Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Get over yourSelf!

UPDATE, Friday, 9/17. Speaking of women's magazines and their collective assault on female body image and the like...check this out. So if you buy Elle's explanation, their depiction of plus-size black actress Gabourey Sidibe in such a radically different format from the other three (white, underfed) cover models was totally random? On another day, they might've been just as likely to show Sidibe the same way they show, say, foxy Megan Fox? Riiiight. And Bill Clinton did not have sex with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky...


I have two levels of reaction to this article, "When the Quest for Self-Improv
ement Kills," now out in Self magazine. The piece is about James Ray and, more generally, the dangers of reckless and/or ill-conceived self-help programs. I'm quoted briefly.

One reaction I have is along the lines of an email I received from a contributor: "It's good to see that someone is keeping the story alive." It's an important story, and not just about one man's sins. On the contrary, it's about a major area of the zeitgeist that isn't taken nearly as seriously as it should be.

My other reaction is, Are you freakin' kidding me?? Man (or maybe in this case, Woman), is the pot ever calling the kettle black! I say that because Self is part of that very zeitgeist.

The simple truth is that women's magazines have done as much damage in the name of self-help as any other segment of SHAMland. For Self and its sister publications to be wringing their hands over James Ray is more than a bit disingenuous, and is as good a definition of irony as any I've seen, considering the subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) destructive themes that emanate from women's magazines on a monthly basis. I talked about this at some length in SHAM, and we've discussed it a number of times here. If you don't want to take my word for it, I refer you again to Myrna Blyth, former capo-di-tutti-capi at Ladies' Home Journal. In her confessional 2005 book, Spin Sisters, Blyth repents her role in her erstwhile industry's $7 billion assault on the dignity and self-worth of its audience.

The most tragicomic aspect is, for magazines with names like "Self," they're pretty un-self-aware. It's not as if Self is suddenly waking up and smelling the coffee, and intends to pursue an entirely different editorial mission. No. They see James Ray as totally separate and apart from what they do. They're on the side of the angels. I'm reminded of my January 2007 item about a GMA appearance by Self's editor, during which she and Diane Sawyer sighed and shook their heads over all the negative self-talk with which today's gals are plagued. Where could women possibly have gotten all those messages?

How 'bout from your stupid magazine, for starters!
Check out the material currently on Self's site. Look at the cover of the issue highlighted there. ("Gee, how is it that all those young girls learn to feel so bad about their bodies!?") You tell me what the overall message is to readers. And in fairness, Self is hardly the worst offender.

It's as bad in its way as if Oprah herself were to announce that she's ending her historic run with a series of shows on the dangers of the New Age.

NOTE TO SELF: It shouldn't be that folks actually have to die, and in dramatic fashion, before you start doing damage assessments. Your industry has been inflicting the death-of-a-thousand cuts on women for decades.


Weston said...


I admire you for continuing to fight the good fight, but it may be time to give it up because it seems as if even our president is reading too many self help books

From his speech yesterday:

"Nobody gets to write your destiny but you. Your future is in your hands. Your life is what you make of it. And nothing -- absolutely nothing -- is beyond your reach, so long as you’re willing to dream big, so long as you’re willing to work hard. So long as you’re willing to stay focused on your education, there is not a single thing that any of you cannot accomplish, not a single thing. I believe that."

Steve Salerno said...

Ahh geez, Weston, please tell me he didn't say that. Hell, there's one line there that's almost a verbatim quote from Rhonda Byrne's promotional material for The Secret!

Weston said...

Starting at 4th paragraph. Read it and weep.

Steve Salerno said...

Wanna laugh? I actually got an email alleging that the artwork in this post is racist.

I mean...really.

Weston said...


Do you think they understood the colloquialism and were just trying to be nasty?

Kind of reminds me of that D.C. official who ended up resigning after using the word niggardly in a conversation with his staff.

Steve Salerno said...

Weston, I honestly think there's a certain segment of the population--and not necessarily minority in every case, either--for whom the mere use of the word black by anyone who isn't is automatically suspect. It raises the antennae. I guess it's the next logical step in the cultural paranoia over the word nigger. I still maintain that I don't see what was so objectionable about Dr. Laura's rant if you listen to it without preconceptions and biases of your own, and just take it at face value.

That's how hypersensitized we are nowadays to "slights" of any kind.

Anonymous said...

Hi Steve,

I know you don't like self help gurus. I don't either. What are the alternatives for people who are seeking help/self improvement? You might suggest therapy but most people (including me) can't afford therapy.

All advice offered will be greatly appreciated.


Anonymous said...

They may be shaking their heads and tutting but they know what they are doing. Popular mags live and die by how well they tap into the zeitgeist---its what selling is all about. Its what politics is all about now too, all that emphasis on testing with focus groups before anything goes before the public.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon 9:33, as you might imagine, the answer (if there is one) to the question you ask is the makings of a book--probably several of them, in fact, depending on the realm we're talking about. It may (or may not) interest you to know that my original book proposal for "SHAM" included a 12th chapter, "Where to find real help." My editor and I finally decided against it because we didn't want buyers to think that "SHAM" was, in a sense, a veiled attempt to set myself up as a guru in my own right. (I.e. "Those other guys are all stupid and insincere, but I have all the answers!") And in retrospect, even though I think I could do a better job than most "experts" do of at least pointing people in the right direction, I feel that we made the proper decision in omitting that chapter. No simple, generic program that unfolds as "7 habits" or "10 keys" can possibly be of help to even a small percentage of individual consumers. Having just finished a long piece on happiness for Skeptic that is the cover story of the issue now in the mail to subscribers, I can tell you that the human personality is an incredibly complex, enigmatic thing that still, to this day, has experts in the mental arts scratching their heads in frustration. Psychiatrists and psychologists often work with patients one-on-one for years and yet fail to achieve meaningful breakthroughs.

There is no way that I (or anyone) could offer any kind of all-purpose advice in a few lines on a blog that would have lasting significance to a particular reader. Believe me, I wish that weren't the case; if it were, I'd be able to "do well by doing good," as the saying goes.