The world according to GOOP

Attempting to live according to a lifestyle guru's advice sounds like fun -- but inner peace comes at a price

Published September 11, 2009 3:12PM (EDT)

In the spirit of Julie Powell's journey through "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" and Robyn Okrant's effort to spend a year following Oprah Winfrey's advice, Daily Beast writer Rebecca Dana set herself a challenge: Live according to the principles espoused in GOOP, Gwyneth Paltrow's year-old lifestyle newsletter, which encourages readers to "nourish the inner aspect." (This apparently becomes easier when you follow her Seven Day Detox instructions and stop nourishing anything else.) Unlike Powell and Okrant, who each spent a year on their projects, Dana only did it for three weeks, but the story still sounds remarkably familiar.

"Instead of taking a vacation this summer," she writes, "I lived like a world-famous actress obsessed with maple syrup, pseudo-science and Mario Batali." Except, she didn't, really. She cooked a lot, tried new exercises, started the Seven Day Detox (quitting on day three, "shortly after those hallucinations began"), read "Crime and Punishment," and even managed to have dinner with a celebrity -- Rue McLanahan -- but skipped the European vacations, the Burberry trench coat, the "$1,395 Mulberry weekend bag in chocolate natural leather," for reasons that should be obvious to anyone who is not Gwyneth Paltrow. And yet, during week two, "My ear adjusted to Gwyneth's affect, and rather than guffawing at some of her more outlandish suggestions, I found myself intrigued by the $249 Voltaic Solar Backpack and her recommendation to 'take your drinking water to the next level' with a $900 alkaline filtration system."

Dana concludes that following the six-fold Gwyneth path -- "make, go, get, do, be, see" -- is ultimately "about intention," about an attitude. I suppose cultivating the proper attitude is more feasible than literally following a bunch of advice that "ranges from wonderfully inspiring to hilariously impractical, internally inconsistent and outright absurd." But there's still that pesky "get" part. Consumerism is a fundamental element of GOOPworld, so much so that even if you start out laughing at the notion of buying happiness, you still end up wondering about taking your drinking water to the next level. By week two.

Okrant apparently had a similar experience with her Oprah project, which she began in part with the idea of highlighting how impossibly costly it would be for an average middle-class woman to "live her best life" (that's Oprah's version of "nourish the inner aspect"). Six months into it, Okrant told NPR she was already "exhausted" from following the more affordable advice, and was struggling to keep up with the better-living-through-cashmere directives; having spent "just about $2,000," she still had a "decent-sized list" of items to purchase. A few months later, she told the Chicago Tribune, "I still feel the same way about all these lists of things you're supposed to buy. However, [Oprah] really preaches -- and I do think it is preaching -- clarity and just really knowing yourself." Ah, once again, if you just ignore the $1,400 purses, you'll see that it's all about a spiritual journey.

All of these "live like a famous woman, minus the famous woman's means" narratives -- even Powell's (Julia Child may not have recommended designer accessories, but neither live lobsters nor Le Creuset dutch ovens come cheap) -- seem to follow a similar arc. Act 1: I am completely overwhelmed by all the instructions, freaking out a bit, and not sure I can follow through on this insane plan. Act 2: I'm getting the hang of it and actually having fun! And suddenly finding it all much less insane. Act 3: I have learned Important Life Lessons that can't be bought, and I have a new respect for the famous woman who inspired my self-discovery, even if it was all kind of insane. Somewhere in there, the absurd amount of money required even to half-ass it gets brushed aside, and it all becomes about the inner journey.

And on one level, that's fine -- it's a great, classic story. But it's the great, classic story of taking on any new project that causes you to change your habits and test your own determination to finish what you started (however insane). And there are a lot of similar projects that don't force you to choose between authenticity and remaining solvent. By laughing off the financial demands of following lifestyle gurus' recommendations and focusing exclusively on the "clarity" and "intention" bits, we ignore how tightly consumerism is woven into their advice, and what that means. It's not just the blatantly ridiculous expenditures they suggest -- it's also the cost of cute yoga pants, detox books, three kinds of organic flour, "adaptogenic herbal formulas," the ingredients for at-home hair masks, museum admissions, classic novels, and creating a feast fit for Rue McLanahan. (Don't ask. Just read the story.) The path to greater calm and self-awareness still boils down to "get, get, get, get, get, get," on whatever budget you can swing. And when those, "Hmm, is 250 bucks for a backpack really that crazy?" thoughts creep in, they become throwaway comic relief, not an opportunity to question just how internal this enterprise really is. If it's all about self-revelation, what the hell are the Tod's boots doing there in the first place?

Okrant just turned in the manuscript about her Year of Living Oprah to her publisher, and it's possible that here, we'll finally find a more thorough examination of what it takes to emulate an enlightened, liberated woman who also happens to be a billionaire. The author's original purpose was, after all, "to live a feminist critique of the Oprah Winfrey empire and its relentless insistence that women need to remake themselves, often through new purchases," as Steve Johnson wrote in the Trib. But whether that turns out to be the book's framework remains to be seen. Two days before her project ended, Okrant wrote on her blog:

Ok folks. No more time for gab. I have to stock my shelves with beans before I head out to work. Yes, that's on my to-do list. I'm not making it up. I'm also touching up my gray roots tonight with my Oprah-approved hair-dye. Oh, I almost forgot - yikes! - I've also got to do my daily meditation - argh! - didn't get that done this morning as I was finishing Inconvenient Truth. Can you believe I've sunk so low? I'm shoe-horning meditation into my insane day. Nothing says rest, quiet and focus like doing an imitation of a chicken with its head cut off for several weeks straight.

I'll be very curious to see how she reflects on that experience in the book, since living Oprah's instructions for "clarity and really knowing yourself" apparently didn't leave much time for that.

By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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