Riots Not Diets

Gwyneth, trauma, and the grift of “wellness”

Updated September 23, 2023

Last week, Gwyneth Paltrow had social media in absolute paroxysms of outrage when a couple clips of her discussing her “wellness routine” hit TikTok. Here’s the main super problematic clip (trigger warning for extreme food restriction, description of orthorexia, and description of exercise in a caloric deficit):

Countless social media users immediately pointed out that Gwyneth is not eating enough food (starvation being notoriously unhealthy and all, even if you’re doing it for your “health”) and profits personally from glamourizing “wellness” and disordered eating.

The outcry over these clips came so quickly and furiously that Gwyneth did a Q&A on her Instagram stories a few days later to address the backlash. She clarified that she eats more than what was included in the TikTok above, and explained that she has long COVID; hence her need for a “detox.” Judging from how quickly things died down on social media, this seems to have placated many critics. But not me LOL.

I mean, the fact that Gwynnie has long COVID makes all of this shit WORSE, not better (as disability activist Imani Barbarin pointed out).

The first thing I gotta say about this is: game recognizes game. Listening to her describe her dry brushing practice, what she (doesn’t) eat, her exercise routine—it brought back all the years that I, too, also spent obsessing about my body. In the 2000s, Gwyneth was absolutely an inspiration for my own orthorexia, the sub-category of anorexia defined as an unhealthy obsession with “health.” I even practiced macrobiotics, one of the goofier diets out there, because of her!

Maybe it’s because of this that I decided to listen to the full recording that these clips came from. The interview is with her “doctor,” a man named Will Cole (the man nodding vigorously in the TikTok above), from his “wellness” podcast, where he heavily promotes his own line of supplements and other products he gets paid to talk about.

Early in the interview, Will Cole asks Gwyneth about the earliest days of her interest in “wellness.” I had a visceral response when I heard Gwyneth lay bare an orthorexic’s thinking (though she did so without a shred of self-awareness) when she said:

“We all have so much agency. We don’t realize the agency that we have, and that we have autonomy over our bodies. What we put in to our bodies, the thoughts that we form, the words that we speak. When we have a certain degree of mastery over ourselves, and we embrace that, we can really start to change our lives and feel really good. Even with small changes. If you’re orienting around your body… It had this compounding effect… It became kind of addictive.”

Gwyneth, my guy…it’s not just addictive. What you’re describing literally IS an addiction. It’s not health. It’s an addiction to the high that you get from controlling and restricting your food. It’s the addiction to dieting itself. And it’s wildly destructive, as is the nature of addiction.

Now, the etiology of eating disorders is complex, particularly because they are biopsychosocial in nature, i.e. there are biological, psychological and social factors that contribute to them.

But what is commonly the origin of an orthorexic being in thrall to the drama of controlling food? Good old trauma.

And this is the angle that I haven’t heard anyone discuss in relation to this brou-ha-ha so far.

If you’ve followed even a little bit of celebrity culture, you may know that Gwyneth lost her dad, Bruce Paltrow, just over twenty years ago. He had just gotten through having throat cancer when he died suddenly of a heart attack while he and Gwyneth were on holiday in Italy. You may remember reading articles about how profoundly devastating this loss was for her. She’s referred to her dad as “the love of my life,” and in this most recent podcast as “my sun and my moon.”

What you may not remember is that it was her father’s illness that got Gwyneth on the whole “wellness” train in the first place. It was when her father was diagnosed with cancer that she began to research the connection between, as she says, “what people eat and how that is expressed through disease.”

So it was during this traumatic time in her life, when her father was diagnosed with cancer, that she began to dive into the world of “wellness” and the connection to food.

Now, this is a completely normal and extremely common reaction to a cancer diagnosis these days, but in the late ‘90s and early 2000’s, this was slightly less of a thing than it is now because Gwyneth as one of the drivers of wellness culture was herself only at the beginning of making this a thing.

