It was a Tuesday afternoon in early summer when I realized that I was the person in the office who stank. Not “smelled a little ripe,” not “could use a shower,” but stank. An aroma was emanating from deep within my body. As the afternoon sun strained the building’s air-conditioning and my odor situation deteriorated, I furtively sniffed at myself and began running through a list of things that could have gone wrong. Had I forgotten deodorant? Had I plucked my dress out of the wrong bedroom pile? Was I sweating out the previous night’s hot wings and Coors Light?
Then I remembered the new vitamins.
That morning, I had torn open a plastic pouch and swallowed two giant ivory pills, two giant green pills, one mottled-gray gelcap, and an enormous capsule of golden fish oil. The supplement regimen was made by Goop Wellness, one of several product lines that have grown out of Gwyneth Paltrow’s influential lifestyle website, Goop. I’m no expert on the physics of odor suppression, but my instinct was to sink low in my chair in an effort to trap as much stink under my desk as possible. From there, I opened a new browser tab to find out what I had done to myself.
The vitamin cocktail I’d picked up at Goop’s downtown-Manhattan boutique was called Balls in the Air. It promised to defeat fatigue and promote productivity (and maybe make an arch little joke about testicles). Its ingredients include dozens of substances, but the star of the show is a cannonball of B vitamins, including 4,000 percent of the recommended daily dose of niacin and 3,333 percent of the recommended B12. A Google search confirmed my fears: As B-complex supplements break down, they create choline, which can turn bodily fluids into the vat of stink in which I was marinating.
Half-hidden under my desk and paranoid that my co-workers would have to draw straws to see who would give me the talk about proper office hygiene, I tore through digital pages of supplement breakdowns and pseudoscientific ravings about the wonders of megadosing B vitamins. Another Balls in the Air reaction, “efficient energy levels,” aided my search; as far as I could tell, the term was a polite euphemism for feeling like I had done a bump of cocaine. But I found little information beyond a sketchy doctor promising that niacin could cure schizophrenia. I do not have schizophrenia. I had stink lines radiating off of me, like a real-life Pig-Pen from Peanuts.
Eventually, I had to admit to myself that I was looking down the barrel of a much bigger problem. I still had 29 packets of vitamins to go, and the ones I had ingested were only prologue. I was in the first days of a quixotic, expense-account-straining journalistic mission to Goopify my existence. Goop, a one-stop shop for people hell-bent on perfecting themselves, has helped sell Americans on the idea that “wellness” means buying things until you feel better. So I had dropped more than $1,000 on Goop products to see whether they really could improve my life.
My first indication of what was ahead of me came right as I walked up to the Goop store in Manhattan. When I turned down the boutique’s stretch of Bond Street on a sunny weekday afternoon, dark paparazzi SUVs were idling on the cobblestones, waiting for someone famous to arrive at a starlet-bait restaurant across the street. Sitting in the store’s doorway was a $600 Ralph Lauren umbrella stand, draped in fragile, porous calfskin, which often discolors and loses its lush texture when exposed to water. Using it to upholster an umbrella bucket felt like an elaborate joke.
Inside, the store looked less like a mecca of rich-hippie wellness and more like the high-end clothing boutiques that dot all of New York City’s wealthiest neighborhoods. The walls were painted a creamy shade somewhere between beige and blush, lined with gleaming golden racks of silk dresses and shelves stacked with delicate summer knits; I flipped over a few tags and found four-figure prices and tiny sizes. Earlier that day, I had read an article on Goop.com about how to create a “judgment-free wellness space,” illustrated with an image of a plus-size woman doing yoga. In the store, the available clothing stopped far short of anything that would fit her—or me.
Goop most often makes headlines when it attempts to mainstream fringe health practices by, say, selling chunks of crystal intended for vaginal insertion or hosting talks by controversial doctors, like one who claims that depression is a nutritional ailment. But Goop is primarily oriented around wealth and its trappings, particularly luxury fashion. Goop launched in 2008 as a newsletter for Paltrow’s travel and shopping recommendations, before transmogrifying into a $250 million retail, “content,” and events business. A third of the store in front of me was dedicated to casual gold and diamond jewelry. Two rare Hermes handbags were displayed behind glass.
I strolled to the back, where Goop’s marble-countered “clean beauty apothecary”—a mix of nutritional supplements, makeup and skin-care products, home decor, cookware, and two shelves of vibrators—was waiting for me to begin my version of Supermarket Sweep. I spent a decade covering the fashion industry, so I’m intimately familiar with all the luxuries money can buy. But I’ve never been able to afford most of them. This time, there would be no anxiety about the looming bill, no internal debate over what it means for some stupid thing to be “worth” $78. For an hour or so, I would shop like a truly rich person: with no consequences.
