Why I Love to Hate (and Hate to Love) Gwyneth Paltrow
I can’t remember the exact day when people started tweeting about Gwyneth Paltrow emerging from a vagina, but I do remember immediately click-clicking my way across the internet to learn more, much like Dorothy on her yellow-brick road — except for me, the road was made up of the powerful blend of aspiration and revulsion Gwyneth so often inspires. The vagina I refer to, of course, is the graphic display of concentric pink ovals surrounding a confident, hands-on-hips, pink-dress clad Gwyneth in the poster for her newest endeavor, The Goop Lab, a series for Netflix. “Reach new depths” reads the poster. And despite my reflexive eyeroll that accompanies all of Gwyneth’s shenanigans these days, I couldn’t stop clicking. Because I am obsessed with Gwyneth in that very particular, love-to-hate/hate-to-love Gwyneth obsession type of way.
My fixation was born in 1998 when Gwyneth played Estella in the Ethan Hawke version of Great Expectations. Her languid body, her effortless cool, it was all catnip to me, then an insecure, acne-plagued, 16-year-old girl expending ungodly amounts of effort just to survive high school. I followed Gwyneth closely, attempting to recreate her 1999 Golden Globes look for my prom, losing my shit entirely during that brief golden period when she and then-BFF Winona Ryder double-dated Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. It was the celebrity mash-up of my Xennial dreams. Good Will Hunting, Reality Bites, and Gwyneth!
And then of course, there was Gwyneth the cool girlfriend to rockstar of the moment, Chris Martin, whom she started dating in 2002. There was Gwyneth the boho-chic new mother. Each of these Gwyneths propelled my desires for my own life forward, showing me how I might embody certain archetypal female roles. It’s no coincidence that Gwyneth so neatly encapsulates our culture’s notion of ideal female beauty, in that she is conventionally attractive, cis-gendered, white, thin, heterosexual, and upper class. I’m sad that my younger self so unthinkingly gobbled up patriarchy’s message that only certain women are worthy of value, only certain female roles “count” as archetypal.
Goop Gwyneth is different, though. When Goop first launched in 2008, it was a far cry from the wellness juggernaut it is today. Started as a newsletter through which Gwyneth recommended her favorite place to grab a facial in the Hamptons, Goop’s premise was that regular gals like you or me wouldn’t have a clue about, well, anything really — but we could rely on Gwyneth to show us the way. The right way. To steam our vaginas, to store cashmere, to order clean from a 5-star menu. Now, Goop is where you can buy “This Smells Like My Vagina” candles and attractively packaged vitamins that may or may not do anything at all. But I can’t get facials in the Hamptons, and I cannot afford a $75 candle that smugly capitalizes on our society’s prudishness when it comes to anatomical naming. I knew that Gwyneth had been talking down to me all along, but Goop Gwyneth did it with a megaphone.
So when my sister bought a Goop branded toiletry bag a few years ago (“But look at the cute bird zipper!”), I was horrified. The whole project smacked of elitism and condescension, not to mention the upholding of a very white, very class-specific type of “wellness.” And I didn’t want to know the sordid details of how Gwyneth maintained her perfection, since it was her very untouchability that had so mesmerized me as a teenager. The Gwyneth hawking $390 sweatpants was unappealing to me. I wanted my idols to keep their secrets to themselves.
But. There’s one Goop ad that makes me click in spite of myself. It’s a photo of Gwyneth wearing [apparently] no makeup, rocking tousled, beachy, I-woke-up-like-this hair, grinning like a high school track star at the camera. Sure, she's probably on a yacht somewhere, and sure, her personal chefs probably made her a delicious yet aggressively healthy breakfast packed with superfoods, but there's something about this photo when it's attached to text that reads: "Gwyneth's #1 skin secret," or "The one product Gwyneth can't live without," that makes me click every. single. time. And despite viewing dozens of these targeted ads every day, despite knowing that appearing a certain way is literally part of her job description, this photo always makes me think that this is the real Gwyneth, this is the real skin secret, and if I just click, I'll be privy to some sort of inner sanctum of healthy, happy, beautiful cool. This is the Gwyneth of my youth, the Gwyneth that tricks me into believing beauty is synonymous with fulfillment.
What is it about this photo of one of our most famously inaccessible, not at all just-like-us celebrities that so undoes all my knowledge about feminism and bullshit beauty culture? I'm 38 — I know skincare isn’t magic, and I remain dubious about it being propped up as “self-care,” — but I’m still annoyingly susceptible to Gwyneth's particular allures. In the photo, she looks so unabashedly joyful, so confident that she glows without external assistance, and it’s this otherworldly confidence that makes me yearn for a fraction of that for myself. Sixteen-year-old me demands I start searching for something I can’t even name. I know night cream won’t make me happy, that exfoliating masks won’t fill any empty holes, and that eye cream is just face cream in a tiny jar. But maybe. Maybe this one isn’t? Click.
This act of consumption is intrinsically tied to Gwyneth’s unshakeable hold over me, the adolescent fear that I will never be quite enough, and that searching for ways to be better is a good use of my time. In this way, clicking provides a fleeting sense of comfort that I’m moving forward, that I’m making a positive step towards improvement. Of my skin, of myself, of my life.
I never end up buying whatever $85 miracle cream lies at the end of my clicking, and hours later, everything that was wrong with my life is still very much wrong. I’m intellectually aware it’s all a futile exercise in empty consumerism. But clicking my way towards the potential for something better has nothing to do with intellectual me and everything to do with emotional me. “Make-up free” Gwyneth looks happy, she looks sure, she looks full. This is what I’m chasing as I click in the name of self-care, this elusive assurance that I’m doing life right. As a mother, a partner, a friend, an artist, a citizen, I am making all the right choices, choosing the most appropriate paths.
Mia Nakaji Monnier notes in The Lily that, “self-care is an existential issue, but it’s a means, not an end, isn’t it?” Gwyneth is always my unreachable end because my obsession with Gwyneth is an obsession with a desire to be well, a concept so ineffable, so impossible to calculate, that marketers will surely be making money off of me for years to come. Reach new depths.
The Goop Lab premieres Jan. 24 on Netflix.