The Great Debate: Is Gwyneth Paltrow and her Goop empire damaging to women?

Is the actress doing more harm than good with her wellness advice, or is she rightfully putting the spotlight on women's health?

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Every week, we get two people with opposing views to debate a trending topic. This week, The National's head of features, Nyree McFarlane, and assistant features editor Farah Andrew are discussing whether A-list actress and entrepreneur Gwyneth Paltrow is endangering women with her wellness tips and lifestyle brand Goop.

Farah Andrews: I like Gwyneth Paltrow, and appreciate her humour and acting. However, sometimes I think the "Cult of Gwyneth" veers into dangerous territory, with her pseudo-medical tips, which her legion of female fans could take as legitimate medical advice.

Nyree McFarlane: I agree that if you scroll through all the products on Goop, her lifestyle brand, there will be some dodgy-at-best advice, but I would argue that 90 per cent of what Paltrow does is beneficial rather than damaging. She gets people to talk about women's health in a far more holistic way, which I, for one, applaud …

FA: I appreciate that a more rounded approach to health is important. My worry with Goop, and the attention it attracts, is what qualifies Paltrow to promote the things she does?

NM: She's not claiming to be an MD. She simply owns a brand, as did Arianna Huffington. Huffington didn't have to be qualified to espouse everything written on The Huffington Post.

FA: They started as completely different projects. Goop began as a newsletter that was designed to offer an insight into her daily life. Even if the brand has grown away from her as an individual, it still benefits from her seal of approval.

NM: Benefits, definitely, but on the flipside, Gwynnie could also be seen as being of detriment. There is definitely a target on that woman's back. If you scroll through most "lifestyle" sites, you're going to find some pseudo-science, but it can feel like people are lined up, watching her every move, waiting for her to fail, and that they're ready the second Goop endorses something that's questionable (which she does, sure, but so does most of the internet).

FA: The reason Goop's pseudo-science fails is because it's constantly disproven! For instance, when the site sold "healing" stickers made from the same material as Nasa spacesuits, and Mark Shelhamer, a former chief human research scientist at Nasa, said it was nonsense. And then there was the jade egg debacle – Goop was fined $145,000 (Dh532,000) for its "unsubstantiated marketing claims" when it said that this egg would improve women's hormonal imbalances.

NM: Yeah, I certainly am not in the market for the egg, but she launched Goop in 2008, and our conversations around health have changed a lot in that time. While all celebrities make money advertising things, I appreciate that she puts herself on the line a bit more. It feels like she genuinely cares. I think some of the stuff Goop preaches today will be considered mainstream in the future.

FA: Like what?

NM: Unfortunately, Goop hasn't taught me how to predict the future just yet (I'm going to ask for my money back on those space stickers).

FA: Well, The Goop Lab, released on Netflix last week, does have an episode about psychics, so I am sure it's in the works!


NM: I can't wait. But seriously, the way we talk about veganism, women's health, etc., has changed so much in the past decade, and I feel Paltrow has at least contributed to those conversations opening up. I wouldn't put this down to Goop, but an example of the evolution of wellness is the fact acupuncture used to be pooh-poohed, but is now prescribed by your doctor.

FA: For me, the problem is that for every worthy alternative she offers, there is another dangerous one. I am not someone who thinks we should load up on medication at every opportunity we get. I do, however, find it very hard to believe that heavy breathing alone healed a man of an autoimmune disease with a 50/50 prognosis of paralysis, which the Wim Hof episode of The Goop Lab claimed.

NM: I haven't seen The Goop Lab yet. But I've seen plenty of other pseudo-science documentaries on Netflix. "The Ice Man" Wim Hof has 26 world records, and has been profiled countless times – from Rolling Stone to The New York Times and Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford are major fans of his cold therapy. We don't ridicule them as much for their alternative take?

FA: I have never, ever claimed to like Tom Cruise's beliefs … A good thing about The Goop Lab is that you see a more human side of Paltrow. She is happy to admit when she doesn't know something on camera. That doesn't forgive the fact that she has been presented as a health expert – intentionally or otherwise. Of course, there is always going to be someone worse, giving more dangerous advice, but she probably has the biggest platform (made larger by Netflix) and that makes her the biggest problem here. She isn't an expert, but she is treated like one.

NM: Is she treated like one, if most ridicule every move she makes?

FA: It's interesting that you, someone who buys into some of her ways, mostly notices the ridicule; while I, a sceptic, feel like I only hear people lapping her advice up.

NM: That's echo chambers at work. I'm not a full Gwyneth superfan, but I do listen to her podcast almost every week. There have been times when I've had to turn it off as it's felt too "Nasa stickers", but I've heard gastroenterologist Robynne Chutkan (pictured left) talk about why women need to work as their own medical detectives, I've listened to neuroscientist Lisa Barrett explain emotion in a fresh way and Dr Will Cole talk about foods that inflame the body. All these conversations were free to listen to, and full of insightful advice from experts, the kind you don't tend to hear in mainstream discourse. Most celebrities are selling something – from lip gloss to diet tea and supercars – and making millions by leveraging their fame. Paltrow gets a lot of flak for making money via Goop, but I think the scales generally tip towards good karma for her for what she puts out.

FA: I do agree that Goop has cultivated some positive conversation about female health. And I also appreciate the advice from legitimate doctors and any positive effects their conversations have had on you and your health. But I will always struggle to get on board with any medical professionals that will attach their name to a brand that sells vampire repellent.

NM: But isn't said "vampire repellent" just tongue-in-cheek essential oil? *rushes off to add to basket*