I asked the two women working in the store—pretty blond 20-somethings who could have been cousins, or sorority sisters, or cousins in the same sorority—if they could show me the things people liked the most. The pair pointed to vitamins and an artfully mismatched selection of vintage crystal goblets. Gleefully, I started grabbing things: a skin-care starter kit, a water bottle that contained a chunk of rose quartz, a pair of Millennial-pink cut-glass goblets. I selected a mint-green blow-dryer that has been advertised to seemingly every woman with an internet connection and a credit card. One of the saleswomen sold me on a giant ceramic bowl with the assurance that it would be great for nights when I just want a big salad. Nothing about the bowl seemed different from what you could buy at Crate & Barrel, but her enthusiasm for it seemed profound, and I didn’t want to disappoint her by distrusting the bowl’s potential.
After a few minutes of browsing, I was offered a gratis carton of organic, calorie-free grapefruit- and elderflower-essenced alkaline spring water. It tasted like the ghost of a grapefruit, or like you finish your morning juice and fill the unrinsed cup with water. A second customer—another young woman—came into the store and asked to be shown the things people like, and the sorority sisters pointed her to different stuff from what they had shown me. Meanwhile, my pile of ostensibly life-improving Paltrow-approved products was growing. The only thing I wanted but resisted was a $300 serum made by Barbara Sturm, the Instagram-famous dermatologist to the stars. I was afraid that if I tried it, it might work too well—make me too beautiful, too radiant, too dewy. I would be haunted by the knowledge of what I was missing for the rest of my life.
In all, I spent $1,279. One of the clerks loaded my purchases into three giant shopping bags, all white with thick black grosgrain handles. The inside lip of each bag said, “Have a Goop day.” They were heavy enough that the clerk helped me out to the sidewalk, where she assumed an idling black Audi was mine. It wasn’t.
If shopping is a thrill, then the process of unpacking and inspecting a fresh haul of stuff is the blissful afterglow. I lugged my Goop acquisitions into my apartment and, one by one, lovingly removed them from their boxes like it was self-help Christmas. Like many people who enter the wellness market with little more than a vague sense that they could probably feel better than they do, I didn’t know exactly what anything I’d bought would do for me. Goop’s website doesn’t let its shoppers review their purchases, so I simply read the packaging and guessed what effects the various objects and potions might have.
I started my experiment with something I felt I could handle: blow-drying my hair. I grabbed the Christophe Robin round brush ($103) and the Harry Josh blow-dryer ($249), which promised to combine their powers to create smooth, loose, effortless curls. That amount of cash should have gotten me the hair of an Instagram influencer, but I hit an obstacle almost immediately. I’d gotten a haircut only eight weeks earlier, but women who use hundred-dollar brushes apparently get more frequent trims. The brush snagged knots in the ends of my hair that were invisible to the human eye. (A hair appointment two weeks later proved my suspicion: After a trim, the brush worked fine.)
The brush and blow-dryer, like most of my Goop purchases, were intended to be used in the privacy of my own home, but it wasn’t long before the Glacce Crystal Elixir Water Bottle ($80), which features a large rose-quartz crystal shaped vaguely like the Washington Monument jutting up its center, forced me to go public with my wellness experiment. The market for bottles that promise to infuse water with crystal-derived “healing energies” is more crowded than you might think, but the Glacce version goes a step beyond many of its competitors by putting a big chunk of rock directly in the water chamber, instead of embedding a few small stones behind an interior layer of glass.
Glacce’s packaging is careful to stipulate that the company makes no medical claims. Still, its website notes that drinking rose-quartz water is “helpful in enhancing communication and has the ability to make surrounding environments feel open and safe.” I chose to forgo the glass bottle’s optional opaque sleeve and open myself up to questions in the office, and my water bottle indeed “enhanced communication” by drawing the attention of people from departments far and wide. It did not make me feel safer, but it did let me taste the distinct minerality imparted by drinking something with a rock in it.
After the vitamin mishap, I began to read the instructions for my remaining purchases more carefully. But Goop’s products kept thwarting me. The Kosas Tinted Face Oil ($42) promised to hydrate my face while evening my skin tone. The first time I tried to use it, it disappeared into the core of my Beauty Blender makeup sponge and was never seen again. I felt like the raccoon in that viral video, trying to wash its cotton candy. When I squirted the oil onto the back of my hand to dab it on with a brush, it dripped onto the floor in seconds. I still have no idea how I’m supposed to put it on my face.
