The self-improvement myth

Many of us are driven towards self-improvement. We are living in an era that fully encourages, endorses, and promotes positive striving towards being a ‘better’ you.

Advice is everywhere. From magazines, to television, books and (of course) social media. Entire accounts, websites and blogs are dedicated to helping us on our self-improvement and wellness journeys. According to the Global Wellness Institute, the wellness market is now three times larger and more profitable than the worldwide pharmaceutical industry. It’s an economy all of its own and it’s definitely not one to be sniffed at.

While the idea of striving for self-improvement is certainly admirable, I think there are many reasons to be wary within the current economy.

Psychological research into the advice and ideas expelled by the most prevalent self-improvement and wellness advocates often finds it to be misleading and even outright wrong.

Steve Salerno, author of Sham: How the Self-help Movement Made America Helpless, and former employee of Manhattan-based publishing giant Rodale, provides insights from market research with the publisher. One of the most telling of which is that the most likely customers of self-help products are the same ones who purchased a similar product within the previous 18 months.

Wellness gurus will argue that this is more to do with the fact that individuals are becoming more committed to their journey of self-improvement, and their purchases are a part of that continued journey.

Whatever your thoughts, the self-help market clearly has a sales pitch that works. It’s an aggressive one, and it has women set firmly in its crosshairs.

But not just any woman. Campaigns specifically target upper to middle class, heterosexual women with the cash to spare. This could be anything from $2000 five-day day silent retreats and Bali “wellness breaks”, $100 a month vitamin subscriptions and $80 wellness cookbooks. This is just at the moderate end of the spectrum.

It only takes a quick google of the words ‘wellness’, ‘marketing’ and ‘women’ to see how intensely the marketing industry has wrapped around their target audience.

There are many examples, but Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop is probably one of the most prevalent in its targeting of a specific female demographic. From detoxes, to cleanses, to ‘vaginal steaming’ (yup, that’s a real thing), Goop has it all for the wellness, lifestyle-conscious female. Packaged and marketed exceptionally well, Goop was able to enter the vitamin market in 2016 with its ‘supplement regimens that address the acute needs of modern women’. Wrapping up wellness and gender very nicely, the vitamins promise to support a whole range of entirely abstract symptoms.

What is not abstract is the $90USD monthly price tag.

As women, we are more financially independent than ever before. Women are taking the lead on being the household ‘breadwinner’ and we have greater economic power, as well as control over how we spend our finances. It is worth noting that alongside the increasing amount of control women have over their income, there has been an equally steady rise in the aggressive marketing of the self-improvement and wellness industry towards us.

Self-improvement is frequently promoted as empowering and about women ‘taking back control’ of their personal growth. Yet, it is still costing us to relinquish some part of the control we have finally managed to grasp hold off: financial control.

The market research led by Rodale publishing also makes key references in their findings that the physical aspects of self-improvement products and services makes up more than a quarter (28%) of the overall wellness industry. This includes mind-body exercise, weight loss, fighting aging and nutrition. For an industry that is about empowering us to love ourselves, it sure does seem overly invested in our physical appearance, and a very particular physical appearance at that. Usually one that is well toned, slim, tanned and minus any cellulite.

With one hand the self-improvement industry attempts to celebrate the decision-making power women now have over their lives, and with the other, it swiftly tells them how they should be using that power, how much they should be spending on it and what they need to look like as the outcome.

Personally, the aspects of the wellness industry that I find most concerning are those that orientate around emotional and psychological wellness, or invite followers to pursue alternative therapies rather than research-based medicine.

Goop steps dangerously close to the mark on this one, with their position on motherhood and post-natal depression. With claims that women’s brains shrink during pregnancy (the reason why you need to subscribe to ‘The Mother Load’ vitamin package) based on one single, dubious study, and a write up by their in-house ‘Medical Medium’ Oscar Serralach, all the way from mystical rural Australia. (Keep in mind that Goop promote primarily to an American market, so the mystical outback of Australia only adds kudos to their brand.) Serralach claims that ‘understanding motherhood as part of the heroine’s journey and discovering self-actualisation through this process’ is at the heart of the female purpose (trans women aren’t a thing at Goop).

Closer to home, I only have to mention Australian blogger, Belle Gibson, as a reminder for how dangerous the wellness industry can be. Although the infamous cancer scammer may have left the media limelight for now, the impact and consequences of her lies are still heavy for many.

To be clear, I am in full support of seeking out ways that help you feel better, create stronger emotional resilience and boost your sense of self and wellbeing. What I cannot support is how, as a woman, I am targeted by scams, nonsense, shim-sham and outright lies in the name of self-improvement and wellness.

Neither can I support an industry that doesn’t allow for our own unique journeys as human beings. Advice across self-improvement often assumes that growth can be compared across people. It can’t – and shouldn’t.

A report from the Journal of Management provides a little more clarity around the need to be cautious when taking on board self-help initiatives. Reeshad, Devasheesh & Fiset (2014) produced a paper titled ‘Within-Person Variability in Job Performance’ that reviewed nearly 25,000 academic articles focused on self-improvement and performance at work. They found that a very small proportion of those studies included what psychologists refer to as within-person variance.

Within-person variance is important, especially when it comes to self-improvement. It allows for the variability of individuals, and describes different ranges including those between individuals’ top average and worst average when it comes to performance across different activities. Within-person variance is too often treated as an error and widely misunderstood or misrepresented across research in this area.

Likewise, self-improvement and wellness advice often makes the same mistake. Many companies and individuals in this industry promote their products and services as being the ‘one method you’ll need,’ promising it works for everyone. They promote that self-improvement outcomes can be compared and blanketed across different people. Especially the financially wealthy women they target.

Photo by Jeff Frenette on Unsplash

Elaine is a Psychology graduate, currently completing her postgraduate diploma in cognitive behavioural coaching and mentoring. She is passionate about writing as a form of highlighting different societal issues. When not hunched over her laptop, you’ll find her drinking way too much coffee and daydreaming about her next travel adventure.

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