December 12, 2014


WORK IT: The Making of Gwyneth Paltrow in the Age of Healthism
Cheryl Quimba

The first thing I noticed was the font. The lettering is dark gray and medium-weight, with serifs and spacing that make it look like it was produced on an old-fashioned typewriter. The title is lower-cased, as if subtly undercutting whatever authority might accompany the delivery of such wide-ranging life advice from one woman to a legion of millions. Beside each category header is a hand-drawn sketch of an object -- pasta atop the tines of a fork, a bicycle with a basket affixed to the handlebars, a stack of books -- to charmingly signify the type of content to follow. The sketches look to be faintly shaded in with colored pencils. This isn't Cosmo, or Marie Claire, or Glamour, or Vogue. This is no glossy women's mag with Anna Wintour's perfect bob at the helm. This is a Gwyneth Paltrow lifestyle publication. This is goop.

The font and the sketched illustrations perfectly exemplify the particular ethos that shapes and drives the goop brand. It's a touch quirky (but clean), a little precious (but modern), and pretty and rich and pretentious and well-meaning, with a nod to the spiritual and "authentic"; it's the Gwyneth personality in pixilated form. Founded in 2008, Paltrow started goop, as stated in its mission, "to share all of life's positives." Perusing the website, it's clear that her life has many. There are photographs of Paltrow getting her hair and makeup done before the Oscars, English garden parties with famous friends like Stella and Paul McCartney, tips on where to find the best quinoa bowl in LA, winter (and spring and summer) detox recipes, and numerous skin care, jewelry, and clothing collections, with handpicked items personally endorsed by Paltrow. Like a traditional women's magazine, the site is both instructive and aspirational. One week we're shown how to cook a chicken three ways, and the next week we're offered a deal on a $485 monogrammed duffel bag.

If goop isn't Vogue, it's closer perhaps to a slicker, moneyed reboot of Ladies Home Journal, with its pie recipes and crafting tips for the middle-class, middle-aged Middle American woman, but with the glamorous gamine Gwyneth at the masthead. The site is "curated" by Paltrow, a word that has notably become ubiquitous in recent years. With so much content at our fingertips, now anyone can curate songs into a playlist, or restaurant recommendations into a food blog. In a world where we're all tastemakers, it's now imperative, one might say, to filter through the morass to find the voices one can truly trust. Enter goop, described on its site as its readers' "most trusted girlfriend on the web."

In the high school that is American celebrity culture, Paltrow has been the trusted, ever-present, enviable girlfriend. Who else would be America's boyfriend but Brad Pitt? During their mid-1990s relationship, during which they became engaged, they firmly held the position of the country's golden couple, exuding a kind of crisp, blond coolness that was both edgy and wholesome. That very public relationship (which later dissolved), along with her roles in movies like Emma and Shakespeare in Love (for which she won an Oscar), vaulted Paltrow to full-blown stardom. Somewhere along the way, however, she made the noteworthy decision to scale back her acting career, rather than capitalize on her film success like her contemporaries Kate Winslet and Naomi Watts. Other than her recurring role in the Iron Man franchise, her acting gigs in recent years have been sporadic or have taken on the form of cameo appearances on TV shows like Glee. Her professional focus has seemed to shift inward; instead of transforming herself to portray various characters on screen, she has been refining her own personage to market and sell under the banner of the Gwyneth/goop brand.

There have been significant precedents to this kind of self-branding venture, of course, most notably Martha Stewart and Oprah. For decades now, Stewart has not only made a career out of instructing others on the finer points of domesticity, but has built an empire that includes cookbooks, a magazine, website, television series, catalogs, and merchandising. Not even her 2004 indictment on charges of insider trading and the subsequent imprisonment have marred her image, and she remains, at 72, as busy as ever.

Although there are aspects of Paltrow's image that have much in common with Stewart's, especially the emphasis on cooking and homemaking, the goop brand can really be considered a descendant of Oprah, a true American goddess if there ever was one. Years and years from now, after the country has crumbled and our great-great-grandchildren attempt to piece together the shards of what had been American popular culture at the turn of the millennium, Oprah will be remembered as one of the true cultural behemoths of our time. Born poor in rural Mississippi, Oprah is now North America's only African-American billionaire. At the heart of her multimedia empire, and the thing that has attracted millions of ardent devotees to anything with her name printed on it in its characteristic swirly script, is the notion of transformation. Oprah's biography of transformation is her brand. Everything and everyone she incorporates into the Oprah fold, whether it be Dr. Phil or Dr. Oz, book club or financial planning advice, teems with transformation potential, and Oprah's adherents, mostly women, long to transform themselves too.

