Act Like A Lady, Think Like An Industry: A Critique of Self-Help(ism)

by Alexandria Linn


In the midst of deconstructing some notion regarding identity politics (or something along that matter), I received a call from my mother. Upon answering the phone I was promptly instructed to turn on the TV. Apparently, there was a “town hall” meeting for the “community” of black women in which black comedians and actors were to inform us on why we can’t land “good black brotha’s.” After turning to the program and reading the title (which read something along the lines of “Black Town Hall: Why Successful Black Women Can’t Get A Successful Black Brother”) I sighed deeply to ensure my mother that I was both thoroughly annoyed at the title and utterly exhausted with the subject in general.

At that time I was spending my last year of college working on a thesis that had me knee-deep in self-help books that focused on relationship advice. The books that I had chosen were written by straight men with an intended straight, female audience.  These were books that had gained considerable recognition for their “brilliant” insight into the infamous mind of the “average guy.” My research revealed to me how deeply the advice of these books had influenced the mainstream understanding of what it means to be female and feminine, manly and masculine and reinforcing what is understood as desirable traits of each gender.

I am not sure what sparked my interest in the subject. I suppose my status as an unmarried, African-American woman makes me hyper aware of what is being said about the current state of the dating market: i.e. the statistics which pronounce the dismal number of “eligible” men, the talk shows that emphasize the inherent “gap” between men and women, and the books and panels that unequivocally support lazily regurgitated advice about how women can “maximize” their qualities for the sake of attraction (advice usually regarding body image and superficial beauty or lifestyle changes which remain unattainable for the majority of its female audience). What I do know is that whatever piqued my interest in the subject has also drawn in millions of other Americans, encouraging them to apply and/or critique the array of advice given within this industry.

In Self-Help, Inc., Micki McGee notes that the increasing popularity of the self-help industry marks a “new insecurity” among Americans. These insecurities include job and economic instabilities as well as shifting family structures. Combined with a post-modernist focus on the individual such overwhelming uncertainty creates a ripe social and economic environment for self-help to flourish.

Applying this understanding of “insecurity” as a condition that inflames the consumption of self-help, it is clear to see why dating books and advice manuals have recently been flying off the shelves.

I am not going to go on a rant about the media’s obsession with sex, money, thinness, and youthfulness as a way to point out the changing ideals of beauty and success. However, it is important to note that there is pressure (which the media largely contributes to), for both men and women to become their own “ideal.” In terms of the dating market, we are encouraged to transform ourselves (or “belabor” as McGee puts it) to make ourselves attractive and desirable for the other sex. For American women, the idea of transforming into your “optimal” self is seemingly necessitated by implied messages of beauty within movies, music videos, and advertisement. Unfortunately, this “implied” standard of beauty and success does not come packaged alone. Just in case you can’t connect the dots, the thin, white, half-naked women on an advertisement may seduce you into buying whatever product she’s selling, but those married to the business of self-improvement demand that you buy into the gendered ideal that she also performs.

It is those that seemingly enjoy being a part of this ideal of wealth and beauty—famous singers, movie stars, talk show hosts, athletes and models—that take on the work of distributing advice to the masses on how they too can enjoy their personal “best.” Beauty tips, sex guides, fashion help, and constant dieting advice claim to “empower” women by allowing them to improve their bodies and perform their sexuality.

However, pseudo-feminist rhetoric that looks at female empowerment through sexual liberation is used to churn out messages such as women’s power can only be exhibited through their sexuality, or that to be a single women is to be flawed, or that promotes the idea that if you don’t “bait” a man while you are young, you will grow into spinsterhood alone. While these messages vary, the underlying theme remains: Don’t lose your beauty. Without beauty, you, as a woman have nothing to offer to men in particular, or society in general. As one acclaimed male-authored self-help book wrote, “You may be an exceptional person, but guys are visually oriented, and if your waist disappeared a hundred pounds ago, all we see is rolls of blobbish flesh. Even if we look like we swallowed another person whole, we generally like our women to appear less like a pachyderm.”

For many women, the failure to achieve this ideal is cyclical; each step toward attaining the beauty standard (an impossible ideal) is inevitably destined for failure. For women who are not white, thin, heterosexual, Western, and young, the process of trying to attain this ideal becomes a dualistic undertaking to fighting for representation and recognition within mass media (film, TV, books, and magazines) while also challenging images and representation of one’s marginalized group.

Male-authored self-help books are not solely to blame for the insecurities among young women in our society. They do, however, contribute to hegemonic understandings of what it means to be both male and female, which in turn shape how we understand ourselves and our bodies within a larger societal frame. ▢

Alexandria Linn is an aspiring socio-historian…and a Stewart Ewen fanatic.

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