The most effective troll of 2020 isn’t Kanye or Trump or one of the Paul brothers. It’s a rich blond lady selling $75 hoo-ha-scented candles.
This is the primary takeaway from the new Netflix series The Goop Lab, the latest joint from actor Gwyneth Paltrow, the CEO of the much-maligned lifestyle brand Goop. Over the years, Paltrow has built a nearly billion-dollar brand on making people on the internet extremely angry, largely by recommending ridiculous, prohibitively expensive products and medically dubious, if not outright dangerous, therapeutic treatments. The company even had to pay a $145,000 fine for making fraudulent claims about vagina “eggs,” which they claimed could enhance orgasm and improve bladder control (but which gynecologists said would likely lead to bacterial infections).
At first glance, it seems like trying to find legitimate medical advice in Goop is a little like watching the Star Wars franchise and trying to discern the interplanetary tax codes governing the Galactic Empire. But in the wake of such backlash, Goop has actually tried to position itself as a scientifically sound resource. The company hired a fact-checker in 2018, and Goop Lab, which spotlights a number of wellness practices from cryotherapy to therapeutic hallucinogenic use, cites a surprising number of studies and experts, some of which seem legitimate and some of whom don’t immediately come off like they obtained their Ph.D. from a white guy with dreadlocks at Burning Man. Additionally, a disclaimer suggesting the show is intended to “entertain and inform” and not provide medical advice seems to indicate that Goop is at least attempting to absolve itself of some ethical responsibility in putting forth scientifically dubious claims.
But of course, Goop is still Goop, the slices of legitimate or harmless health information — such as a fun, sex-positive episode on orgasms and vulvas — are smack in the middle of a giant bullshit sandwich, and no amount of shots of attractive twentysomethings pulling down their $650 cashmere sweatpants to look at their vulvas can detract from this. And some of these claims are actually potentially pretty dangerous. We watched the show to fact-check some of its more extreme health claims.
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Claim 1: Psychedelic mushrooms can help treat depression and anxiety.
The first episode features Goop staffers communing in Jamaica to take psilocybin mushrooms to heal their various traumas (or not: as one staffer puts it, she just wants to try it to feel more like her “authentic self”). And while drinking mushroom tea and sobbing on the floor with your overly earnest millennial coworkers doesn’t exactly sound like a smashing good time, in itself the practice of taking psychedelics for therapeutic purposes has received an increasing amount of attention within the mental health community; in fact, just this month the FDA approved 10 sites in the United States to administer clinical trials of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for people with PTSD. On Goop Lab, Paltrow and her co-executive producer Elise Loehnen interview Bill Haden, the executive director of MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) in Canada, which funds research on psychedelics and is widely considered one of the leading authorities in the field; they also interview participants in (admittedly small) studies and clinical trials, such as a veteran who tried MDMA-assisted therapy to reduce symptoms of PTSD. And there is evidence to suggest that, combined with therapy, MDMA-assisted treatment can be effective in helping people with PTSD cope with and process their emotions.
In addition to the legal obstacles to studying illegal drugs, even in a therapeutic context, one of the major obstacles in attaining mainstream acceptance of psychedelic-assisted treatment has been cultural perceptions of psychedelics in general as New Age BS, and scenes of the Goop team tripping balls in Jamaica with shamans and smudge sticks doesn’t detract from that. Further, a segment where MAPS-trained psychotherapist Will Siu attributes the rise of psychedelic-assisted treatment to antidepressants’ “terrible side effects” is also cringeworthy and misleading. (“Antidepressants” is a broad category, with side effects varying widely from person to person; plus, it’s pretty disingenuous to imply that a drug like MDMA, which can produce high blood pressure, rising body temperatures, nausea, and faintness, has absolutely no negative side effects at all.) But on the whole, Goop Lab is fairly straightforward about the fact that the research on psychedelic-assisted therapy, while emerging, could potentially yield wide-ranging benefits to some people.
Claim 2: Vampire facials can make you look younger.
Were you super keyed into the viral news cycle in 2015, you probably clicked on something about vampire facials, or the practice of injecting plasma-rich platelets (PRP) into your face. Like most 2015 beauty-and-wellness trends, vampire facials were popularized by Kim Kardashian West, who caused a minor sensation when she underwent the procedure on Kim and Kourtney Take Miami. PRP therapy essentially involves taking blood, putting it through a centrifuge to extract plasma from it, and reinjecting the plasma into your face, which purportedly makes you look youthful and well-rested.