The daughter of an actress and director, raised in southern California and educated at a New York City prep school, Paltrow's biography is about as far from Oprah's as you can get. Side by side, they would look like perfect polar opposites, but they are in fact selling different forms of the same product -- exemplary, modern, you-can-have-it-all womanhood, complete with handy instruction manuals. On her site, Paltrow offers her own goop-ified sort of transformation, but where Paltrow diverges from Oprah is in her particular emphasis on physical health and fitness. Although celebrity physician Dr. Oz was a frequent guest on her show, and a large part of her messaging was dedicated to physical health (including her own very public struggles with her weight), Oprah's diversified brand spreads the focus across a wide array of sectors, including relationships and family, work issues, personal finance, books and other "favorite things," and increasingly, mental, emotional, and spiritual concerns.

In comparison, Paltrow has made health and fitness -- and the potential for transformation brought on by health and fitness -- a much more central aspect of her brand, at times to an almost comical degree. Ridiculous statements made by Paltrow on the subject of health and food abound, such as, "I would rather die than let my kids eat Cup-a-Soup," and "I'd rather smoke crack than eat cheese from a tin." Although these statements are obviously hyperbolic (right? right?!), they point to a very sincere sensibility evident throughout the goop site, that is, a full-throttle drive for perfect health.

But is perfect health possible? Is it even a worthwhile goal? Any moderate consumer of mainstream American media could attest to the uptick in the last couple decades of newspaper and magazine articles, books, television programs, documentaries, websites, and blogs devoted to health, fitness, diet, and nutrition. In a time when print publishing is in seriously dire straits, health books' sales are going strong; the book Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar – Your Brain’s Silent Killers, about the dangers of gluten (a type of protein that most conventional eaters have been blissfully unaware of until the last few years), has been on the New York Times Bestsellers list for thirty-one weeks and counting. Juice bars pop up beside banks in suburban shopping centers, and office coworkers embark on “team cleanses” to build company solidarity while losing weight. The recent emergence of biometric digital apps uses wearable technology so that the health-conscious can monitor everything from numbers of steps walked in a day to glasses of water consumed and calories eaten and burned. Indeed, we are living in the age of healthism, and Paltrow is our poster child.

If Oprah's biography constitutes her brand, then Paltrow's body is hers. It makes sense, as an actress, that her body is her symbol, badge, and ticket to instant credibility. We have gazed at her body in its multitude of permutations, as Pepper Potts and Margot Tenembaum, blown up to twenty feet tall on a theater's silver screen. Equipped with the knowledge of what her elbows look like when she's burdened down by bags, or the bridge of her nose when coming in for a kiss, we enjoy the same kind of detached intimacy with her body that we have with other actors with whom we've grown familiar. We know her body, or it feels as if we do.

It's easy, then, to see Paltrow as our "most trusted girlfriend on the web." It's easy to read and believe in the efficacy of her guidance on all things health and fitness because the proof is right there before our eyes -- a fit, toned body exuding vigor to an almost blinding degree. Photos on goop show Paltrow in workout wear, smiling widely while stretching and straining. With the fitness instructor, Tracy Anderson, who is also her business partner and friend, Paltrow demonstrates the workout routines she practices as part of her regular regimen, as well as the routines she uses to achieve her "Pepper Potts body" for the Iron Man films.

 And the term "achievement" is apt here. This is actual labor -- the 45-minute cardio, the butt and leg routines, the arm series, all accompanied by cleanse instructions in order to "reset and detoxify" our systems. The directive here is to WORK IT, until a body that (at least somewhat) resembles Paltrow's is achieved. Paltrow at least seems aware of the sheer effort required to look like she does -- she describes the process of getting into shape for the Iron Man movies as "arduous." But with a reported net worth of $60 million, Paltrow is handily compensated for her efforts, whereas for the common reader of her site, toiling to achieve a better body is likely its own reward.

