies and minds were most affected. This call to reclaim power was reminiscent of the messaging of another, different experiential activation—the Women’s Convention in October, organized by the Women’s March. Both events were organized with women’s interests in mind; both recognized the need for women to “reclaim their time,” as it were. If you take the Goop path, the power you seek is packaged in detox bath soaks and clearing your kitchen of chemicals. Reclaim your time by relaxing, hard, and you’ll tap into an inner power you never knew existed.
Paltrow’s approach is focused so heavily on the feminine that it feels regressive; part of Barrymore’s spiel was that harnessing “feminine energy” is essential to helping women become empowered. It’s a rejection of the power-suit era’s insistence that women must act like men to be respected like them. Tap into the “softness” and “vulnerability” of the feminine wiles within will lead to change—a message that embraces the gender binary in a way that felt reductive and not entirely helpful. Women should be “feminine,” whatever that means, and embrace that femininity in order to regain their power. Where does that leave women who don’t embrace traditional notions of femininity—the softness, the vulnerability—and is there room in this power grab for them, too? Had I heard this panel at, say, mid-morning, riding high off the dregs of my B12 shot, I would’ve been much, much angrier. It was at this point when I realized for good that Goop’s brand of Gaia-oriented empowerment feminism rooted in pseudoscience, inflammation, and the unknown was truly not for me. I was exhausted from relaxing. I wanted to go home.
Had I purchased the $2,500 Ginger ticket, I would’ve left the summit with an hour of GP face time under my belt, and an enormous Tumi carry-on bag, stuffed to the gills with product. When I got home, I unpacked the gift bag for the Turmerics—an $85 nylon backpack from State Bags—and laughed in horror at the sheer amount of stuff attendees received. There was Goop day cream, various supplements of dubious utility, probiotic “beauty elixirs,” sunglasses, a bag full of eye cream and a sturdy box containing this lovely $72 Oskia Renaissance Mask, which I Googled frantically when I got home. It’s weird that there are no reviews on Goop for their products—there’s no way for customers to leave feedback, which presumes that Gwyneth knows best. Just try the stuff, spend the money and see for yourself. It feels like a deliberate choice—another subtlety that allows Goop to establish itself as the expert. You don’t need to read for yourself whether or not this face oil smells weird or gave someone pimples. Just put yourself in Goop’s buffed, moisturized hands and trust that they won’t steer you wrong.