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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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McGee, who in researching her own book spent five years immersed in self-help literature, is quick to point out that this tendency toward spending for self-improvement is long-standing. But in the current economic climate, the real financial implications for those who do, or try to, invest in these ways may be worse than in healthier economic times, while the spending itself may be growing all the more fetishized. Since the late 1960s, economic phenomena such as wage stagnation combined with the increasing costs of housing, medical care, and other basic necessities have meant that, for most Americans, time really does equal money. “Increasingly, people who actually have the money to take a year off and travel in India or go to a thousand-dollar yoga retreat are in short supply,” notes McGee. “In the context of the recession, we’re seeing an emphasis on simplicity and frugality, but embedded within that emphasis is a subtext of consuming more”—imported, she points out, from contemporary self-help literature of all kinds.

McGee links the persistence of these counterintuitive ideals to the phenomena of social stratification written about by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. In his landmark 1984 book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste , Bourdieu explained that cultural and aesthetic preferences both indicate and shape class stratifications, because trends in these preferences seemingly map individuals’ positions in social hierarchies. As McGee puts it, within status-quo class systems, “Taste and other types of cultural capital are emblematic of both status attained and status putatively deserved.” So those who pray at the altar of priv-lit operate under the false assumptions that 1) investing concretely ensures attainment of elite socioeconomic status and 2) having invested demonstrates the deserving nature of those who do. In times of financial stress—when those who want exist in even greater proportion to those who have—this feedback loop may be intensified, because the desired is that much more unattainable and the consequences of failure, namely the implication that those who do not get their lives together according to the prescribed boundaries of priv-lit will end up being so utterly screwed up that they risk losing their jobs, houses, or independence, among other things—seem that much worse.

Priv-lit has transformed Virginia Woolf’s “Room of One’s Own” into an existential space accessed by way of a very expensive series of actual rooms—a $120-an-hour yoga studio, a cottage in Indonesia, a hip juice bar on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The genre is unique in that it reflects an inversion of its own explicitly expressed value system: Priv-lit tells women they must do expensive things that are good for the body, mind, or soul. But the hidden subtext, and perhaps the most alluring part of the genre for its avid consumers, is the antifeminist idea that women should become healthy so that people will like them, they will find partners, they’ll have money, and they’ll lose weight and be hot. God forbid a dumpy, lonely, single person should actually try to achieve happiness, health, and balance for its own sake. It’s the wolf of the mean-spirited makeover show or the vicious high-school clique in the sheep’s clothing of wellness.

Turning the Tide

The truth is that many of us are barely holding on to the modest lives we’ve struggled to create, improving ourselves on a daily basis, minus the staggering premiums, with every day we get up, go to work, and take care of ourselves and our families. Priv-lit is not a viable answer to the concerns of most women’s lives, and acting as though it is leads nowhere good. It’s high time we demanded that truer narratives become visible—and, dare we say it, marketable.