Gender stereotypes, once a hallmark of self-help titles, have largely given way to self-deprecating humor and tough love—a course correction that coincides with the genre’s expanded reach and sales. But for the politically plugged-in, troubling blind spots remain.
“A lot of self-help has not necessarily been helpful,” says Jolenta Greenberg, who read and followed the rules of 50 self-help books in an experiment she chronicles with Kristen Meinzer in the forthcoming How to Be Fine (Morrow, Mar. 2020). “It teaches people hacks or ways to survive and feel good about yourself within social structures that may be inherently sexist or unfair.” (For our q&a with Greenberg and Meinzer, see “Self-Help Test Kitchen.”)
Forthcoming self-help titles push back against the commercialization of the quest for well-being, encapsulate concerns for the greater good, and assure those feeling burned-out by the demands and complexity of modern life that it’s okay—even necessary—to relax and make time for small indulgences. The authors of these books are reclaiming the concept of “self-care” from its current goopy connotations and hearkening back to Audre Lorde, the self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” who is believed to have coined the term when she wrote in 1988’s A Burst of Light that the very act of caring for her body was an act of resistance.
Guides on topics as varied as fashion, meditation, and racial privilege seek to rouse their readers, encouraging them to examine their beliefs and change their behaviors for the better. That, says Todd Stocke, senior v-p and editorial director of Sourcebooks, “is the essence of the self-help category.”
Me and White Supremacy (Sourcebooks, Feb. 2020) has its roots in an Instagram hashtag that black feminist writer and speaker Layla F. Saad started in 2018, which challenged people to post how they were complicit in upholding white supremacy. The accompanying self-published workbook was downloaded 90,000 times and has been expanded with broader context into the forthcoming book, which, Stocke says, “invites self-examination so the reader can look closely at their beliefs, deconstruct the harmful ones, and rebuild their beliefs and behaviors in a way that helps them be more aligned with their values and the person they want to be.”
In Dress Your Best Life (Little, Brown Spark, Apr. 2020), Dawnn Karen, an instructor at FIT and a self-described fashion psychologist, draws connections between mood and wardrobe while remaining alert to cultural sensitivities and norms. “Style lives at the intersection of race, religion, nationality, age, body image and pop culture,” she writes, defining woke vis-a-vis fashion as intentionally choosing items that reflect certain values—for instance, avoiding the waste generated by fast fashion, supporting a designer from a specific community, or being conscious of the injury caused by cultural appropriation.
Jennifer Brown, executive editor at Sounds True, saw parallels to the Buddha’s awakening when she encountered the term woke in Justin Michael Williams’s forthcoming meditation primer, Stay Woke (Feb. 2020). Like other self-care proponents who are seeking to democratize their rituals, Williams offers a vision of a more inclusive meditation practice, by first acknowledging the myriad struggles—sexism, depression, poverty, toxic masculinity—people may face. He calls the practice “freedom meditation,” and it’s indicative of an attitude that Brown believes will spark more self-help books targeting those who feel ignored by the establishment. “People have been creating their own resources for years; that’s not new,” she says. “But now, more publishers are intentionally serving the needs of marginalized populations.”
Even amid the creeping sense of precariousness that plagues many who came of age after 9/11 and started their careers during a recession, says Emma Brodie, senior editor at Morrow Gift, it’s possible, and not necessarily frivolous, to enjoy life. “By taking care of yourself while existing outside of capitalism and patriarchal demands, you are actually resisting, even if you aren’t outside holding a sign,” she notes. “Self-care doesn’t let people off the hook, but it allows them to view conscious acts of relaxation as part of their resistance cycle.”
In the gently satirical $9 Therapy (Morrow Gift, Feb. 2020), self-described lifestyle gurus Nick Greene and Megan Reid say that even though late-stage capitalism may keep many of their peers from attaining outward signs of adulthood success—a 401(k), a house, West Elm furniture—that doesn’t mean life can’t be “a little bit less stressful, a little bit better, a little more loving.” Their ideas include DIY projects to make bare-bones IKEA furniture seem chic and tips for cooking Instagram-worthy dinners on the cheap.
