She outgrew the wish to be perfect

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She outgrew the wish to be perfect
Elise Loehnen in Los Angeles on July 17, 2023. For years Loehnen peddled wellness for Gwyneth Paltrow. Her new book explores “the price women pay to be good.” (Pat Martin/The New York Times)

by Sarah Lyall

NEW YORK, NY.- Last month, author and podcast host Elise Loehnen joined Taryn Toomey, founder of the mind-body workout the Class, at a “Women’s Intuition” workshop in the Tribeca neighborhood of New York City. Loehnen spoke about her bestselling book, “On Our Best Behavior: The Seven Deadly Sins and the Price Women Pay to Be Good,” which argues that women have long been culturally programmed to fear being “bad” and to suppress their emotions, their needs and their voices.

“The premise of today’s workshop is to reconnect to that voice,” she said. “To deepen it, to channel it, to find everything we’ve been taught to repress in our bodies and bring it to the surface.”

As Loehnen read aloud a series of prompts (channel a fear of gluttony into a celebration of appetite, for instance), Toomey led the class through a series of exercises and spontaneous vocalizations. Afterward, each participant went home with a copy of Loehnen’s book.

A couple of weeks later at her home in Brentwood, California, Loehnen, 43, flashed a grin as she talked about how it felt to yell things like “Ha!” in front of a group of super-fit women in New York City. “I know Taryn, and I love the Class,” she said. “But I have trouble making the sounds.”

It is a new experience for Loehnen to speak with her own voice. She has ghostwritten or co-written a dozen other books, and for almost seven years worked at Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness and lifestyle company, overseeing its blog, newsletter, book imprint and podcast as well as its Netflix documentary series, “The Goop Lab.”

She chatted in the kitchen of her house, a small, airy and cunning design by architect A. Quincy Jones. With her cropped dark hair and almost preternaturally glowing skin, she looked like a tomboy version of Snow White. Her husband and their two young sons were out.

The idea for the book, she said, came from a conversation with celebrity therapist Lori Gottlieb on the Goop podcast. Pay attention to envy, Gottlieb told her: It can show you what you want. Loehnen began to consider envy’s six unruly siblings-in-sin: lust, anger, greed, gluttony, sloth and pride.

In the book, Loehnen writes that the patriarchal structure of society has saddled women with damaging assumptions about goodness, leaving them exhausted, anxious, unable to express their true feelings and perpetually striving for an impossible-to-attain ideal. While she argues that men are also victims of the patriarchy, her message has especially resonated with women. On “The View,” Sara Haines called the book “a deep dive into my own psyche of questioning everything.”

John Evans, the co-owner of Diesel, a bookstore in Brentwood, said that the book’s particular framing of “how women are trained to feel guilty about everything they do, and men are trained not to show their feelings” had struck a nerve with his customers.

“On Our Best Behavior” draws on history, sociology, philosophy, psychology, religion and science as well as personal experience. Loehnen caters to a broad constituency, an audience open to “woo-woo” theories as much as scientific ones.

In the book, she quotes in the same paragraph biologist E.O. Wilson and Jesus-channeling psychic medium Carissa Schumacher, whom she calls “one of my great spiritual teachers.” On her podcast, “Pulling the Thread,” her guests encompass a range of experts and thinkers: NPR host Ari Shapiro; Dre Bendewald, a practitioner of “circling,” in which women gather in circles to share their experiences; and Susan Olesek, a backer of the Enneagram, a model that sorts personality types.

Loehnen said that this reflected her curiosity and openness to ideas.

“We all contain multitudes, and I have always been quite democratic about where I get information,” she said.

Loehnen grew up in Missoula, Montana, graduated from Yale in 2002 and began her career at Lucky magazine. She met Paltrow through celebrity fitness instructor Tracy Anderson, with whom she had worked on a book project. She was hired as Goop’s editorial director and later promoted to chief content officer.

Goop is many things: an aspirational lifestyle manifesto and a guide to expensive and sometimes wacky products; a source of anxiety, FOMO and, yes, envy. Many of these mixed feelings are directed at Paltrow, who presents herself as an everywoman of sorts while projecting an air of rarefied perfection. In interviews, several people who have worked there — none of whom agreed to be quoted on the record — described it as a workplace full of clashing ideas and employees immersed in competitive self-betterment while being hyperaware of each other’s status in the company.

As much as Loehnen has tried to move past Goop, she can’t liberate herself from its impact on how she is perceived. In an Instagram post last year, she explained that after leaving the company, “I felt like I was not in a healthy relationship with my body, where I was always trying to punish it and bring it under control.” She then vowed “never to do another cleanse again,” she said.

But, she went on, she realized that her new policy — “two years of eating whatever my young kids want” — was not healthy either. The result was a compromise: a “five-day reset of broths, smoothies and lattes” that allowed for eating extra food. “I refuse to punish myself with food, or hold myself under the weight my body seems to want to be anymore,” she added. “Hopefully I’ve broken that cycle for good.”

This single post started a media furor. Had Loehnen just attacked her former boss by implying that Goop’s cleanses and detoxes — it promotes a new one every year — sent an unhealthy message about body image? Was she dissing Paltrow? No, Loehnen said, that’s not what she meant at all. “People turned it into me being anti,” she said, “but it wasn’t an indictment of my last place of employment.”

She chose her words carefully. You’re not going to get her to say “Goop” or “Gwyneth,” let alone criticize them. (Also, the company has an alert team of lawyers and an enthusiasm for NDAs.) Rumors still swirl that Loehnen’s departure was less a conscious uncoupling than a forced march out the door. But Loehnen said that her departure was “pretty fast and mutual,” and Paltrow issued a laudatory statement at the time.

Still. Was Paltrow angry about the Instagram post? “I don’t know,” Loehnen said; the two are no longer in touch.

As for her departure, Loehnen will say only that it was time to move on, and that the direction the company was going in — selling more wellness products — had become less interesting to her.

“My interests were moving out of this idea of self-optimization,” she said. “I think what happens in the wellness world is this desire for control and certainty.”

Loehnen said that she had a bit of a reset after leaving Goop. After being afflicted by an anxiety disorder that manifests as hyperventilation, she has found some equilibrium in giving up her quest for perfection.

“I don’t think the answers are deep inside myself,” she said. “If anything, the answers are in the collective, in recontextualizing ourselves and realigning ourselves with other women.”

Case in point: She hasn’t weighed herself since 2020, the year she left Goop.

“I had this experience when I was working on the book and looking at old photos, and I was like, ‘God, I had a slamming body,’” she said. “And all I did back then was judge myself.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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