There are a few things we know for sure will make us healthy: exercise, don't smoke, eat a variety of whole foods — but not too much — and watch your alcohol intake and sun exposure. Yet every day, we are bombarded with messages from celebrity culture about things we must do to be healthier and more beautiful. They usually involve gimmicks like juicing and detoxing, a new "miracle supplement," shake, or body-firming exercise. Some advice is more extreme — such as Gwyneth Paltrow's suggestion that women steam their vaginas.
And sometimes, even when celebrities don't tell us what to do, we follow them anyway — going under the knife to achieve Kim Kardashian's bum or seeking out advice about a double mastectomy because Angelina Jolie had the operation.
No matter the form it takes, the message is clear: celebrities hold the secrets to health.
Or do they? Timothy Caulfield, author of the new book Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?, spent the past few years looking at the scientific literature and testing out insane celebrity health and beauty tips to better understand the impact famous folks have on us. Through a hilarious and introspective journey, the University of Alberta professor finds that not only are most celebrities wrong, but they also distract us from things that will actually make us healthy and happy.
On Gwyneth Paltrow vs. science
Julia Belluz: Have you heard from Gwyneth Paltrow since you published the book?
Timothy Caulfield: I haven’t heard from her at all. I reached out to her people, but haven't heard from them. I assume she’s aware of the book, or someone in her entourage is, and I would love to talk with her.
JB: You sort of encircle her — trying to break into the headquarters of her lifestyle business, Goop, meeting with one of her health gurus — but you never actually meet her. If you did, what would you ask her?
TC: I often get asked, "Do you think she believes this stuff?" If I ever have a chance to talk to her, I’d ask her that. Because some of it is just so absurd. You wonder, "How can this thinking person really believe this?" She does seem like she’s very bright, and I think she does believe this stuff. I think she’s quite genuine.
JB: So is Gwyneth actually wrong about everything?
TC: It’s incredible how much she is wrong about. Even when she is right about stuff — like telling people to eat more fruits and vegetables — there is always a bit of a tinge of wrongness. She’ll say, "It has to be organic," for example. She is still distracting us with these untrue details, as opposed to just pushing the honest truth.
JB: You also put yourself through the Paltrow-endorsed "Clean Program." What did you learn?
TC: Cleansing is one of those topics I love because, along with detox, the evidence is so clear. It’s just not supported by the scientific information. We don't have to be equivocal. There’s just no evidence to support the idea of cleansing and detoxing.
Despite that, there's a massive industry that’s growing, and that industry exists largely because of celebrities. I met with Paltrow's doctor, Alejandro Junger, in Hollywood. He seemed so thoughtful and interested. I could totally see why Paltrow was swept up in his advice. The program seems so sensible when you hear him talk about how we need to remove toxins from our body.
On the cleanse, I learned a couple of things. First, I’m a wimp. I found it difficult. I was subsisting mainly on juices for three weeks. I lost nine pounds, and I had already started from a lean frame. Despite all my knowledge, I was still thrilled by the fact that I was losing weight, which is fascinating. Of course, the weight all came back on, and I was heartbroken. Every time I put on more weight, I found it so depressing. I blamed myself for putting weight back on, even though I knew it would come back.
Why smart people believe celebrity health advice
JB: Why do smart people believe bad celebrity health advice? We're all guilty of it.
TC: Everyone says, "I don't follow celebrities. I'm not influenced." But clearly, on a population level, we are. We have evidence to show that’s the case, that celebrities have a measurable impact on behavior and attitudes. Take cosmetic surgery. That’s a pretty extreme act. You're altering your body, going to a health professional, getting put under for an operation, doing a largely permanent thing to yourself. That’s a norm that’s created by celebrity culture.
Now the fastest-growing form of cosmetic surgery is butt augmentation — and that can be directly attributed to one celebrity: Kim Kardashian. It really speaks to how influential celebrities can be.
JB: Aren't we sort of hard-wired to follow celebrities?
TC: Our cognitive biases play a big role. Take someone like Paltrow. She’s a beautiful woman. When she’s endorsing something, it looks like it works. And her advice is available to us — it's just more prominent than other people's advice. It also confirms that desire for us to have some simple answer to difficult health questions.
