Early this September, actress Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle brand Goop was ordered to pay $145,000 US in civil penalties for claims about health and wellness products “that were not supported by competent and reliable scientific evidence,” the Orange County District Attorney’s office said in a statement after settling a consumer protection action against the brand.
This hasn’t stopped the brand’s growing popularity, however. Despite the lawsuit, Goop has now made its way to Canada, debuting at a sold-out wellness seminar in Vancouver on Oct. 27 that cost participants $400 to attend.
Numerous doctors and health experts have publicly denounced the brand. So why are Canadians still falling for it and willing to shell out hundreds of dollars in the process?
In a column for the CBC’s Opinion section, Dr. Michelle Cohen — family physician and assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine at Queen’s University — looks to the failures of conventional medicine on women’s health as the cause.
“The lifestyle brand… has been successful in tapping into a space where the lazy self-empowerment of women’s magazines meets the medical establishment’s failures in women’s health,” said Cohen.
“Entrenched sexism has thus long been a feature of mainstream medicine, and Goop and the wellness industry has seized on the resulting sense of disenfranchisement among women to reap the financial rewards.”
Cohen points to the fact that males often serve as the default in medical research studies, as well as the historical and well-documented biases that exist in the study of female sexuality and sexual health, as reasons why many women turn away from conventional medicine. Brands like Goop target women who feel that their needs aren’t being met, and capitalize on areas where conventional healthcare is failing.
Dr. Timothy Caulfield, professor of law at the University of Alberta, Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy, and author of Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?: When Celebrity Culture and Science Clash, feels the same.
“We need to learn that there are issues in the conventional system that are making these other approaches seem more inviting, and take that seriously,” Caulfield told Global News earlier this month.
By using scientific language, Caulfield explains, brands like Goop are able to convince consumers that their products are based on scientific evidence — even when court orders mandate that they are not.
Goop’s products range from silly (a “psychic vampire repellent” mist) to outright dangerous (vaginal jade eggs that Dr. Jen Gunter, University of Western Ontario graduate and OB/GYN, says could lead to toxic shock syndrome). But the brand’s website looks professional and lauds the “incredible physicians, who trained at the best institutions, who publish in peer-reviewed journals” that are associated with the company.
With increasingly-believable fake news on the rise in the media, how can consumers tell fact from fiction, scientific breakthrough from pseudo-scientific claims?
In an opinion piece he wrote for The Globe and Mail, Caulfield argues that the scientific community needs to play a role in dismantling the onslaught of fake news and pseudoscience present in the media.
He also says that practicing scientific literacy and questioning dubious research is of increasing importance.
“Be skeptical. Think critically. And look for the real science.”
Initiatives like Media Literacy Week, co-led by MediaSmarts and the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, can also help. This year’s theme—Fact or Fake: Help the World Stop Misinformation in Its Tracks—highlights the importance of questioning what we read online, and verifying that scientific research is unbiased, relevant, and true.
#MedLitWeek runs from Nov. 5-9, 2018.