By John Elder
In 2014, the lovely Gwyneth Paltrow advised women to steam-clean their vaginas – pretty much the same way one would steam broccoli. The routine involves sitting on what is essentially a mini-throne, while a combination of infrared and herbal steam cleanses your uterus. It’s supposed to be an energetic release – not just a steam douche – that balances female hormone levels. Her words, not ours.
Doctors were quick to say no, no, and no. Vaginas are self-cleaning; good bacteria are at risk of being washed away by do-it-yourselfers; and there is no release of energy or hormonal re-balancing. There just isn’t.
What a goofball Gwyneth is! Silly, but harmless, right? Yeah, well, we’re not too sure about the ‘harmless’ part.
The hazards of selling false hope
In 2015, Australian wellness darling and Jesus stand-in Belle Gibson, founder of The Whole Pantry, was exposed as a fraud. She said she was dying from brain cancer. But she wasn’t. She didn’t even have brain cancer. An uncounted number of her followers were in fact cancer-ridden – and they’d swallowed whole Gibson’s claptrap that eating well just might cure them. In fact they would cry for Gibson’s suffering and courage while their own went uncelebrated. The media loved Gibson too – and was foolishly complicit – all the way up to the moment she was exposed, initially, for not fulfilling a public promise to donate a significant portion of her profits to charity.
A court eventually found Gibson guilty of misleading and deceptive conduct. She was ordered to pay a fine of $410,000. She is yet to pay a cent, and is yet to die of shame or show any at all. But she’s out of business and remains widely criticised on social media.
2015 also marked the beginning of the end for young billionaire and magazine cover-girl Elizabeth Holmes, who managed to pull off one of the biggest health research frauds in history. Her carefully crafted pitch, striking stage presence, and probably the fact that she dressed like Steve Jobs (black skivvy) captivated the likes of Bill Clinton, Jack Ma, and Henry Kissinger, who all joined the board of her company Theranos.
Holmes won over investors, the US media and industry heavy-hitters alike with a story of how, as a little girl, she was afraid of needles. She told how her team of scientists had developed new technology that could diagnose an array of health conditions with just a few drops of blood from a pinprick.
High-profile venture capitalists and giant organisations such as Walgreens signed on with no close scrutiny of the technology – which didn’t work – simply because they didn’t want to miss out on the ‘next big thing’. Theranos was soon valued at US$9 billion. Holmes put the word out that the US military was using her blood testing technology. Not true. Real people were being tested, but with the same old technology that has been around for years. Because of the use of small pin-prick samples, though, their health was put at risk.
Eventually, the truth came out. Holmes and another Theranos executive were indicted on criminal fraud charges and now face possible life sentences.
Paltrow’s pay-off isn’t paltry
An investigation by US consumer watchdog, Truth in Advertising, found more than 50 instances in which Goop claims, either expressly or implicitly, that its products – or third-party products that it promotes – can treat, cure, prevent, alleviate the symptoms of, or reduce the risk of developing a number of ailments. These ailments range from depression, anxiety, and insomnia, to infertility, uterine prolapse, and arthritis, to name a few.
Despite the critical pile-on from health professionals and social media, Goop not only continues to market false claims, it's actually thriving. In May, Goop raised US$50 million from outside investors to fund global expansion. The company’s total outside investment stands at US$82 million, and Paltrow has emerged as the glamorous goddess of the multi-billion dollar wellness industry.
Critics are baffled and alarmed by her success, especially now that Paltrow is launching her own magazine in the manner of Oprah Winfrey’s O. The concern there is how Paltrow’s celebrity power and fuzzy science will further muddy the contested area of health journalism. Not long ago, we wrote about how celebrities are pumping out diet, nutrition, and health advice, which is often based on little to no scientific knowledge. Well, with the launch of Paltrow’s new magazine, you can expect even more of that!
To be fair, some of Goop’s product lines are lovely, particularly the clothing line. But the health products and advice are often useless and potentially harmful. There are the US$66 vagina-dwelling jade eggs that are meant to increase muscle tone for heightened sexual please and performance. In a blog post Paltrow advised that ‘fans say regular use increases chi, orgasms, vaginal muscle tone, hormonal balance, and feminine energy in general.’
This inspired The Washington Post to run a piece headlined: ‘No, Gwyneth Paltrow, women should not put jade eggs in their vaginas, gynecologist says.’ In the article, Dr. Jen Gunter, an OB/GYN for Kaiser Permanente in San Francisco, said:
“The claim that they [jade eggs] can balance hormones, is quite simply, biologically impossible. As for female energy? I'm a gynecologist and I don't know what that is!?”
Gunter noted that because jade is porous, there’s a real risk of infection, or even toxic shock syndrome. But while she was listing the health risks associated with putting jade eggs in vaginas, those same eggs sold out. Celebrities: 1. Scientists: 0. Don’t worry, HeadUp Labs is working on it.
Evidently, so is NASA. Harpers Bazaar published this headline right after the jade eggs went viral: ‘NASA exposes Gwyneth Paltrow's energy stickers as a scam.’ This referred to Goop’s ‘Body Vibes’ stickers – US$60 for a pack of 24 – that are worn on the arm or near the heart and supposedly rebalance ‘the energy frequency in our bodies.’
Goop claimed that the stickers were made with the same conductive carbon material NASA uses to line space suits in order to monitor an astronaut's vitals during wear. NASA called the claims ‘a load of BS.’ The NASA reference has since been removed from the Goop website.
We could go on and on. Instead we suggest you read Timothy Caulfield’s neat summary of Paltrow’s crimes against reason. Professor Caulfield is a Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta. He explains why taking down the likes of Paltrow is important:
“All of this baloney may seem like a fun distraction, but we shouldn't forget that, like it or not, celebrities can have a profound influence on how we think about our health and our bodies. Studies have consistently found that celebrities can have a measurable and less-than-ideal impact on everything from cancer screening to smoking to the food that we eat. This stuff matters. We need less goopy nonsense and more fearless, blunt and science-informed debunkers such as [jade egg sceptic] Dr. Gunter. Go Jen! Go science!’’
We at HeadUp Labs can only agree. Which is why we’re on a mission to provide you with health advice based on the data of your body, as well as the most up-to-date scientific research on food, health and disease. But we understand that graphs, numbers, and dense academic language aren’t most people’s favourite things. So while we’ll always deliver information based on evidence, it’ll come with a generous serve of entertainment too. That's our promise to you.
John is a Melbourne journalist and writer. For 21 years he was senior writer for the Sunday Age newspaper and Fairfax Media, with a special interest in science, medicine and health research – and in philosophical questions facing modern society. He continues to be a life-issues columnist for The Sunday Age, science and health contributor for The New Daily and is an editorial advisor for the Clueless Economist.