Because the Goop editors never met an SEO-friendly wellness trend they didn’t like, one of the episodes shows Paltrow undergoing the practice, then breathlessly proclaiming its efficacy. “My baby daddy was like, ‘You look five years younger’!” she crows. (Reader, she looks exactly the same.) While a number of spas offer the practice, there isn’t actually any evidence to support the efficacy of PRP therapy, and there is evidence that it could do more harm than good, with the New Mexico Department of Health shutting down an Albuquerque spa in 2018 following two customers testing positive for HIV. So if you needed another reason to avoid shelling out hundreds of dollars to effectively smear your own blood all over your face, that’s a pretty good one.
Claim 3: Inherently “intuitive” people have the power to communicate with the dead.
One of the most consciously woo-woo episodes of Goop Lab features a medium named Laura Lynne Jackson. Jackson is affable and pleasant and has suspiciously straight blond hair; she claims to be able to contact deceased folks via an invisible “screen,” sort of like FaceTime for people who are worm food. She’s paired with an academic “expert,” Dr. Julie Beischel of Windbridge Research Center, to bolster Jackson’s claim that there is scientific evidence to support psychic abilities, citing a “quadruple blind study” as an example.
Goop Lab takes a cursory stab at evenhandedness by running through the methods of fraudsters such as “cold” readings, wherein psychics derive cues from the body language of their clients. It also features a skeptical employee whose reading is uneventful, though it undercuts that pretty quickly by having a sobbing producer emerge from the background to say that Jackson was inadvertently giving her a reading instead. But the inclusion of Beischel elevates the episode from a frothy (if not dumb) exploration of psychic practices to one depicting clairvoyance as a legitimate area of study, which it is not.
For starters, Windbridge Research Center is a nonprofit, donation-supported research center run by Beischel and her husband. While she does indeed have a Ph.D, it is a degree in pharmacology and toxicology from the University of Arizona. This would make her a pretty legit expert for Goop to consult if it were doing an episode on, say, the excreted metabolic product of amphetamine, but it doesn’t necessarily render her an expert on whether the afterlife exists (though one wonders who, aside from God and perhaps a college acid dealer, would be). In one stomach-turning moment, Beischel claims there is a great deal of evidence to support the contention that communicating with the afterlife helps devastated loved ones more effectively process their grief, and Paltrow and Loehnen do little to push back on this claim. In the end, Goop Lab weighs heavily on the side that Jackson can communicate with the dead, and while there’s no way for Rolling Stone to definitively vet that claim, it’s certainly safe to say she can communicate with her hair straightener.
Claim 4: Energy healing is a thing.
One of the most wackadoo healing practices spotlighted in Goop Lab is the practice of energy healing, in which body worker (and chiropractor) John Amaral waves his hands over Goop employees like he’s Old Deuteronomy at the Jellicle Ball while they contort and orgasmically writhe beneath him. As Amaral and Goop favorite functional-medicine-expert Dr. Apostolos Lekkos explain, energy healing is based on the principle that trauma and physical pain can be alleviated by manipulating the energy field around one’s body, which is located four to six feet away from a person. As “proof,” Amaral cites the double-slit experiment, a physics principle that dictates that light can act like both waves and particles (which is a thing, but has absolutely nothing to do with healing in any capacity).
Throughout the episode, various Goopers spring from Amaral’s table and ecstatically proclaim themselves cured of their trauma; Paltrow herself also undergoes the practice, declaring herself to be cured of the trauma she underwent with her emergency C-section when her daughter Apple was born. “When our bodies are cut into, we don’t think about the energetic planes we’re rupturing,” Amaral coos sympathetically, thus supporting the idea that a C-section is an inherently traumatic experience or a source of shame as opposed to something nearly a third of mothers undergo.
Watching the footage, it does appear to be the case that Amaral is doing … something to the Goop staffers, though it’s unclear whether it’s good or bad. But of course — are we sensing a pattern here? — there is no research to suggest that the ecstatic writhing that results from Goop Lab’s energy healing sessions are anything other than the result of placebo effect. It does, however, showcase a 57-year-old cancer patient who claims that the technique helped reduce numbness in his legs, a testimonial so cynical and exploitative that it may prompt you to turn off the show in disgust and watch The Circle instead.