Crazy, sexy self-help gurus

Are young, hip and self-taught life coaches hurting or helping women?

Published September 21, 2009 9:40PM (EDT)

The "Sex and the City" set has gone spiritual, according to a style piece in the New York Times. Those Cosmo-swilling Manhattanites of yesteryear are now sipping wheat grass out of wineglasses. Instead of waiting for the phone to ring, they're creating vision boards to manifest the call, and it's self-help books, not issues of Vogue, that line their bookshelves. The new role model "for New York’s former Carrie Bradshaws," writes Allen Salkin, are "young women who are vegetarian, well versed in self-help and New Age spirituality, and who are finding a way to make a living preaching to eager audiences, mostly female." Instead of writing publicly about their own inner turmoil -- over relationships, jobs and the like -- these so-called "Charlie's Angels of Wellness" are guiding other women through the tumultuous terrain of their twenties and thirties.

They are all self-taught gurus, having read many popular self-help books (one says she has read over 600 of them). These women have essentially done just as the hilarious Beth Lisick did when she spent a year following the major self-help ideologies for her book "Helping Me Help Myself" -- only they have joined the ranks of the experts they studied. (Funny, because I've always thought the best lesson offered by the likes of Tony Robbins is that selling people happiness is a great way to make money, it's a pyramid scheme writ large.) The Times focuses on Gabrielle Bernstein, a 29-year-old life coach -- a 29-year-old life coach, imagine that! -- who penned the upcoming book "Add More -ing to Your Life: A Hip Guide to Happiness." Bernstein's Web site shows her standing in the middle of a city street in a number of different scenarios: clad in a wetsuit with a surfboard atop her head, riding a unicycle, posing on a skateboard while wearing angel wings, jumping for joy, jumping for joy again and doing a yoga pose. She charges clients $180 for four weekly sessions and delivers platitudes like, "Hang out in the light." 

Also featured in the article is "Crazy Sexy Cancer," a documentary that follows former actress Kris Carr's journey to live fully and freely with a fatal disease. She also wrote the books "Crazy Sexy Cancer Tips" and "Crazy Sexy Cancer Survivor: More Rebellion and Fire for Your Healing Journey." Carr's Web site, "Crazy Sexy Life," pictures the chipper 38-year-old mid-laugh as she literally kicks up her heels (clad in a pair of funky-cute cowboy boots). Doesn't that seem appealing, don't you want to be the kind of gal who cheerfully clomps around in cowboys boots and flirty dresses, all while fighting a terminal illness?

These are no doubt remarkable and impressive women. Whether they are swapping all-night benders for Ayurvedic healing or refusing to let cancer ruin their party, I salute them -- particularly because they have surely inspired many, many women to lead better lives. But, as Salkin notes, "Some more established self-help and spiritualist leaders are skeptical of the Spiritual Cowgirls" -- largely because of their lack of training and credentials. The headline for the Times piece, "Seeing yourself in their light," seems terribly apt: Not only are they encouraging positive thinking, they are giving you something positive to think about, something concrete to aspire to: Their own personal triumphs and fabulous lives.

The ideas they espouse aren't exactly novel: Eating healthily, exercising (yoga is a favorite), going green, getting in tune with yourself and living life to the fullest.  All sensible ideas, no doubt -- but, in the same way that many of the lifestyle changes Oprah endorses are basically healthy, they are also similarly imbued with a degree of magical-thinking, religious fervor and you-can-do-it delirium that makes me highly uncomfortable. In the self-help realm perfectly reasonable practices, like thinking positively, are often amplified to the point of mysticism, leading to cash cows like "The Secret." But, fine, many people need something to believe in -- what's the harm in devoting oneself religiously to habits that are basically good for you -- even if, say, you overstate their benefit?

Well, Oprah comes to mind, again. The talk show host's medical missteps are a lesson in the danger of following a guru who is easily and indiscriminately attracted to shiny new ideas. This marketing of ideas to women is much like the supposed miracle diets, exercise regimes, makeup and wrinkle creams that are pimped in women's magazines. Much as this year's volumizing mascara is no different from last year's volumizing mascara, these are simply old philosophies repackaged to look hip, cool and sexy. It's a depressing commercialization of hope: You're sold one chimera and, soon as it disappears, there are a million others replacements lined up and waiting.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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