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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.

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.