Elise Loehnen felt as if she was going to die. Every day her chest would become tight and her breathing shallow, not able to get enough air. She was in extreme panic — diagnosed as an anxiety disorder — and it was terrifying. In late 2019 she hyperventilated for an entire month. She often ended up in A&E.

At the time Loehnen, 43, was working as chief content officer at the most well-known wellness brand in the world, Goop, as Gwyneth Paltrow’s right-hand woman. Working out of its beige, light-filled office in Santa Monica, the company sold vaginal “jade eggs” ($65) and a candle that “smells like my vagina” ($72). It had powders to boost metabolism, for morning skin, to detox; weighted wrist bangles, infrared sauna blankets with crystals, yoga leggings; and produced branded podcasts, newsletters, cruises, lectures, pop-up shops and Netflix specials. Feeling Zen? Feeling “well”? Feeling relaxed?

Loehnen wasn’t. “I couldn’t catch my breath,” she says now, from her home in Brentwood, Los Angeles. She was traveling too much and working too hard, all while feeling inadequate and burned out when she was at home with her husband and two children. “I didn’t know how to get on top of my life. I was driven by constant anxiety: it’s not enough, you don’t have enough, you’re not enough. Until I was, like, I can’t live like this.” In 2020, after six years at Goop, she left to pursue writing full time. She still has occasional anxiety attacks but she is much more calm, more “in control”. “When all that busyness went away and I couldn’t numb myself with work, and once my kids were solidly back in school, I was left with myself,” she says.

Loehnen set out to understand how she got to that point in the first place: why she couldn’t breathe, why she didn’t let herself eat, why she felt knackered and guilty all the time, imprisoned by what she “should” be doing. The product of which is her new book, On Our Best Behavior: The Price Women Pay to Be Good. Loehnen uses the seven deadly sins to track the ways in which women are encouraged to mute their own desires. It is a manifesto for happiness rather than busyness, for pleasure rather than fasting — a plea to stop racing toward a place that does not exist.

“Busyness is like an addiction,” she says, sitting at home surrounded by books. With a dark pixie cut and big-framed glasses, Loehnen is cerebral, referring to feminist thinkers and lofty philosophers throughout our conversation. “And busyness is a repressive function, particularly for mothers. If you keep moving you don’t have to let anything come up. It keeps our anger and resentment at bay.”

Loehnen joined Goop in 2014 from a career in journalism. She was Paltrow’s second hire and propelled what was a newsletter into a global brand. On its Netflix show, The Goop Lab with Gwyneth Paltrow, Loehnen was the smart, level-headed Muggle, testing wild and wacky practices (magic mushrooms, energy healing) with inquisitiveness and a healthy dose of skepticism. At the same time she was ghostwriting books (12 of them), recording the Goop podcast, (half a million listeners a week), and bringing up her sons, Max, ten, and Sam, six.

“I was driven by constant anxiety: it’s not enough, you don’t have enough, you’re not enough. Until I was, like, I can’t live like this.”

Goop allowed her to access a “more spiritual side”. “I had enough strange, otherworldly experiences where I was, like, ‘There’s something more here.’ And I really don’t know if I would have got to that place absent that job. My parents are definitely not [like] that. I mean, my parents think…” she stops herself with giggles. I’m not getting any more. In fact, despite direct questions, she only refers to Goop as “that company” and does not once say the words “Gwyneth Paltrow”.

About the time Loehnen left, American tabloids were reporting a “toxic” work culture at Goop, that it was filled with “mean girls”. What was it like leaving? “Honestly,” she says, hesitant, “we have this idea culturally that everything should last for ever — marriages, relationships, jobs — but I think it was just the right time. It wasn’t easy because these things become your identity in a way. But it wasn’t my identity anymore. It was time for me to create a structure around myself, and ultimately I don’t want to work at a business. I want to write books and read.”

“We don’t like women who are confident and women understand this, so we have to come into everything sideways, upside down and backwards.”

