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13 June 2023

Elise Loehnen: “Wellness as a concept needs to fracture”

The journalist and former chief content officer for Goop on learning not to be good.

By Sophie McBain

Last summer Elise Loehnen, a journalist and the former chief content officer at Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness brand Goop, fell off a horse while on holiday in Montana. She was knocked unconscious but, ever the doctor’s daughter, she decided that as she wasn’t confused or throwing up, didn’t have any numbness or tingling – and, crucially, she was in the middle of nowhere – it wasn’t serious enough to warrant a hospital trip. There was just the problem of the excruciating pain in her neck, but she helped her husband and kids pack, wondering how to manoeuvre her aching body so that she could fold clothes, then flew back to LA and gritted her teeth through the 4 July holiday, when her doctor’s surgery was closed. Only a week after the accident, when she finally visited a doctor who ordered an urgent CT scan, did she learn that she had broken her neck.

Walking around for a week with an untreated broken neck strikes me as the very opposite of wellness – and certainly a most un-Goop thing to do. “It was a really good teaching moment,” Loehnen told me, when we spoke on Zoom, no trace of irony detectable in her tone. Stuck in a neck brace for a month, Loehnen found herself marooned on the sofa, surrounded by dirty laundry and unpacked bags, and although she had an endless to-do list in her head, for once she couldn’t tackle any of it. Instead, her husband took care of the children and the household. She began to realise that perhaps her problem wasn’t that he never wanted to do anything around the house, it was that she was too impatient to let him. “If I deal with my discomfort, stop this compulsive doing, then there’s time for him to actually do it,” she realised.

It was an opportunity to practise the principles she lays out in her new book On Our Best Behaviour: The Price Women Pay to Be Good. What if she finally stopped trying so hard to be “good”? What if she let her house get messier and her kids spend more time on screens? What if she worked less and ate more, and stopped feeling guilty about any of this? After a lifetime of being an “high-achieving, workaholic”, what might it be like to loosen up a bit?

Loehnen, 43, cropped dark hair, luminous skin, fashionably geeky glasses, used to co-host the Goop podcast and starred in Netflix’s The Goop Lab, but left the company in 2020. She is now so disillusioned with the wellness industry that she doesn’t even like using the term, preferring “wholeness” over “wellness”. “Wellness as a concept needs to fracture and reconstitute itself,” she told me. 

A prolific ghostwriter and former magazine journalist, Loehnen joined Goop in 2014. (She met Paltrow while ghost writing for the celebrity fitness guru Tracy Anderson.) Not long after she started at the company, Loehnen had her second baby. She felt exhausted and unwell, but her doctor was dismissive. Then she interviewed Oscar Serrallach, an Australian doctor who specialises in “postnatal depletion” and argues that many of the symptoms mothers struggle with – from “baby brain” to tiredness – are caused by the underacknowledged physical toll of pregnancy.

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The interview took off online. “In a way, it spawned a whole postnatal market,” she remembers: suddenly postnatal supplements became profitable. On the plus, women felt validated and able to seek help. On the downside, there are always plenty of charlatans willing to jump on the latest wellness trend. Loehnen said that she “drew a line” with the direction the wellness industry was taking: “particularly with these wellness bros, and longevity and biohacking. It’s sort of like: ‘guys, I know you’re afraid of death, but that’s what you need to deal with.’” What interests her now are subjects such as mental, spiritual and “energetic” health – “there’s nothing to buy, nothing to do, just attending to ourselves, feeling our feelings.”

Loehnen was circumspect when talking about Goop, a company that is both wildly successful and easy to mock: a recent browse revealed it still sells those infamous crystal vagina eggs ($66), as well as assorted luxury ephemera: an at-home cupping device, a 24-carat-gold vibrating face-sculpting tool, a $55 tube of sea salt and caramel lube. When I suggested that her thinking seemed at odds with Goop’s idea of wellness as a consumer good, she replied: “I mean, everyone has their own unique relationship with that brand.” Nowadays, she said, it’s very much an e-commerce company but when she started at Goop she enjoyed the freedom of producing stories – about sex or psychedelics or spiritual healing – that weren’t trying to sell anyone anything. A viral New York Times Magazine profile of Paltrow in 2018 alleged that a partnership between Condé Nast and Goop magazine broke down because Goop’s content couldn’t be fact-checked. “That was not true at all,” Loehnen told me. (“We’re just asking questions,” she told the Times in 2018.) The controversy was in some ways a strange one: what would it mean to fact-check a psychic or an astrologer or a seller of healing crystals, anyway? But Loehnen didn’t want to go into details, couldn’t we talk about her book instead of all this Goop stuff?

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Loehnen describes herself on her website as a “seeker and a synthesizer” and now hosts a podcast, Pulling the Thread, in which she interviews big thinkers – self-help gurus, social scientists, writers, doctors – on big, meaning-of-life questions. She developed the idea for her book during the 2016 US presidential election, when she began wondering why women wouldn’t get behind Hillary Clinton. What makes us so hard on other women, she wondered?

When Loehnen interviewed the therapist Lori Gottlieb, she was struck by her observation that envy is a useful emotion because it tells you what you want. The next time she found herself disparaging another woman for no apparent reason, Loehnen interrogated her motivations. Was she resentful because she actually envied the woman, perhaps because of her confidence or ambition or her well-behaved kids? In On Our Best Behaviour Loehnen argues that women have been holding themselves and each other back, because of their culturally inherited fears of committing the seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride. Imagine what we could achieve, she suggests, if instead they listened to their appetites, desires and ambitions. Surely, we can find a better balance.

[See also: I refuse to feel shame after eating – but it saddens me that so many women still do]

Loehnen, who was educated at Yale, is a voracious reader who writes with the ease you would expect from someone who has ghost written 12 books and with the insider perspective of someone who has been hanging around LA long enough to tell a good psychic from a bad one. She draws on a wide range of references, and also writes movingly of her own story: her panic attacks, the grief of losing her brother-in-law, her experience of sexual assault and her lifelong body dysmorphia.

As a teenager, she attended a boarding school where there was “so much anorexia” and everyone subsisted on frozen yogurt. Then, while working in magazines in New York City in the Noughties she threw herself into every fad detox and diet, seeking new (and socially acceptable) ways to punish her body. (At Goop, incidentally, she spoke openly with colleagues about her body image problems, but whenever they wrote on subjects questioning the desirability of thinness readers would “go nuts”.)

She says everyone she knows in LA is currently on the weight-loss drug Ozempic, “you see your friends and you’re like: where is half your body? Or you’ll be the only one eating at dinner.” She could easily get hold of Ozempic herself, but she doesn’t want it. “Food is one of our primary sources of pleasure, and of experiencing the world, literally. So killing appetite outright is so sad,” she said. Perhaps, she pondered, now that you can achieve it with a pill, “thinness will lose its value”. 

Recently, Loehnen had posted on Instagram that when she left Goop she vowed to never again do a juice cleanse. Instead, she spent two years “eating like a teenager” – or perhaps more accurately, like the kind of teenager she never was – but then, and hence the Instagram post, she did a juice cleanse after all. Only this time, she wanted only to be healthier, not thinner. Maybe, finally, she was well.

[See also: How Bari Weiss broke the media]

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This article appears in the 14 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Over and Out