Riots Not Diets

“Wellness” is designed to ensure you never become “well”

Updated March 26, 2023
A photo of a bowl of salad with the poop emoji overtop it.

When Gwyneth Paltrow came out with her Netflix series The Goop Lab, I had pledged to not only watch it but write about it. This was a mistake so critical that I considered going into the witness protection program just so that I could leave behind this pledge.

The flaw in my plan was that I thought I was going to enjoy hate-watching the show; after all, I am a recovering perfectionist with orthorexic tendencies who became a fat activist committed to helping people see the beauty in their own existence, and what could provide greater fodder for me than Gwyneth and co obsessing over which type of daikon radish was best for cleansing the liver?

I’m here to tell you that the show offers no fodder to anyone. Like, none at all. 

My error was assuming that the worst part about the show would be the very premise that the Goop empire is based on–a notion of “wellness” that is exclusionary, pseudo-scientific, fatphobic and potentially harmful (see: jade eggs up the vagina). I also falsely assumed that the show would be a tidy jumping-off point to explore why women’s health needs are so neglected by mainstream medical care that they turn to pseudoscience in order to gain control. (Patriarchy. Patriarchy is why).

Instead, The Goop Lab commits the cardinal crime of television: it is incredibly fucking boring. Nay, it is the apex of boring. If boring had sex with dull and they had a baby, the baby would still be far more compelling than The Goop Lab.

And the worst part is, I was warned and I still wanted to see it.

Part of the failure of the show is the complete absence of good storytelling. Each episode covers a different healing modality (magic mushrooms, ice therapy, sexual pleasure, something-anti-aging-something, and energy healing). The exploration of each feels stilted at best and superficial at worst. It doesn’t help that Gwyneth and her colleagues are not professional interviewers (AND IT SHOWS). But more than that, there is no one to get to know, root for, or care about across the series. Gwyneth is a cipher, and a rotating cast of Goop staff are guinea pigs for experiments in healing, rather than humans you care about engaging with. Moreover, the show not only fails to teach very much, but it also fails to make us care about any of these supposedly healing modalities.

In the first 37 seconds of the first episode of The Goop Lab, Gwyneth says, “To me, it’s all laddering up to one thing, which is the optimization of self.” The ideal self, in this period of history, is one which has been “optimized”–a self which perceives things like clogged pores or feeling bad not as part of the human condition but something to be rationalized, treated, managed and expunged. And that’s all you really need to know about this show.

Gwyneth and co, tasked with “optimizing” themselves (YO, CAPITALISM, WHAT’S UP WITH PERMEATING THE CONCEPT OF THE SELF IN THE 21st CENTURY?) will never be  able to examine the far more interesting questions: why the hell this is a core component of modern womanhood in the first place (as Jia Tolentino did so brilliantly last year). 

The only thing this show really made me feel (other than a deep urge to yawn) was a great deal of second-hand embarrassment. If watching a bunch of white people tripping on magic mushrooms in Jamaica while saying stoned-people things does not make you squirm, you are a stronger person than I. 

Actually, there was another thing that this show made me feel: sadness. There was a lot of longing in this show; many of the staffers who partook in the healing experiments seemed to very much want to process and get past/through trauma. I felt for these people, not only because I think the desire to just have one’s trauma resolved once and for all is 100% super relatable. 

I also felt for the Goop staffers because my guess is that the environment they work in is ironically not a place where healing could ever be achieved. Because here’s the thing.

If you’re always seeking to optimize your body, your soul, your very being, you will never arrive. You can’t base your entire work life, personality and hobbies on experiments that will tweak and solve your every problem and then expect to feel satisfied when all of those problems have indeed been solved.

The Goop enterprise, it seems to me—and the entire “wellness” industrial complex—is intentionally a Sisyphean effort, one designed to never end (and keep you spending your hard-earned rubles on serums and detoxes).

The Goop staffers’ longing for healing through the path of “optimization” reminded me of the years I rotated through a series of chiropractors, naturopaths and Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners in some misguided pursuit of “wellness” (i.e. thinness), driven by a fundamental belief in my own brokenness. For about a decade of my life, getting acupuncture, taking Chinese herbs, doing Pilates, restricting major food groups (yeah, I cut out gluten before it was even a thing!), and trying to be macrobiotic felt like Important Steps in My Wellness Journey. There was always something wrong with me, and I was always trying to take control and to fix it. Coming home from the naturopath, clutching my instructions on following an elimination “protocol” (hahaha, that’s a $10 word for “diet”) made me feel like I was in control of my health, but after a few years of doing this, it was clear I was more out of control than ever before (with a highly disordered relationship to food).

It occurred to me at some point that as long I was pursuing health, I was never going to achieve health. It would always be elusive, just one cup of nettle tea away from me, moving further and further towards the horizon. This system I was so heavily invested in would ensure that there would always be something wrong with me.

Soon after, I came to the realization that the cure was the sickness. In 2010, I read Women, Food and God and I stopped believing that there was something in me that needed to be fixed. Shifting this belief created a massive internal transformation that is still causing ripples in my life. And my digestive problems–which were probably 99% caused by the stress of always worrying about what food I was going to restrict next–completely resolved.

You can’t fix yourself if you’re not broken. Relating to yourself as a whole human being, imperfect and always learning, provides such a rich foundation for living your life. Relating to yourself as a unit to be optimized is a guarantee of living in a state in which you’ll always feel you’re coming up short. Make your health decisions in the way that you think is best. But just remember, we have a choice here, even if it doesn’t always look like it.