Understandably, goop frames the goal of perfect health in non-financial terms. Sound physical health and fitness is presented as a virtue unto itself, good in its own right. In this way, Paltrow's health philosophy is very much in line with the healthism of the current historical moment. Presented as both the absence of disease and affliction and the presence of vigor and vibrancy, health is not merely the means to another, more noble goal, but an end in itself that is often equated (or conflated) with emotional, and even spiritual, well-being. It's telling that the name of Tracy Anderson's flagship fitness program, which Paltrow enthusiastically endorses, is "Metamorphosis." If the objective is to fundamentally transform into our idealized selves, then what were we before?

The simple answer: not fucking good enough. The more complicated answer: women who feel a deeply rooted ambivalence about the current state of our bodies, who at times wish to rebelliously defy cultural imperatives to improve our bodies while simultaneously longing to transfigure our bodies into the bodies that appear to be better bodies than our present bodies. We hear, and sometimes ignore, the squeaks and squeals of our needy bodies, and once in a while, usually when folding laundry or opening the mail, the realization arises that we're going to someday die. Or maybe that's just me.

That ambivalence is at the root of the simple act of flipping through a women's magazine, or scrolling through a site like goop. It's the kind of act that can be done in a spirit that is both, and at once, ironic and earnest. You can get your kicks ridiculing a woman who writes so passionately about colon cleanses, while also taking real note of how to make flower arrangements in small jars for a semi-formal dinner.

Although she is mocked across all reaches of internet-land, I don't hate Gwyneth Paltrow, despite her butt-toning exhortations. She's like a nosy and over-sharing third cousin, or the kind of coworker you see in the kitchen when heating up your lunch. She feels very strongly about a few select topics, and truly means well, urgently imparting advice to anyone in the vicinity that will largely go unheeded. And she's not alone. Fellow celebrities Jenny McCarthy, Jessica Alba, Alicia Silverstone, and Mayim Bialik have written books in recent years on everything from vaccination and household cleaning products to veganism and attachment parenting. An entire subgenre now exists of celebrity guidebooks devoted to health and fitness.

I can't help drawing comparisons between Paltrow and Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, who, in her best-selling book of the same name, has initiated a movement that urges women to lean in. Although Sandberg limits her counsel to the professional sphere, and advocates for women to more proactively pursue career success specifically, the energy behind her urgings has much in common with Paltrow's entreaties regarding health and fitness. For both, success is a matter of motivation and drive. The emphasis is on self-determination, and the responsibility to improve is placed squarely on our own shoulders.

The faith in this kind of pursuit is very American. We love to believe that with the right mix of moxie and hard work, we can all be corporate executives with rock-hard abdominals. The thousand steps to attain that status are often elided, or painted in broad strokes like, "find a mentor" and "maximize your time at the gym." It's much simpler that way. To elucidate those thousand steps would be messy and require lengthy chapters on class, race, gender, economics, and social mobility, and would need detailed, extensive endnotes and a list for additional reading. When Paltrow and Sandberg dole out advice, they are making a pretty heavy unspoken assumption -- that the women whom they are advising are already in a position where they can implement that advice. And for many of their readers, this is undoubtedly the case. But for many more women, the time required to "transform" is a luxury they can't afford, and a seat at the leadership table is a distant dream when they can't even get their foot in the door.

It might be a matter of audience, then. Paltrow and Sandberg might be speaking to someone like me -- earning enough income to support myself, with enough leisure time that I could work on my muscle tone while also steadily climbing the career ladder if I felt so inclined, and without many other family or social obligations that would present obstacles to my time and energy. And that might be why their overarching message -- that success of their variety is attainable -- was so attractive to me. Maybe if I followed their protocol and worked hard enough, I could transform into a goopy showrunner too.

Although I once cooked some chicken soup loosely following a goop recipe, I have not yet truly put Paltrow's health and fitness advice (or Sandberg's career advice, for that matter) to the test. Paltrow, at least, is continuing to transform. I recently read that a physical goop store has opened in Los Angeles. I happily note that we can now step bodily into goop, try on a Beyond Yoga for goop top in the dressing room, and admire how smoothly the Lycra stretches across our dimpled shoulders before purchasing.

Cheryl Quimba has an MFA in Poetry from Purdue University. Her poems have appeared in Dusie, Phoebe, Tinfish, Everyday Genius, 1913, and Horseless Review, and her chapbook, Scattered Trees Grow in Some Tundra, is forthcoming from Sunnyoutside Press. She is the Poetry Editor of Free Inquiry magazine, and she works for Starcherone Books and Prometheus Books in Buffalo, New York.

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