The Goop Martini Emotional Detox Bath Soak ($35) was most unhelpful. It came in a pouch with a detailed image of pink salt crystals, but when I dumped it in my bath, it was brown. My tub looked like someone had taken a shit in it. It also smelled terrible, but not in a way that matched up with how it looked. The online product listing provided two clues as to why: frankincense and myrrh. Goop’s gifts of the Magi are as musty as you might expect resins that got name-checked in the Bible to smell in 2019. I felt very middle-class for wanting something dyed pink and artificially scented instead.
Then there was the vibrator. Determined to become the first person ever to expense a sex toy to The Atlantic (though, really, who knows for sure what Thoreau submitted for reimbursement), I had chosen the Smile Makers Fireman Vibrator ($55), a little flame-shaped chunk of coral-colored silicone that looks silly enough not to scream marital aid if a houseguest opens the wrong drawer. It was one of four slightly infantilizing options that Goop carries, themed around cutesy stereotypical objects of feminine yearning: the Fireman, the Tennis Coach, the Frenchman, the Millionaire.
Unfortunately, the vibrator violated a cardinal rule of all toys, sex or otherwise: It didn’t come with a battery. I didn’t realize this until late in the game, and I was left wandering around my apartment in just a T-shirt, trying to decide which remote control would yield a battery with the most life. Later, when the time came to shut my laptop and pretend nothing had just happened, I couldn’t figure out how to turn the vibrator off. I jabbed at its single button, but that only made it vibrate harder. All I could do was muffle the toy under my duvet and wander my apartment once again, to track down the instructions.
Some of my Goop products, I must note, worked beautifully. The Slip silk scrunchies ($39) fulfilled their promise to be kinder to my hair than the skinny elastics that have been yanking strands out of my head for years. The Goop Beauty skin-care “discovery set” ($125) included two facial moisturizers that I loved, reaffirming my belief that rich women over 40, like Paltrow herself, really do know about all the best creams. I bought a Lisse Luxe Hair Towel ($30) that was exactly as long and thin as hair towels should be for optimal hair-twisting.
The Necessaire Body Lotion ($25), which is sold with no health claims at all, ended an eczema flare that had plagued me for more than a year—exactly the type of chronic illness that inspires many people to look for relief in internet tips and alternative remedies. Its success gave me the same sense of hope that sells millions of dollars of unproven treatments.
Even so, as the experiment went on, I began to suspect that the health company I had been promised would never quite materialize. I tried to take every vitamin sachet and dose of Goop-branded melatonin with the sincere belief that I might just be one day away from feeling better than I ever knew I could. But Goop’s primary focus on merely maintaining appearances was inescapable: vitamins to quicken metabolism and maximize energy, supplement powder for glowing skin, cooking manuals and equipment to food-restrict my way to well-being.
For these products to be considered successful, the result wouldn’t necessarily be a stronger, more resilient, more competent me, or a more peaceful relationship with my body. It would be a person who is better-dressed, who hasn’t succumbed to the indignities of visible aging, whose hair doesn’t frizz, who never goes back for seconds at dinner.
Instead of questioning long-standing assumptions about women’s bodies, as Goop often claims is its goal, the company’s products embrace one of America’s oldest health myths: that physical beauty is proof not only of a person’s health but of her essential righteousness. If the outside is perfect, the inside must be too. It’s a retrograde vision of womanhood for a company that so frequently deploys the word empowerment. It’s also a clever bit of vertical integration. Some companies sell weight-loss products; others, the clothes you get to wear after you conscientiously starve yourself. Few companies sell both.
Wellness companies can feel predatory, even those not making Gwyneth Paltrow richer. It’s a largely unregulated industry, and it operates in an environment of open desperation. Many women justifiably mistrust the ways conventional doctors address their concerns and treat their pain. Goop, influential in ways that would make most gurus and healers envious, has helped introduce millions of people to “experts” who argue that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS and that drinking celery juice can treat cancer. In 2018, the company settled a $145,000 lawsuit over unsubstantiated claims that its jade and rose-quartz eggs could balance hormones and regulate menstrual cycles. (Goop denied any wrongdoing.) The company was also pressured to stop selling a set of “healing” stickers that were not, as it claimed, made of materials originally developed for NASA. They were actually just Mylar, a common polyester that the manufacturer, Body Vibes, claims is “programmed” with “frequencies” derived from Gregorian monks’ chants.
