In a society obsessed with wellness and finding ourselves, we are led to believe that inner peace and enlightenment are a mere exotic holiday away… but only if you can afford it.
So goes the premise of Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling book, Eat, Pray, Love, where the author chronicles how she broke free from her unhappy life by travelling for a year, hanging out in exotic locations and returning enlightened and complete.
It’s the kind of story that is supposed to empower women and encourage them to take control of their own lives, but somehow overlooks the fact that most just don’t have the financial means to do it, leaving the vast majority of women thinking that they’ll never feel enlightened or have inner peace.
It turns out that Eat, Pray, Love was more of a calculated business decision than a heartfelt journey of self-discovery. Hailed by Oprah as an important and smart way for people to invest in their well-being, Gilbert’s pilgrimage for enlightenment and the subsequent book came under heavy criticism when it was suggested that she funded her mind-altering meander through Italy, India and Bali with a $200 000 advance after she pitched the idea for the book to her publisher. While there is no question that Gilbert benefitted (in more than just financial terms) from her experience, the problem is that this sort of adventure is unattainable to all but the most well-to-do.
Eat, Pray, Love is only one in a growing number of quasi-feminist writings known as ‘priv-lit’, a genre described by Joshuda Sanders and Diana Barnes-Browne in their article Eat, Pray, Spend: Priv-Lit and the New Enlightened American Dream as “literature or media whose expressed goal is one of spiritual, existential, or philosophical enlightenment contingent upon women’s hard work, commitment, and patience, but whose actual barriers to entry are primarily financial.”
Another prime example of this is Under Tuscan Sun, Frances Mayes’ memoir of a post-divorce trip to the Italian countryside where she buys a dilapidated Tuscan villa on a whim and spends the following couple of months fixing it up in the hope that it will change her life.
As with Eat, Pray, Love the idea is great, but far removed from the average woman’s reality. Who can afford to buy a villa on a whim, fix it and then live what seems like a permanent holiday for the next couple of months? Yet this is the kind of thing wellness champions like Oprah encourage – splurging on your well-being regardless of whether you can afford it or not.
Just think of the financial burden that you will have to face upon your return from your enlightenment holiday – that alone will drive most people’s inner-peace right out of them. By the time you’ve paid off your debt, you’ll be in need of another year of self-discovery, trapping you in a convenient cycle of spending and debt.
The main problem with priv-lit, argues Sanders and Barnes-Browne, is that it makes women believe that they are deeply flawed, as opposed to being “essentially worthy”. They say that instead of fantasising about outrageously expensive paths of self-discovery, women should realise that there are more affordable, creative and healthy ways to walk the path to reconnecting with their inner selves. When this happens, priv-lit can be put with in the genre it belongs: fiction.