How the Self-Help Industry Tied Spiritual Salvation to Spending Lots of Money
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Let Them Eat Kale
Eat, Pray, Love is not the first book of its kind, but it is a perfect example of the genre of priv-lit: literature or media whose expressed goal is one of spiritual, existential, or philosophical enlightenment contingent upon women’s hard work, commitment, and patience, but whose actual barriers to entry are primarily financial. Should its consumers fail, the genre holds them accountable for not being ready to get serious, not “wanting it” enough, or not putting themselves first, while offering no real solutions for the astronomically high tariffs—both financial and social—that exclude all but the most fortunate among us from participating.
The spending itself is justified by its supposedly healthy goals—acceptance, self-love, the ability to heal past psychic wounds and break destructive patterns. Yet often the buzz over secondary perks (weight loss, say, or perfect skin) drowns out less superficial discussion. Winfrey, again, is a chief arbiter of this behavior: As Stories of Oprah contributor Jennifer L. Rexroat points out, Winfrey presents herself as a “de facto feminist” with a traditional American Dream background who refuses to succumb to wifedom and enjoys pampering herself. Sometimes that involves espousing the works of spirituality writers Gary Zukav or Eckhart Tolle, who both appear regularly on her show. Sometimes it means talking about weight gain and self-loathing. Sometimes it necessitates buying a diamond friendship pinkie ring.
It’s no secret that, according to America’s marketing machine, we’re living in a “postfeminist” world where what many people mean by “empowerment” is the power to spend their own money. Twenty- and thirtysomething women seem more eager than ever to embrace their “right” to participate in crash diets and their “choice” to get breast implants, obsess about their age, and apply the Sex and the City personality metric to their friends (Are you a Miranda or a Samantha? Did you get your Brazilian and your Botox?). Such marketing, and the women who buy into it, assumes the work of feminism is largely done. Perhaps it’s because, unlike American women before them, few of the people either making or consuming these cultural products and messages have been pushed to pursue secretarial school instead of medical school, been accused of “asking for” sexual assault, or been told driving and voting were intellectually beyond them. This perspective makes it easy for the antifeminism embedded in the wellness jargon of priv-lit to gain momentum.
And an ailing economy makes this thinking all the more problematic. “Splurging on luxury is a real no-no in this crap economy,” a blogger at YogaDork wrote in a post titled “The All-Inclusive Vacation for the Recession Torn (The Acceptable Splurge).” “But what if it’s for a self-helpy learning experience?” Pondering the importance of health over penny-pinching, the blogger suggested that if “yogis and non alike” thought a retreat worth scrounging for, they should get on it. And indeed, if self-helpy is on the menu, people seem to be buying it, or at least buying into it.
In fall 2009, the Los Angeles Times ran a piece about well-off women (and some men) leaving their full-time jobs to meditate in seclusion for three years, to the tune of $60,000 a year. Another feature on young, female self-help gurus (their exact qualifications for guruhood remain murky) charging hundreds of dollars an hour to advise other women on spirituality and eating well was granted prime real estate on the front page of the New York Times’ Style section.
Sarma Melngailis, a New York restaurant owner who writes about eating raw and organic food on the blogs welikeitraw.com and oneluckyduck.com, promises her readers—most of them women—that if they can just give up their Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and replace it with her $9 coconut water and $12 nut-milk shakes they, too, can be happy and healthy. (She’s very consistent about plugging her products’ ability to combat hangovers and sexify one’s appearance, too.) The now-famous Skinny Bitch cookbook franchise plumbs even more sinister depths in its insistence that women can stop nighttime snacking with the oh-so-simple fix of hiring a personal chef with vegan culinary training. Actor Gwyneth Paltrow’s web venture, GOOP, uses catchy, imperative section headings (“Get,” “Do,” “Be”) and the nonsensical tagline “Nourish the inner aspect” to neatly establish a rhetorical link between action, spending, and the whole of existence. Even Julie and Julia, the blog that became a book that became a hit movie, is complicit in spreading the trend. Julie Powell’s story—that of an ennui-ridden professional whose journey of self-discovery involves cooking her way through Julia Child—features one-meal shopping lists whose cost rivals standard monthly food-stamp allotments for many American families.