Gwyneth and You and Me

I had a couple of preconceptions before I started reading It’s All Good and It’s All Easy, two cookbooks by Gwyneth Paltrow. One was that they were going to be limited and limiting – she is, after all, a practitioner of restrictive diets like macrobiotic, cleansing, and detoxing. Another was that I wasn’t going to be able to use any of the recipes in her books.

I’m proven wrong. The cookbooks are beautiful and the recipes are wholesome, nourishing, generous. I love many recipes in her books, especially the salad dressings that make heavy use of Vegenaise, the tasty mayo substitute without eggs. They’re vegan, delicious, and quick to make. Other recipes – noodle and rice bowls, nori wraps, collard green wraps – sound terrific and I’m determined to try them.

gwynethGwyneth Paltrow, an actress since the nineties, is famous for other things besides cooking. In 1998, she won an Oscar and other important awards for her role in Shakespeare in Love. Since 2008 she has been playing Pepper Potts, the work associate and love interest of Robert Downey Jr. in the Ironman movies. In 2011, she won an Emmy for a guest role in the TV series Glee. She’s an award-winning actress, a good singer, and, lately, an entrepreneur. She’s gorgeous, with long blonde hair, blue-gray eyes, superbly toned body, and exquisite taste in fashion. And she’s also, for some reason or another, hated by many. When I picked up her two cookbooks at the public library, I also picked up Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?, a book that examines the many diets that celebrities gush over on social media but that seems to focus most on Paltrow than others. The writer, Timothy Caulfield, is no anonymous blogger trolling celebrities – he holds a chair in Law and Policy and is a professor in the Faculty of Law and the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta. His writings have been published in The Atlantic, National Geographic, and Scientific American.

So many celebrities enthuse over their healthy vegetarian diets, their celebrity trainers, their simple (but elegant and expensive) lifestyles, but Paltrow gets singled out for ridicule and snark. She’s constantly in the lists of most hated celebrities. Her phrase “conscious uncoupling” to refer to her divorce (from her rock star husband, natch) has become a meme, and not in a good way. She gets ridiculed by news columnists (recently at the LA Times) and by respected professors.

I’ve always liked Gwyneth (see, I even call her by her first name!). I’ve enjoyed her movies, I find her choice of clothes elegant, I’ve looked at Goop a few times and found it interesting, even useful. For about a micro-second a long time ago, I even considered giving her name to my older daughter. I’ve always found the hatred she inspires kind of odd.

Last weekend though, I began to understand. My kids and I went to the city to run some errands. It’s a long commute, made more stressful by overcrowding in the sidewalks and the nasty smells coming from the subterranean stations. My kids were cranky, difficult, not fun at all. For lunch, we went to a burger joint where one kid had a hotdog slathered with an obscene amount of melted cheese and another kid had a cheeseburger and a root beer float with an obscene amount of ice cream. I ordered a burger.

The burger was good and I was hungry, but I couldn’t enjoy it, couldn’t finish it. I was exhausted. Sitting with my kids at the diner and watching them eat, I was also unhappy and fidgety, with a gloomy sense of defeat. And then I realized why. The night before, I was thumbing through Gwyneth’s cookbooks. They’re filled with full-color photo spreads of, not just the dishes she provides recipes for, but also herself, her houses, her kids. It’s food and lifestyle porn, I know, and not real life.

But the pictures reveal a kind of truth, too. And the true story they tell is one that can make you lose your appetite for your burger, even if you eat it relatively rarely. There’s Gwyneth lounging casually in the sofa in a loose black sweater, sitting barefoot at the beach while grilling fish, butchering a chicken and looking elegant in a blue button-down shirt accessorized with tasteful silver necklaces. There are pictures of her and her kids going on a dirt path lined with tall grass and leafy trees, hanging out by a tree, gazing at a tranquil pond.

There’s one spread with several pictures that shows them having a picnic in some sylvan meadow, her two kids beautiful and angelic-looking, her providing them with nutritious soups. The spread seems to be taken from one photo session – all three are wearing the same tasteful clothes in neutral cream and beige, with Gwyneth in a perfectly tailored soft pink wool coat.

The thing about the pictures is that they seem authentic: they look like they’re honestly enjoying each other’s company, that they’re enjoying the wholesome food, that the beautiful clothes they’re wearing are their regular clothes. They look perfect in the pictures: beautiful, healthy, loving.

So I solved mystery of why people dislike Gwyneth. She’s perfect, her life is perfect, her kids are perfect. You’re there, helplessly watching your kids inhale insane amounts of melted cheese and ice cream: how can she not make you feel bad about your life, your diet, your parenting, the very core of your being? Here’s a Vanity Fair columnist about meeting Gwyneth at a dinner party she cohosted with Mario Batali: “Gwyneth is an emblem for a specific strain of modern perfection: her smile seems to say, ‘I ran a half-marathon and cooked an entire macrobiotic Italian feast before you even woke up this morning.’ To be in her presence is to dwell on your shortcomings and your strangest quirks and the features of your face you like the least.”

It’s all very unfair, of course. And the admirable thing about the woman is that she keeps coming back, she keeps putting herself out there. These days, she’s very much in the news as she launched a line of luxury clothes called Goop Label this month. The clothes are elegant, expensive, and supposedly very well-made. But if you want them, you’re out of luck. They’ve reportedly sold out. The woman is a winner, even in business. So to the haters out there, I’m sorry to say: You picked the wrong person to fight.

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