Father Guido Sarducci, a recurring character on “Saturday Night Live” in the 1970s, once said the Twelfth Commandment is to “whistle while you work.”
“You probably thought this was from Disney, you know,” he quipped. But Disney “stole it from God.”
The joke, of course, is that God wouldn’t dish out self-help advice like that, or like Sarducci’s Eleventh Commandment: Wait a half-hour after eating before you swim.
We may not expect life hacks from a higher power, but we sure love them when other people present them to us as if divinely inspired. This explains the overnight success of Rachel Hollis, the entrepreneur, motivational speaker, and bestselling author of Girl, Wash Your Face.
Since it came out in February 2018, the memoir and self-help guide has sold 2.3 million copies and lingered as a religion bestseller as recently as this January. Hollis has spent the days since its publication speaking at events, hosting a podcast, and interacting with her 1.1 million Instagram followers. This week, she released Girl, Stop Apologizing: A Shame-Free Plan for Embracing and Achieving Your Goals.
Hollis’ books, which have resonated with white suburban moms across America, read like a “Father Guido Sarducci Guide to Life.” They contain conventional self-help nuggets — “When your light shines brighter, others won’t be harmed by the glare; they’ll be encouraged to become a more luminescent version of themselves” — with a little God thrown in: “God bless our youth.”
Fans of Hollis’ work say her books have helped inspire them to achieve their goals. Detractors say they gloss over the harsh realities of life, not to mention the active role God should play in it for Christian readers.
Entertainment Weekly called Girl, Wash Your Face one of the worst books of the year: It’s “a self-help book that serves only to make readers feel even worse about themselves than they did when they started, thanks to troubling missives about dieting and a boatload of white privilege.”
Girl, Stop Apologizing appears equally naive, and its thesis seems to go something like this: Believe in yourself, and block out the haters. It would make a good Thirteenth Commandment.
The book is also full of apparent plagiarism. Readers have accused Hollis of repeating, without attribution, other people’s ideas, as well as taking other people’s quotes and posting them as her own on Instagram. The most charitable way to look at it is that if your ideas are cliche enough, then of course you’re going to be copying someone else, even without trying.
The “one important truth” of Girl, Wash Your Face, Hollis writes in the introduction, is: “You, and only you, are ultimately responsible for who you become and how happy you are.” That’s also the most important problem with Hollis’ work. The statement is an oversimplification, first of all. Happiness can be a choice, but some life circumstances make it harder to choose.
But more importantly, it’s misleading. If you follow Hollis’ advice, if you can just be yourself enough to reach your dreams, then “you can become whomever and whatever you want to be.” The reader may see this and feel newly empowered to achieve her goals, but she will not be challenged to examine why she set them in the first place.
Of course, we all want to be happy. But happiness isn’t just a contented state of mind; it’s an activity that results from virtuous action, as Aristotle might have said, and Christian teaching would tend to confirm that idea. Virtue is a concept you’ll find little of in Hollis’ books, surprising for a supposedly religious author.
Even so, Hollis will continue to find success as a pseudo prosperity-gospel apologist, despite her misleading narratives. It worked for Joel Osteen. Why not a mommy blogger?
If you look past the lipstick-framed smile and the “you go, girl” vibes, Hollis’ brand is Hallmark card quotes stacked between Bible verses. She’s either a religious speaker whose motivational pitches rest on spiritual wisdom, or she’s a secular expert who offers insight from psychology. But Hollis can’t pick a side, because the truth is she doesn’t belong on either one.