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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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The priv-lit tide shows few immediate signs of ebbing. The Eat, Pray, Love movie (shot partly in that most gentrified of neighborhoods, Brooklyn Heights) hits theaters this summer, and the Sex and the City film sequel and its many shoe-shopping-as-therapy metaphors will hit theaters in late spring. As for Oprah, her talk show is slated to end in 2011, but with an entire television network on the way, her empire and its anointed leaders could be with us for decades. But the future also holds brighter possibilities.

Paige Williams, whose story can, somewhat ironically, be found on Oprah.com, was depressed to the point of debilitation, clinically obese, unemployed, and broke when she began her efforts to change her life. Living with her mother and often too sick to get out of bed, she clearly was not living her “best life.” Williams postponed taking a job to spend two months regaining control of her body, mind, and life via an intensive, 60-day Bikram yoga regimen.

Parts of Williams’s story fall well within the range of self-help and priv-lit tropes: She waxes poetic about squeezing into a pair of skinny jeans, and many would argue that merely having the resources to get a medical diagnosis of depression and obesity (to say nothing of the Bikram regimen itself) is solid proof that our protagonist is more comfortable than the average American. But the frank admission that any such intervention is a sacrifice, and a risky one at that, is evidence of both a more genuine voice and of a protagonist who cares about being healthy overall rather than demonstrating class membership or pursuing mainstream ideals of beauty, marriageability, and general worthiness. And the fact that her story appears in such a mainstream context means that more women are being exposed to this comparatively toned-down approach. Maybe not a solution to the problem of priv-lit, but a good step toward finding one.

Even better are movements like The Great American Apparel Diet. Not to be confused with a food plan sanctioned by American Apparel ceo Dov Charney, that iconoclast of modern American misogynists, GAAD is actually a movement started by a group of American women who decided to go a full year without buying a single new garment of clothing. Since its inception in September 2009, the group has grown to represent members from 17 states and six countries. “Some are sick and tired of consumption in general while others are concerned about consumption and the environment,” notes the group’s web page. “We all have our reasons for embarking on this project but it all gets down to this…who are we without something hip and new in our closets? We shall see.”

The admission that many of these women feel intense anxiety in the absence of the materialism that has for so long been tied to ideas of what makes women successfully feminine is a crucial and revolutionary first step that more women should feel safe taking. And not buying is, by definition, free, meaning that anyone with motivation enough and a desire to say no to the status quo can participate in this form of soul-searching. (Though, of course, the project operates under its own assumption—namely, that not spending money is a choice rather than an absolute necessity.)

Williams’s tale and the clothing embargo are evidence of a progressively nontraditional movement of women committed to replacing elitist, consumption-based models of spiritual salvation and existential peace with genuine bids to do a lot with a little, and to stop listening to top-down directives for how to have good lives.