JB: You find in your research that celebrity culture is the dominant culture right now. What's being lost?
TC: There seems to be this erosion of trust in traditional sources of scientific information — whether it’s because of pharmaceutical influence, or people think universities are too commercialized, or they think science is always wrong about things.
Social media play a big role in that. I don't think people consciously say, "Let celebrities step in." But they have. Their voices are louder and seem more credible. And other counterweights in society, for whatever reason, seem to have less credibility.
The dominance of celebrity culture also ties into this post-modern world we live in. Throughout the 1990s, there was this "all knowledge is relative" movement. That has made space for these celebrity voices taking about ridiculous things.
JB: Are you hopeful that science will begin to have a larger space in the culture again?
TC: I am hopeful that things are starting to change. We've seen the reaction to Dr. Oz [who was recently criticized for promoting bogus health fixes and pseudoscience on his show]. Even the reaction to the anti-vaccine story over the past year is very different than I've seen play out in other years. We're starting to see a bit of a pushback. But what’s also needed: the scientific community has to get engaged, use celebrity culture as a Trojan horse to talk about what science says in these areas, and step in.
How celebrity advice harms
JB: Oftentimes when celebrities step into health awareness campaigns, they are applauded for their advocacy. But there is also a dark side to their health advice, even when it's not totally wrong. Why is it so difficult for celebrities to be a force for good in health?
TC: Angelina Jolie's disclosures in the New York Times [about having her breasts and ovaries removed after discovering she was at an increased risk for cancers] were really a good example of how complicated the impact of celebrity culture is on society. She was not making strong pronouncements about what other women should do. Despite that, once she has made those announcements, they take on a life of their own. It becomes the "Jolie effect," decoupled from the individual.
We can measure the impact of that phenomenon — both good and bad. Studies show an increased utilization of both double mastectomies and genetic testing. Other studies have shown that it increases women’s — and the public’s — awareness of the cancer, but not their knowledge of the actual issues. I found that lots of the media coverage didn't talk about important things like the rarity of the genetic risks involved. Does the Jolie effect cause more anxiety and more concern about risk that is warranted? This case demonstrates how complicated this issue is.
JB: One of the main points you try to get across in your book is that with their health advice, celebrities often take us away from the simple things we know will actually make us healthy and instead put us on the path to crazy detox schemes and crash diets.
TC: We have a few simple things we can do for health. One of the more harmful things celebrity culture does is that it distracts us from those points. It emphasizes the wrong things, like extrinsic, short-term goals: look good in a bikini; exercise to make your arms look like Jennifer Aniston. People blame celebrity culture for self-esteem and body issues, and it's hard to get good data on that. But the body of evidence suggests celebrity culture does have an impact on how we view ourselves and other people, how we measure our own success.
Research tells you over and over again those [short-term goals] aren't going to work long term. You're less likely to succeed and more likely to be unsatisfied with the results as compared to when you concentrate on intrinsic goals, such as improving your long-term health or focusing on how positive lifestyle changes are making you feel. You'll also be happy with the results.
Why understanding that most celebrity health advice is bogus should be liberating
JB: For someone who understands the downsides of celebrity health advice, you're rather forgiving of famous folks in your book. Why?
TC: One of the reasons you hear so many crazy things from celebrities and celebrity culture is they’re desperate, too. They’re looking for solutions. They need to look good on the red carpet in two weeks. They are under tremendous pressure to look young, be fit, be slim, and never age. In addition, people want simple answers they can point to — gluten-free, GMOs, some kind of special exercise — that will improve their health. That same phenomenon affects us all.
JB: Your son calls you a "dream crusher" for sharing these harsh truths, but you insist they're liberating. Why?
TC: I hope I'll help put celebrity culture in its proper place in our lives: as a source of joy, a source of fun, a source of some great art, but not necessarily as having an influence on all these other domains where its impact is less than constructive. I hope that frees us from unreasonable expectations, frees us from wasting resources, time, and money on products and strategies that don't work. Hopefully it even makes us feel better about ourselves.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity and readability.