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How the Self-Help Industry Tied Spiritual Salvation to Spending Lots of Money

Consumption-based models of spiritual salvation, often directed at women, offer an elitist and ineffective road to self-improvement.

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Priv-lit perpetuates several negative assumptions about women and their relationship to money and responsibility. The first is that women can or should be willing to spend extravagantly, leave our families, or abandon our jobs in order to fit ill-defined notions of what it is to be “whole.” Another is the infantilizing notion that we need guides—often strangers who don’t know the specifics of our financial, spiritual, or emotional histories—to tell us the best way forward. The most problematic assumption, and the one that ties it most closely to current, mainstream forms of misogyny, is that women are inherently and deeply flawed, in need of consistent improvement throughout their lives, and those who don’t invest in addressing those flaws are ultimately doomed to making themselves, if not others, miserable.

While priv-lit predates the current recession by at least a few years, the genre’s potential for negative impact is greater these days than ever before. Today’s “recessionista” mind-set promotes spending quietly over spending less. Priv-lit takes a similar approach: Hiding familiar motives behind ambient lighting and organic scented candles, the genre at once masks and promotes the destructive expectations of traditional femininity and consumer culture, making them that much harder to fight.

As blogger Sadie Stein noted in September 2009, “nueva-Bradshaws have hung up their Manohlos [sic] and retired their Cosmos...and are pursuing banality’s pink-hued, candy-coated girly spirituality.” The blog entry, which mentions Eat, Pray, Love ; Skinny Bitch ; and The Secret , is a response specifically to the odious “new gurus” article from the New York Times , but the point can also be seen as a cutting and accurate criticism of priv-lit as a genre.

In Dreams Begin Responsibilities?

Perhaps priv-lit is a manifestation of how we love to fantasize about things we don’t—or can’t—have. In the case of priv-lit, the fantasy has turned on its makers. Rather than offering a model to aspire to through consistent attainment of progressive, realistic goals, priv-lit terrorizes its consumers with worst-case scenarios and the implication that self-improvement is demonstrated by “works” of spending.

Of course, it is the right of any woman who works hard for what she has to spend her money to make her life better. But the pressure to obtain happiness by buying a certain book (like Eat, Pray, Love or, more recently, Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project ), attending a yoga retreat, or hiring a guru moves women further away from themselves, the simplicity espoused in positive psychology literature, and the type of careful reflection necessary to maintain inner peace in the long term.

The story priv-lit tells is that true wellness requires extreme sacrifices along economic, family, and professional lines, but those who make them will be rewarded and attain permanent enlightenment of one kind or another. (The best recent example is Gilbert herself, since she was rewarded twice over for her globe-trotting victories in her spiritual memoir—she married a hot Brazilian man and landed another bestselling book, 2010’s Committed, as a result.)

Unfortunately, that story is a lie: As one purveyor of high-end life-coaching services (who, for obvious reasons, wishes to remain anonymous) comments, “In our line of business, we have a saying: ‘Don’t fix the client.’” Once mentors teach clients to attain freedom and enlightenment, they can say goodbye to the high premiums they earn by telling clients they need more help.

“One of the brilliant parts of the self-help genre as a whole is that there are these various contradicting threads or themes, all woven together, and emphasized differently at different times,” says Dr. Micki McGee, a sociologist and cultural critic at Fordham University and the author of Self-Help, Inc: Makeover Culture in American Life . “Self-improvement culture in general has the contradictory effect of undermining self-assurance by suggesting that all of us are in need of constant, effortful (and often expensive) improvement. There is the danger of over-investing in this literature not only financially, but also psychologically.”