Taking Time to Take Care of Yourself? E! Thinks You’re Self-Indulgent

One of my deep down dirty shameful secrets (besides the ever-colorful live-action Penthouse Forum that has been my dream life here lately, but that’s an entirely separate blog post) is that I crave celebrity gossip. I could defend this embarrassing addiction on the grounds that I’m really being ironic in my perusal of the paparazzi-provided snaps and accompanying blurbs but, really, why bother? I just dig reading about those crazy stars and their crazy, crazy ways.

But every so often something snaps me out of my glazed-over high while I’m devouring the scandalous details of Robsten or, y’know, whoever — something that reminds me it’s actually the real world in which I live, and that world bears absolutely zero resemblance to the one in which movie stars move and gossip rags and sites blab about said movements. (Heh. I said “movements.” Yes, I’m an 8-year-old boy, apparently.)

One such virtual two-by-four upside the head just slapped me silly. It was on the E! Online website, in the infuriatingly-titled piece “Is Julia Roberts the New Kristen Stewart?“:

Box office prestidigitators fully expect Eat Pray Love to dominate theaters this weekend, or, at the very least, contend for the top one or two spots. They largely credit the source material—Elizabeth Gilbert’s wildly successful and profoundly self-indulgent memoir by the same name.

(emphasis revised by Annie.)

Now, to understand fully the depth of my rage at the bolded accusation, you must know something about the book being referenced. In case you’ve been spending copious amounts of time underground lately, you’ll probably be aware that there is a book called Eat, Pray, Love; that it’s by Elizabeth Gilbert, a wonderful writer who (among many other things) wrote the terrific first-person nonfiction narrative which ultimately turned into the not-so-terrific movie Coyote Ugly; that it’s a memoir (i.e., it’s nonfiction and recounts the author’s personal experiences); that the focus of the book is on the year-long period in which Gilbert, recovering from a messy divorce and even messier love affair, traveled in turn to Italy, India, and Bali, in search of some self-awareness and ultimately peace.

What you might not know:

  • Gilbert arranged the trip and financed it through an advance from her publisher; the goal all along was to write the book about her experiences, and in this vein, the trip was both the experience itself and the research for the book about the experience. (Nonfiction authors, by the way, do this routinely. Unlike selling a novel, say, where the book gets written first, the nonfiction author will basically presell the book on the basis of a proposal; the publisher buys it and gives the author an advance against royalties; the author goes off and writes the book. That’s just the way it rolls.)
  • During her time in each country, she focused her attention on her relationship with food  and her body (Italy – “Eat”), herself and her spirituality (India – “Pray”), and others (Bali – “Love”).
  • Oprah loved her so much she had her on the show twice.
  • The book was then adapted into a movie starring Julia Roberts and Javier Bardem.

Then, in the midst of all this public adoration — Oprah! The New York Times bestseller list! A movie deal and Julia Roberts playing the author! — comes the perhaps-inevitable backlash. It became chic and de rigeur to mock Gilbert, to chastise her and her book, to rail against the audacity of a woman like Gilbert (whatever that means) advocating taking a year off and traveling all over the world to “find yourself” – as if real women (whatever that means) anywhere could afford to do such a thing.

It seemed to me that the backlash became ugly when it started focusing on her gender. That gender bias was expressed in comments on book-review sites across the web such as these gems:

  • It borders absurd that this story could be glorified to the degree of being considered a personal “triumph.” I would love to see how her story would have turned out minus the huge bank account that allowed her to take the vacation of her life. There is no depth of soul here…she had nothing to overcome and only herself to think about and all the money in the world to do it.
  • I found it hard to relate to a woman and her struggles when she is so fortunate to be able to travel and live freely for a year with the money she got from her book deal!!
  • I didn’t enjoy the book at all due to EG’s self-indulgence. In fact, I found several, “book chucking” moments where I almost threw the book across the room. . . . I honestly think the reason this book is so popular is shear vicariousness. Who wouldn’t want to spend an all-expense paid year of eating, self-reflecting, and falling in love?
  • WHY? I cringe to think why so many women want to feel that this was a true spiritual journey. It was a pre-paid journey.
  • It took me nearly a year to finish it. I was so disgusted by the writer’s apparent lack of awareness of her own privilege, her trite observations, and the unbelievably shallow way in which she represents a journey initiated by grief, that I initially couldn’t bear to read beyond Italy.
  • Liz decides to undertake a “spiritual journey” as well as a geographical one, all the while planning and being paid to write this book about it. She’d been able to take this journey of hers because of the advance she’d acquired in preparation for this book. Sound fishy already?
  • Lastly, it’s very disheartening that a book ostensibly about a spiritual journey to the self begins with details about her Manhattan real estate holdings and ends with… her landing herself a man. Well, congratulations on all fronts. How spiritually evolved.
  • I just kept thinking wahhhhhh the whole time. Poor woman wants out of her marriage so she leaves…. wahhhh. Poor woman is depressed so she whines wahhhhh. Life is so unfair for the poor woman wahhhh.
What’s perfectly horrifying to me: some of those comments were (putatively) made by other women.

So, never mind that almost all traditionally-published nonfiction books started out the same way. Never mind that this is Gilbert’s JOB. Never mind that her prose is masterful, or that she’s repeatedly protested that EPL is NOT some recipe she’s advocating for enlightenment, to be applied across the board, step by step, by any and every woman on earth — that, in fact, she’s repeatedly made it clear she’s only telling her story, and to the extent she’s advocating anything, it’s solely for women to give themselves the time and space they need to become self-aware, whatever that means for them individually.

No, never mind all that. Gilbert is to be vilified and excoriated personally because … she didn’t spend her year working in an orphanage in Mumbai? I don’t know. I confess I don’t quite understand it all myself.

Which brings me full circle to E!’s snarky dig: “profoundly self-indulgent.” Not just “self-indulgent” mind you but it’s profoundly so. Why? Because Gilbert, a female writer, had the audacity to come up with a creative way to give herself some much-needed personal time and then (the gall of her!) shared it with other uppity women? Because she actually focused on herself instead of others for a period of time? (Quelle horreur.) Because she got paid for doing her job?

What does any of this have to do with chronic pain? Plenty. Chronic pain turns your life upside down and inside out, to the point it resembles nothing like your life B.P. (before pain). It takes a profound amount of time, energy, and attention to even get diagnosed properly.  Then you have to come up with a suitable treatment plan, and then actually follow said plan. It’s exhausting, and it requires the reallocation of personal resources (i.e., time, energy, attention). Spend more time taking care of yourself  = spend less time taking care of others. It’s just simple math.

And it’s apparently an equation with which some women are still, after all these years, highly uncomfortable, to the point that they excoriate other women for doing just that.

Yet, here’s the thing: self-attention does not equal self-absorption or self-indulgence. It simply means attention to self.  That’s it. When it’s approached with open-mindedness, humor, and just the right amount of irreverent playfulness, as it is in Gilbert’s writings, attention paid to self (whether it’s your physical life, your spiritual essence, or your inner monologue) can be a profound act of grace both given and received.

To those women who think I’m self-indulgent for taking care of myself, then, I can only say: Eat (Pray Love) me.

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