Timothy Caulfield: Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?

Cover of "Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?"

I’d love to feel pure, happy and lighter. Okay, I’m not sure what that would feel like, but it sounds better than I usually feel. Who wouldn’t want to feel like that? Given the warm and friendly vibe on the Goop website—it was, after all, to quote the website, “created to celebrate all life’s positives”—I am expecting a warm and happy vibe at Goop HQ.
I am mistaken. Apparently I am not one of life’s positives.

Timothy Caulfield is a Professor of Law at the University of Alberta, with an interest in Public Health and health policy-making. He’s also good at choosing book titles, since I bought this one on the strength of the title alone. (Spoiler alert: the answer to the title question is “Pretty much, yes.”)

I’d probably have been content if Caulfield had simply spent the book debunking the health, beauty and life-style pronouncements of Paltrow and her celebrity peers. But Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? is actually a much better and more significant book than that—a wide-ranging examination of celebrity culture and its implications.

The book has three sections, entitled “The Illusion of Celebrity Authority”, “The Illusion That You Too Can Be A Celebrity” and “The Illusion That Celebrity Status Is Worth Having”. Which pretty much sums up the content.

The first section deals with what I expected from the title—celebrity advice on diet, “cleansing”, supplements, organic food, beauty products and cosmetic surgery. You’ll not be surprised to learn that most of the advice reviewed is content-free, but Caulfield has some killer statistics—a study by the University of Guelph of herbal dietary supplements which showed that, of the supplement suppliers they tested, 83% had replaced the herb described on the label with some other herb. Even if herbal dietary supplements worked, you wouldn’t be getting what you paid for, fourth-fifths of the time. (But then again, if they worked they’d be held to better regulatory standards.) I also enjoyed the “admittedly small” but “kind of funny” study that looked at the behavioural traits of people who ate organic foods, compared to those who don’t. The “organic” group were more self-righteous and judgmental, and less altruistic, than the “non-organic” group.

But after successfully and entertainingly skewering the usual suspects, Caulfield moves on to the more interesting problem of why people pay attention to celebrity advice in the first place. His thesis is that we are hard-wired by evolution to assess those in our social group, and to follow the lead of those we deem most healthy and successful, because (back in the days we were part of a roaming band of plains apes) those individuals were probably giving us good advice on how to not die before we passed on our genes. But nowadays social media has meant that celebrities look like they’re part of our group—we can (if we’re so inclined) see what they’re having for breakfast, hear what they think about current affairs, and track their love-lives. And their social media presence is designed to portray them as happy and healthy and successful—that pushes all the “leader” buttons in our primitive plains-ape brains, and before we know it we’re undergoing colonic cleanses and having buttock fat injected into our faces, because these beautiful and charismatic folk seem to think it’s a good idea. (I see “we”, but of course you and I are too wise for this sort of thing.)

The other thing that goes wrong when celebrities feel like part of one’s own social group, Caulfield points out, is that the reflex comparison we make between our own lives and the lives of those around us suddenly makes our own lives seem profoundly inadequate. Time was, everyone in the village was as ugly, toothless and destitute as everyone else, and aspirations were correspondingly limited. Now people are comparing their own lives to those of predominantly young, beautiful, wealthy and privileged others, whose public personae have been actively crafted to appear perfect. No surprise, then, that (as Caulfield reports) the more time you spend accessing social media the less happy you are, on average. And you can develop a tendency to do dumb things to yourself, while you strive to match an impossible, fictional standard of youth, health and prosperity. Another killer statistic from Caulfield, this time from the medical journal Paediatrics—approximately 6% of high-school-age boys in that study were taking steroids in order to build muscle mass; another study, from the same journal a couple of years later, reported that 20% of gay teenage boys had used steroids at some time, presumably for the same physique-building purpose.

The second section, “The Illusion That You Too Can Be A Celebrity”, points out how prevalent celebrity aspirations are, and how doomed to failure almost all those aspirants are. Caulfield tells us that, twenty-five years ago, the top five career aspirations of grade-school children were: teacher, banker, doctor, scientist, vet. A recent UK survey replaces those with: sports star, pop star, actor, astronaut and lawyer. (Lawyer? Caulfield, a lawyer himself, suggests that these kids probably aspire to be wealthy, gorgeous, fast-talking movie lawyers, not real lawyers.) More than half of a large group of UK sixteen-year-olds listed “fame” as their primary career goal. Sixteen percent of teenagers in another study thought they were destined to be famous, and 11% were ready to leave school early in order to fulfil that ambition.

And yet the statistics on achieving fame and success through sports, music or acting show the chances are slim to negligible. Caulfield reports one study that suggests aspiring rock stars have a 0.0025% chance of making a UK average income for even one year during their involvement in the music industry. An aspiring actor’s chance of becoming a movie star sits around one in 1.5 million—they are more likely to die in an asteroid impact.

And the third section, “The Illusion That Celebrity Status Is Worth Having”, points out that, after the initial rush, those who achieve celebrity status usually end up no happier than the rest of us—the extra toys and access being counterbalanced by the social pressures and intrusions. It contains a spoof letter addressed to “Dear ‘Committed’ Parent at My Kid’s Hockey/Dance/Music/etc. Class” which reads, in part:

I realize that you want the best for your kid. I realize that you believe he/she is uniquely talented. […] Let’s do the math. (1) The chance of making it big is approximately zero. Do not let confirmation bias fool you. Your kid is not going to be a world-renowned star. It is not going to happen. (2) And even if it does happen (and I can’t emphasize this enough, it probably won’t), there is a good chance that he/she will be divorced, broke and unemployed before he/she hits the age of thirty. […] You are, in effect, wishing your kid a life of financial misery, isolation and lost opportunities. Is this a good idea?

So that about covers that.

The final chapter is, appropriately enough given the foregoing, entitled “The Dream Crusher?” In it, Caulfield is unapologetic for any illusions he has shattered, maintaining that a realistic view of celebrity culture can prevent a lot of disappoint, and save a lot of time and money. And he points out that it’s of course fine to contemplate a life spent in sport, or music, or acting if we love these things—but to think of them as a good route to fame, fortune and happiness is a fundamental error.

Caulfield is always entertaining, he’s done a lot of research, and he knows how to critically appraise a research paper. The book has a massive reference section. My only complaint is that references aren’t flagged in the text—you have to take hints from the dates, names, topics and journals Caulfield mentions, and then burrow through an alphabetical reference list for each chapter. Presumably this was an editorial decision aimed at making the text more approachable, but it is ABSOLUTELY INFURIATING. Apart from that, this is a first-class (but intermittently depressing) read.

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