I thought The Goop Lab, Gwyneth Paltrow’s new Netflix series, would be the perfect lazy watch to zone out on, and drain out my snarky side (like physical aggression can be gym-ed away, we’d do well to very carefully and privately dispose of our other belligerences). I couldn’t get past the introductory reel, which ends on the weak laughter of her employees before they are subjected to extreme experiences. It only takes a basic familiarity with workplace dynamics to know what would happen to those who didn’t agree to take shrooms, explore their sexuality on camera, share their deepest secrets or anything else the job requires.
Paltrow says that her company is all about “the optimization of the self”, as explained by the question, “how can we milk the shit out of this [life]?” Well, presumably she meant life, but given that Goop is a multi-million dollar company, who knows? Believe me when I say I’m desperately trying to bite back the snark, but the catalogue includes a candle supposedly scented like her own vagina, and a USD15,000 gold-plated sex toy.
Goop is only the pinnacle of a global culture of capitalist appropriation of the radical concept of self-care. Most of the brands whose products we can’t help but succumb to, thanks to attractive keywords like “organic”, “sustainability-conscious” and “authentic”, fall under this umbrella. Self-care is a necessity, not a luxury, as many pretty ads say. Some of what self-care entails may come naturally, while we need to be reminded of other aspects. The concept has been explored by activists, psychologists, medical field researchers and human rights historians in ways that teach us to honour its importance.
Its conflation with capitalism is where we must be wary. Moreover, a substantial portion of what the self-care industry appropriates, repackages and promotes comes directly out of traditional and indigenous wisdom.
The damage done is two-fold. Tangible effects range from patents being slapped on ingredients and practices which take them away from the communities that best understand them, to crises such as the over-harvesting of sage and child labour in crystal-gathering. Secondly, the avarice in all capitalism-driven enterprise leads to cutting corners, exaggerated prices and dishonest promotion. Chasing the bottomline erases the care with which the original methods were intended to be applied.
The products become parodies, and in turn are parodied. This begets disrespect towards therapeutic and beauty methods or instruments which are indeed effective, as well as towards their practitioners (who are rarely ever well-compensated financially) and beneficiaries, who then hesitate to share information on their healing. One of our colonial hangovers is the rejection of native wisdom in favour of allopathy. But the stealing of such wisdom by money-oriented businesses, whether they are pharmaceutical or cosmetic, neither meaningfully imparts nor protects it.
I should be the last person to lecture anyone on consumer habits. So I’ll share only what’s been true for me: it’s been really important that I sieve apart when my desires are about self-care, when they are about addiction (including emotional deflection), and when they are about indulgence. When I don’t deceive myself, the lies of brands can’t hoodwink me as easily.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 30th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.