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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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For decades, self-help literature and an obsession with wellness have captivated the imaginations of countless liberal Americans. Even now, as some of the hardest economic times in decades pinch our budgets, our spirits, we’re told, can still be rich. Books, blogs, and articles saturated with fantastical wellness schemes for women seem to have multiplied, in fact, featuring journeys (existential or geographical) that offer the sacred for a hefty investment of time, money, or both. There’s no end to the luxurious options a woman has these days—if she’s willing to risk everything for enlightenment. And from Oprah Winfrey and Elizabeth Gilbert to everyday women siphoning their savings to downward dog in Bali, the enlightenment industry has taken on a decidedly feminine sheen.

It will probably take years before the implications for women of the United States’ newfound economic vulnerability are fully understood. Present reports yield a mix of auspicious and depressing stats: The New York Times, for example, reports that more than 80 percent of the jobs that have evaporated were held by men, and the proportion of married women who made more than their husbands rose from 4 percent in 1970 to 22 percent in 2007. That’s not much of a gain, though, considering that U.S. Department of Labor statistics from 2008 show women still only making roughly 75 cents for every dollar made by men. Yet even as reports on joblessness, economic recovery, and home foreclosures suggest that no one is immune to risk during this recession, the popularity of women’s wellness media has persisted and, indeed, grown stronger.

“Live your best life!” Oprah Winfrey intones on her show, on her website, and in her magazine, with exhausting tenacity. Eat kale. Lose weight. Invest in timeless cashmere. Find the perfect little black dress. But though Oprahspeak pays regular lip service to empowerment, much of Winfrey’s advice actually moves women away from political, economic, and emotional agency by promoting materialism and dependency masked as empowerment, with evangelical zeal.

As Karlyn Crowley writes in the recent anthology Stories of Oprah: The Oprahfication of American Culture, Winfrey has become the mainstream spokesperson for New Age spirituality because “she marries the intimacy and individuality of the New Age movement with the adulation and power of a 700 Club–like ministry.” And not surprisingly, it was the imprimatur of Oprah’s Book Club that made Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia the publishing phenomenon it now is. More than 5 million paperback copies of the book are currently in print, though the first printing of the book, in 2006, was a modest 30,000 hardcover copies. The Wall Street Journal estimated that the book would make more than $15 million in sales by the end of 2007, and the book stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for more than 155 weeks.

Eat, Pray, Love detailed Gilbert’s decision to leave an unsatisfying marriage and embark on an international safari of self-actualization. (Publisher Viking subsidized the “unscripted” yearlong vacation.) Gilbert ate exotic food, meditated in exotic places, and had exotic romantic interludes; both culture clashes and enlightenment ensued, as did Gilbert’s ham-fistedly paternalistic attempt to buy an impoverished Indonesian woman a house. The book could easily have been called Wealthy, Whiny, White.

It’s hardly reasonable to demand that every woman who wishes to better her life be poor, or nonwhite, or in some other way representative of diversity in order to be taken seriously. But Eat, Pray, Love and its positioning as an Everywoman’s guide to whole, empowered living embody a literature of privilege and typify the genre’s destructive cacophony of insecurity, spending, and false wellness.

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.

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 Jezebel.com blogger Sadie Stein noted in September 2009, “nueva-Bradshaws have hung up their Manohlos [sic] and retired their Cosmos...and are pursuing banality differently...it’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.”

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.

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.

If more women become willing to put aside their fears, open their eyes to cost-free or inexpensive paths to wellness, and position themselves as essentially worthy instead of deeply flawed, priv-lit could soon migrate to a well-deserved new home: the fiction section. And once that happens, we might just succeed in showing that for every wealthy and insecure woman who can pony up to reach great heights of self and spending, there are thousands more whose lives are comparatively uncharmed, who are happier working with creative and healthy alternatives instead of spending on what they’re terrorized into wanting, and whose stories will, someday, be valued for the strength they communicate, not the fantasies they sell.

Joshunda Sanders is an Oakland-based writer and a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. Diana Barnes-Brown is a writer and sandwich enthusiast living in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her favorite self-help interventions are pit bull foster care and yelling at the television.