Goop declined to talk to me for this article, but the company has addressed accusations about its predilection for pseudoscience in the past. Its spokespeople usually wind up telling journalists that any claims the company makes should be considered functionally meaningless. “As we have always explained, advice and recommendations included on Goop are not formal endorsements,” a Goop spokesperson told Rae Paoletta, the journalist who debunked its NASA stickers. When people charge Goop with classism or elitism, Paltrow frequently reminds them that its recommendations, product listings, and information about fringe health services such as vaginal steaming are free, and always have been. (I’m not sure how much information on vaginal steaming anyone really needs—it’s pretty much what it sounds like.)
In some instances, the company has issued responses via open letter on its own website. “Being dismissive—of discourse, of questions from patients, of practices that women might find empowering or healing, of daring to poke at a long-held belief—seems like the most dangerous practice of all,” one post posits, before launching into an impassioned defense of the vaginal eggs.
To hear the company tell it, Goop’s constituents are victims of chronic illnesses and the doctors who dismiss them, and their victimization is compounded by friends and loved ones who doubt the efficacy of alternative treatments. Last year, Goop’s chief content officer, Elise Loehnen, told the journalist Taffy Brodesser-Akner that the company’s amplification of unproven cures and uncredentialed health gurus is evidence that its employees are “just asking questions” about women’s health and well-being. “Just asking questions” is also a defense frequently invoked by anti-vaxxers, 9/11 truthers, and eugenicists.
Running a luxury lifestyle business and running an organization sincerely trying to address the medical maltreatment of American women are distinct pursuits. Chronic illness and the state of women’s health care are both enormous problems in America that disproportionately harm people living in poverty, black and Hispanic people, and people who live in rural and urban areas without adequate medical resources. Certainly, wealthy women face these problems, too; no amount of money can guard against certain illnesses or biased doctors. But wealthy women have better access to help than so many other Americans do. By that measure, Goop's customers are already the wellest among us.
Fundamental to Goop’s sales philosophy is the idea that the female body is a matter of opinion, and that “asking questions” is the best way to resist a medical establishment determined to tell women how to feel. The biggest question I had while using Goop’s products was a little different: How had a celebrity convinced so many women who can afford all the designer dresses and diamond jewelry they want that their problems, health or otherwise, can be solved by buying even more stuff?
My quest to Goopify my life didn’t end so much as peter out. After a few weeks, the good products were mostly gone. The really bad products had terrorized me so thoroughly that I stopped using them. And the products in between simply started to slip from my mind. I took a little more than half of the vitamin packets in my 30-day supply before I lapsed into my lifelong habit of owning vitamins instead of consuming them. My Goop rose-quartz face roller ($45) offered a refreshing jolt whenever I plucked it out of the refrigerator, but I usually forgot it was in there. The pink cut-glass goblets ($40 for a pair) sat idle inside my cabinets.
Such is the life cycle of American stuff. The things that fall under the banner of “trying something new” often end up in junk drawers or the backs of closets, given away to friends or donated to Goodwill a few years down the line. Clutter is the country’s way of life, and buying the most luxurious version of a thing you don’t really need doesn’t make it more useful.
But here’s the thing about shopping that often goes unsaid: The stuff doesn’t matter, not really. The act of shopping itself is the salve. With most of my Goop purchases, the joy was all up front—in selecting, acquiring, and unwrapping things that seemed special, in feeling like something about me might change. That feeling is carefully cultivated, and it’s especially potent when a brand targets people who feel that their concerns and problems have been overlooked. When the hook is “Your problem matters,” whatever package of vitamins or tube of lotion gets thrown in the bag is almost beside the point. The act of buying from a business that makes you feel cared for and understood can seem like a course of treatment in and of itself.
In an era when many people take the idea of “voting with their wallet” quite seriously, it’s no wonder that self-care, a concept first articulated by the radical poet and civil-rights activist Audre Lorde, was commodified into a righteous cry for fancy bath products. Goop, with its $3,000 dresses and $95 drinkable skin care, is the company you get when people believe that having nice things and being a good person are achieved through the same means.
The irony of the wellness industry is its obvious limitations. A new moisturizer can’t stop you from getting older. A new supplement pack can’t dispel the exhaustion of raising three kids. A new cookbook can’t change your genetic disposition to gaining weight around your waist. But a good entrepreneur will always come up with a few more problems for you to solve if you’ve got money to burn. During just a few weeks of wellness experimentation, I found myself sucked into the paranoid skepticism that drives people to buy more products, read more pseudoscience, and orient their lives around ailments that might not even exist.
Did I have a vitamin deficiency? Were my free radicals out of control? Was my normal moisturizer full of bad chemicals? Are artificial fragrances and dyes harming me? Is all of this why I’m fat, why I get tired in the afternoons, why I’ve never successfully gotten a “beach wave” into my hair?
It’s not. But what if it were? Goop’s just asking questions.