Tongue-in-cheek humor notwithstanding, the book ends on a serious note. None of the fun, mood-boosting activities is a substitute for therapy, they write, and despite the issues of access and race- and gender-based biases affecting therapeutic options, it’s critical to consult a professional if needed: “In a world that’s much more messed up than any of our brains, there are more ways than ever to get help.”
In The More or Less Definitive Guide to Self-Care (The Experiment, Oct.), Anna Borges, senior editor at Self, offers an A-to-Z compendium of assistance—astrology, coloring books, support groups, and more. “She also takes time,” PW’s review said, “to explain the recent history of the term self-care, its limits as a cure, and the potential for self-care to be used as an excuse for furthering consumerism.”
Borges eschews boutique fitness classes and pricey rose quartz water bottles in favor of free mood-boosting activities and attitude-changing precepts, but she doesn’t oversell their promise. “Self-care has its purpose and can be life-changing for many,” she writes, “but in advocating for it, we can’t forget that the onus to protect our mental health isn’t only on self-care—it’s on the system that makes practicing self-care necessary in the first place.”
At its most basic level, self-care is practiced by all living creatures as a means of survival, Rani Shah writes in Wisdom from a Humble Jellyfish (Dey Street, May 2020). But modern stressors, she continues, have distanced many people from the natural rhythms of their bodies. As an antidote, Shah leads readers on a tour through the natural world, seeking inspiration from dragonflies, sunflowers, and yes, the humble jellyfish, which, she points out, is only propelled after contracting its body and then surrendering to the ocean currents. Likewise, moments of rest are critical to the functioning of the human brain.
Those who need help surrendering can turn to Finding Your Higher Self by Sophie Saint Thomas, a cannabis self-care guide that Adams Media is releasing in December. Adams editor-in-chief Brendan O’Neill says that after market research showed more people talking openly about adding marijuana and CBD oil to their self-care routines, the publisher approached Thomas, who writes about sex, drugs, and the occult for a variety of publications, about doing a book. Yoga and meditation are among the hundred or so activities Saint Thomas suggests enhancing with CBD or THC; she also recommends adding CBD oil to a face mask or drawing a cannabis bath.
Attorney and activist Melody Moezzi turned to a different form of self-medication—poetry—after suffering a manic episode, a process she recounts in The Rumi Prescription (TarcherPerigee, Mar. 2020). Moezzi, an Iranian-American who has written on such topics as being bipolar and the bigotry Muslims faced after 9/11, here describes her descent into what she calls “madness” as unwittingly stumbling into “the land of mystics.”
After her hospitalization, Moezzi and her father, who had recited Sufi verses to her when she was a child and again while she was in the hospital, together translated the work of 13th-century poet Rumi into English. She found particular inspiration in his notion of “the Beloved” which, she believes, anyone can tap in a time of need. “The Beloved is not a passion we ought to pursue,” she writes, “but a sacred inheritance that lives within each of us, that connects us, and that—if we let it—wakes us up.”
Jasmina Kelemen is a former breaking news editor who lives in Houston and writes about books, food, and travel.
Below, more on the subject of health books.
Self-Help Test Kitchen: PW talks with Jolenta Greenberg and Kristen Meinzer
In ‘How to Be Fine,’ the podcasters share lessoned learned from 50 self-help guides.
International Aid: Self-Help Books 2019–2020
These books disclose the secrets to happiness, resilience, and success found in traditions from Great Britain, Japan, Korea, and elsewhere.
F-Bomb Squad: Self-Help Books 2019–2020
New and veteran voices offer NSFW advice.
Social Anxiety: Self-Help Books 2019–2020
Readers can take control of their social media practices, new books say, and find creative ways to enjoy more time offline.