The culture of constant self-help has experienced a boom in recent years. Exponentially growing during the pandemic, when we had nothing else to do but to work on ourselves, the trend has further entrenched the need for perfectionism cultivated by social media. The cultural concept of bettering yourself may have previously elicited images of Elizabeth Gilbert eating her way through Italy and reconnecting with her spirituality in Bali in Eat, Pray, Love, but in recent years, the term has garnered a more ubiquitous cultural significance. Self-awareness and self-improvement are great, but has the situation gone too far?
Self-help is inundating our pop culture as well as our daily lives, but we may not be the ones benefiting from it the most. The self-improvement book genre is worth $800 million, according to Market Research. The extent of their prevalence is elucidated by a quick Google search, which produces an influx of articles claiming to have the definitive and best list of the essentials of the genre. The ubiquity of these books showcases pop culture’s enforcement of the necessity of near-constant self-improvement. Through their wide selection, self-help books promise to bring the reader all kinds of improvements, be it happiness, health or even success.
On a personal level, with their continuous identification of new flaws to overcome and new goals to achieve, are these books simply aiding in distracting us from actually living our lives?
But this steady influx of reading material may simply be playing on the constant demand for more material on self-improvement, given our constant media consumption. The genre thereby primarily serves to feed into our society’s fixation on self-help, a highly lucrative endeavour when looking at its large market. On a personal level, with their continuous identification of new flaws to overcome and new goals to achieve, are these books simply aiding in distracting us from actually living our lives?
Nevertheless, some self-help books seem to be writing against this trend. Marked by its bestselling trailblazers, which include Sarah Knight’s The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck and Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. These focus on moving beyond the need to ascribe flaws to oneself towards a more real form of self-improvement, independent from societal pressures. While this new strain of self-help book encourages its readers to harness their individuality, its nature still identifies a problem to be corrected in the target audience’s life, even if it is the problem of caring too much about other flaws, not to mention its contribution to the self-improvement market.
The wellness and lifestyle market is another notorious proponent of the toxic tendencies of the self-help and self-care industry. Images of Sydney Sweeney’s Cassie waking up at 4 am every morning to perform a tediously intricate beauty regime in the HBO series Euphoria spring to mind, as she carefully curates a perfect appearance in the hopes of attracting the attention of a boy. Each of the products she is seen using (which include the likes of eye masks, an iced face roller and a jade gua sha face tool) can be seen to represent a pointed flaw the self-care industry is telling its consumers to work against.
In this light, by continuously adding to the long list of corrigible flaws, many wellness companies are actively benefiting from their role in the discourse. A striking example of such a company is Goop. Launched as a weekly email newsletter in 2008 by Gwyneth Paltrow, the website now markets itself as “a modern lifestyle brand”. Despite its description as containing “cutting-edge wellness advice from doctors, vetted travel recommendations, and a curated shop of clean beauty, fashion, and home”, Goop has often come under fire for treating pseudoscience like science, notably following the release of The Goop Lab on Netflix, which sees its founder and her team test a ludicrous array of strange treatments.
While the internet’s prevalent gripe against Goop is its inordinate pricing, the website markets its wellness items as essential, which may cause its customer base to feel the aspects targeted by the products as shortcomings in themselves, and thus pressure them into making a purchase. With items like a $300 ring which claims to track the wearer’s health to a $66 Jade yoni egg, which allegedly promotes spiritual healing through Kegel-like exercises, Goop seems to be playing into the fantasy element of the aloof Los Angeles lifestyle.
. In this light, Goop is seemingly attempting to profit off its target audience’s reduced libido, regardless of whether the latter has even identified this as an issue, by promoting a product that has not even been proven effective.
However, some items, marketed through the flaws they are marketed to counteract, are more problematic. For instance, Goop’s own brand DTF dietary supplements, for $60, claim to “support healthy sexual arousal and desire”. While the sex-positive basis of the product is important, the website disclaims that the FDA has not evaluated the supplement. In this light, Goop is seemingly attempting to profit off its target audience’s reduced libido, regardless of whether the latter has even identified this as an issue, by promoting a product that has not even been proven effective.
Taking from the relatively small scale of Goop’s enterprise, its preying on the insecurities of its customer base while actively creating more, is symptomatic of the self-improvement industry at large. Is this all linked to our consumerist society, which dictates that we can never be satisfied? There are an infinite amount of companies profiting from the flaws we self-diagnose ourselves with, and the flaws these companies instil and program within us. These companies are, by extension, selling our need to constantly upgrade ourselves and on things that may not even need upgrading. The consumerist drive for these companies is mirrored in the numbers. Grand View Research estimated that the global personal development market was valued at $41.81 billion in 2021 and is expected to expand annually at 5.5% between 2022 and 2030.
As Carl Cederström and André Spicer assert in their 2017 exploration Desperately Seeking Self-Improvement: A Year Inside the Optimization Movement, “we are under pressure to show that we know how to lead the perfect life”. With the omnipresence of social media, we have become more and more hyper-aware of our flaws, as we outwardly try to portray that we have the perfect life on our own accounts, while seeing the constant flow of self-help information on our feeds.
Tiktok is at the centre of the risks of this: the ease of information the app affords its viewers, as well as the bite-sized chunks through which it relays this through short videos effects a constant stream of self-improvement content. You can effectively scroll on the app for a few minutes and get a multitude of different facets of the culture of self-help — be it seeing someone describing their all too perfect hungover morning routine or a psychologist explaining 4 signs of intergenerational trauma. The popularity of these videos is undeniable: the self-help hashtag has 1.7bn views on Tiktok, while the self-improvement one boasts a whopping 11.7bn views.
It is precisely because of this idea of the perfect life that we are obsessed with frauds
The idea of having and presenting the perfect life, entrenched in the perfectionism that self-improvement dictates, brings to light an interesting phenomenon of the culture: frauds. It is precisely because of this idea of the perfect life that we are obsessed with frauds. Why else would TV series like Inventing Anna, The Tinder Swindler and The Dropout fascinate us so much? While the culture of girlbossing commends Anna Sorokin for outwardly presenting the perfect life, when she loses everything, we treat her as an example of what to work against. Society paints these frauds as the scapegoats for the dangers of what happens when someone doesn’t subscribe to the consumerist culture of ascribing and overcoming flaws.
The gendered aspect of the culture of constant self-improvement is vital to take into account. As sociologists Rosalind Gill and Shani Orgad identify in Confidence Culture, “self-help is disproportionately addressed to women”. Women are indeed more frequently placed as in need of improvement. Significantly, the pair argue that the self-improvement industry markets the issues faced by women as personal problems, underscoring their framing as flaws which can only be overcome by subscribing to consumerist solutions. This exposes a problematic undercurrent of the power and gender dynamics underpinning the self-help phenomenon.
While the culture of bettering ourselves may have afforded us a sense of being able to control one aspect of our lives during the tumultuous and unpredictable cycle of lockdowns, upon closer inspection, the multi-billion dollar industry seems to be profiting off our manifest and latent flaws. The awareness of your own flaws is a crucial part of life, but the capitalist drive for perfection at all costs elucidates troubling and gendered implications.