Today’s wellness culture, Loehnen says, has spiraled into something quite terrifying, an obsession with biohacking, tracking our body’s statistics and trying to live as long as possible. “It’s just creating busyness to stave off the inevitable,” she says. “Which is that you’re going to die.”

After leaving Goop Loehnen posted on Instagram that she has been eating “like a teenager”, and she says she has taken a break from “toxic” diet culture: “I vowed to never do another cleanse and went into full rebellion.” Paltrow is famous for fasting until lunch, when she drinks bone broth. “I was never diagnosed with an eating disorder, but I spent my whole life in a permitting/restricting cycle,” Loehnen says today. “Many of us believe we are out of control, that our wanting is dangerous, that we will be maniacs with food unless we tamp [our hunger] down. We treat ourselves like we’re prisoners.”

How does living in Los Angeles affect her relationship with her body? “LA is in Ozempic land,” she says, referring to the medication that reduces appetite, which was originally designed for type 2 diabetes but is now being injected for weight loss. It has become so mainstream, she continues, that she’ll go out for dinner and realize she’s the only one eating. “Why are we killing that pleasure? I love food. I want to eat whatever I want.”

Loehnen was born in Missoula, Montana, her father a doctor, her mother a nurse. She was a voracious reader and “mathlete”, spending her weekends jumping ditches on horses and swimming in lakes. She later studied at Yale and then moved to New York, where she landed at the fashion and lifestyle magazine Lucky. She became deputy editor and later editorial projects director at Condé Nast Traveler. She met her husband, Rob, at a bar where he used to DJ, down the street from her apartment.

It was after moving to LA and becoming a mother that her feelings of inadequacy multiplied. And despite out-earning her husband, she found herself picking up the majority of the domestic responsibilities. “I’ve certainly chafed against the ‘feminine’ identity — that women are caring and nurturing, the primary caregivers, where men are daring, brave and aggressive,” she says. We carry traditional gender roles as “realities, as untested truths”, she says. They are not. She is often “in her masculine”, but still spends a lot of energy padding out emails with niceties — “no worries if not” — in order to be palatable, kind and “feminine”.

American tabloids were reporting a “toxic” work culture at Goop, that it was filled with “mean girls.”

“We are so programmed to act out these qualities of goodness and it’s not necessarily aligned with who we are,” she says. “We don’t like women who are confident and women understand this, so we have to come into everything sideways, upside down and backwards. Women don’t suffer from a lack of confidence, we’re just managing the way we present that to the world so we’re not punished for it.”

A couple of years ago, while working at Goop, Loehnen did a session of MDMA therapy with an “underground” practitioner at her home in LA. It was life-changing. As she lay with her legs across her husband’s lap, she remembered that she had been molested as a child by a family friend. She knew it had happened but she hadn’t, until then, acknowledged the memory. “I believed, for years, that I made him behave inappropriately,” she says. “That somehow I was complicit in my own victimization.”

In the same session she was — after years of holding it in — also able to talk about being raped as a teenager. The therapy made her realize that these two events were the reason she had “tamped down” her sexuality. She writes in her book: “For as long as I can remember, with the exception of one night, whenever I’ve had sex I’ve felt a pervasive self-consciousness and hypervigilance, a ‘voice’ inside objectifying me, pulling me into my head, separating me from my body.” In the years since Loehnen has been rediscovering herself and her sexual identity, talking a lot with her husband, continuing therapy. “It has been fun,” she says. “He’s a great life partner. Every time you talk about these things, you deshame it for yourself a little bit.”

Recently Loehnen sat down and wrote a list of all the things she wanted in her life: to write books, host a podcast, be available to her kids — and to read. Despite all the contortions and distractions of wellness and biohacking, juice cleanses and crystals, she realized it was all actually pretty straightforward. “I have found myself with a much more simple life,” she says now.

Megan Agnew is a U.K.-based features writer at The Sunday Times