She prepared food for him that won’t surprise you if you’ve dabbled in the wellness realm—gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan, and so forth.

But even in the years after his death, she blamed herself for not being even more vigilant with his diet. “I wasn’t adamant enough in cleaning up his diet and getting rid of the cancer,” she says in this 2005 New York Post article.

Can you imagine the pain of thinking that you could have gotten rid of your father’s cancer if you had just been more vigilant and controlling about his food? As though any of us can individually wield the power to get rid of cancer?

(What I’m going to say next may sound callous and insensitive, but provides important context: what we’re talking about here is a case of oral cancer in a person who was a lifetime smoker and drank vodka daily. I personally am skeptical as to how much influence food could have had in this instance.)

But that’s not really the point. The point of all this is that the fixation on diet is all about creating the illusion of control. Which is a deeply, deeply human reaction, right? Because it’s ultimately all about finding a way to soothe the fear, the pain, the loss and grief.

The problem comes in when your efforts at seeking control as a way of dealing with your trauma gets spread to your massive, multi-million dollar, disinformation-spreading platform. (Lest we forget that her deal to publish a GOOP magazine with Condé Nast fell apart after two issues because she refused to have fact checking!)

Gwyneth has spoken about her desire to control her father’s diet as a way of gaining control over his disease, and this has morphed, in wellness culture, into controlling diet as a way of controlling disease period.

This has led, ironically, to profoundly negative health impacts…including a rise in disordered eating and eating disorders. Not to mention the suffering that is created when we grasp for control over things we simply do not have control over.

Or the untold stress caused by the terrible, devastating lie at the heart of wellness culture: that a devastating disease like cancer is within the individual control of individual people.

Gwyneth’s obsession with food and health lies rooted in the trauma of her father’s death.

And THAT is why it’s critically important to deal with your trauma by dealing with your trauma, and NOT by messing with your food.

Bottom line: I have compassion for Gwyneth as a daughter and human being who was, by all accounts, devastated by a terrible loss.

I have compassion for Gwyneth as a woman patient with long COVID whose condition doesn’t appear to be being treated properly, perhaps by allopathic or naturopathic medicine.

I have complete, total and utter contempt for Gwyneth as a person with a huge platform who has created untold levels of damage by advancing misinformation and driving pseudoscience and exclusionary “wellness” culture.

While I’m at it, here are my other objections to Gwyneth’s “doctor,” Will Cole, and his snake oil salesmanship:

  1. This guy is not a physician but a chiropractor, naturopath, and, from all appearances, a charlatan. He has written a book called Intuitive Fasting, which is a repulsive wellness-washing of the anti-diet movement. Taking the concept of intuitive eating and bastardizing it into a wellness slogan that can be used to sell books is honestly revolting. So let me tell you everything you need to know about intuitive fasting, and nothing more: you fast while you sleep, and then when you wake up and eat something, you break your fast. That’s all the fasting you need.
  2. The conversation between these two practitioners of pseudoscience is wellness culture all the way down, in the worst possible way. In the podcast, she reveals she’s had “ozone therapy” administered rectally?! Her body is also apparently “bad at detoxing,” which explains why she takes some of the treatments she does? It’s like horseshit upon horseshit.
  3. Towards the end of the podcast, he literally asks Gwyneth what her favourite GOOP products are right now…and then he asks her a bunch of questions about her “treatment” with him that get her to promote HIS products. Folks, they’re not even pretending to not be charlatans at this point.
  4. Finally, and most cynically of all, the TikTok account that posted this clip from the podcast, Dear Media, is actually the production company that produces Will Cole’s podcast. They engineered the upset, and then directly benefited from it. The producers CLEARLY edited this bit of their conversation and posted it to TikTok precisely because they knew would kick up the rage machine, a cynical move to draw more attention to both GOOP and Will Cole’s “wellness” empires. Disgusting.