It's crash dieting rebranded as a juice cleanse that's an "integral part of your wellness journey".
It's a 12-week yoga shred challenge that focuses on making you lean, toned and taut, rather than preparing you for seated meditation (the traditional purpose of yoga asana).
It's a $5000 program that promises to "reveal your inner goddess" and make you happy, sexy, spiritual and confident all in one weekend... because once that goddess is unleashed, every man will want to be with you and every woman will want to be you.
It's a female sexuality course, a yoga training, or a detox program that teaches you how to be female - the "right" kind of female: Sexy, Slim, Successful, and let's not forget the one caveat that makes it all cool: Spiritual.
For years this has bothered me. As a yoga teacher and health professional, I've innately felt that there's something really icky about this kind of marketing, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it. "It's just business, honey," I imagine the creators of these taglines would tell me, "It's the nature of marketing. It's just smoke and mirrors. Take a deep breath and exhale that negativity! Don't get your knickers in a knot."
Clearly, I only felt uncomfortable with this kind of marketing because I was "not ready for success", or deep down I "didn't think I deserved it."
And so, I'd uncomfortably push it to the back of my mind, tell myself I was being silly... and swallow the bile that had involuntarily made its way up into my throat.
feeding on inadequacy...
Suddenly, the reason behind my discomfort became crystal clear. The Sexy Successful Spiritual Woman is a brand. A branch off the FLEB. It's the branch with which I'm most familiar because I've spent the last ten years of my life living and working within the wellness, yoga, fitness and spirituality spheres.
Despite the sexy, spiritual wrapping of inner-goddess-path-to-success workshops, overpriced juice cleanses, body-beautifying yoga challenges and expensive detox retreats, the Sexy Successful Spiritual Woman ideal is yet another marketing tool that feeds off a woman's sense of "You're not good enough."
You're not thin, successful, sexy, or conscious enough. Let me fix that for you.
It's just better disguised than the old Beauty Myth or the Feminine Mystique of years past, in this case by quasi-spiritual, female empowerment disguise-wearing, be-a-goddess/unicorn/mermaid BS. Ironic really, given how disempowering targeting this common vulnerability in women, is. And sad, because it's carried out - not by men - but primarily by both new and experienced business women.
It works on the hypothesis that one of the main things women want is to be better than other women. Thinner. Hotter. Bendier. Richer. More enlightened. More sexually confident. More successful. Not that they'd ever say that aloud.
And like it's big sister, the SSSW ideal is successful because it plays on the insecurities, feelings of inadequacy, disempowerment and overwhelm experienced by the majority of women who are striving for autonomy, financial freedom, more R&R time, and the high levels of "wellbeing" that they see epitomised in a privileged few. They see the sleek, polished business woman who has it all and thinks, "I want her life. And I can have it... if I buy her program." Which invariably costs thousands.
And although there may be payment plans to "accommodate for the poor", they often cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars more than the original product in "administration fees". Payment plans like this capitalise on a person's poverty, which is antithetical to the "love and light for all" catch cry these businesswomen are selling.
The SSSW ideal hinges on the belief that we too can attain the perfect body, unbounded financial success and an aura of sereneness to boot... if we could only think positively, get a yoga / pilates body, and of course, buy whatever it is that's being seductively placed under our noses.
All of this, while ignoring the fact that many of these privileges (i.e. extreme wealth, thinness/leanness, an able-body, heterosexuality, whiteness, youth) are not available to many of us in the first place and can't be attained no matter how much we spend on inner goddess programs, no matter how many power yoga classes we do, and no matter how many good intentions we cosmically send out to third world countries.
WHY IT'S SHIT
It's a fake movement of pretending to be empowering masses of women, when in actual fact these businesses do nothing to further actual social justice issues. Rather, they focus on "improving the individual" by turning her into the ideal woman, without actually lifting up an entire group of marginalised people. Real empowerment elevates both the individual AND the collective.
Far from empowering women, this kind of marketing actually disempowers them by colluding with and perpetuating the oppressive patriarchal institutions that co-opted this bullshit ideal woman diversion in the first place.
As Diel says, "these women are not actually trying to lead or create change. They're trying to build personal empires."
WHY IT'S really SHIT
What irks me is the fundamental mechanism behind this marketing ideal: it underestimates the intelligence and moral substance of women by relying on the fact that most of us have swallowed our social conditioning hook, line, and sinker. The conditioning that teaches us that the most important things in our vapid little lives are to be beautiful, to be sweet, to be successful (but not so successful that we scare the boys), and to be 'spiritual' - which is too often codeword for confident, positive, loving, and never, ever angry.
Whilst many women are still unaware of this conditioning, MANY women are also waking up to it. And they are as pissed about it as I am.
No, that's not it.
As it stands, I'm actually quite privileged: I'm thin, straight, able-bodied, relatively young, have a roof over my head and food on my plate, have never been seriously victimised for my appearance... and I'm half white. (God help me if I were black, homosexual, quadriplegic, fat, and 70... then I'd definitely be jealous and bitter, right?!)
I already have many of the privileges afforded to, and being marketed as being conditionally accessible by, these "successful female entrepreneurs".
No, I'm not jealous. But I am disappointed.
Disappointed that the women I've seen as leaders for so long are deeply entrenched in, actively marketing, and continually perpetuating social ideals that induce shame and lack in women in order to make them buy shit. That they are profiting from our insecurities, rather than trying to eradicate them.
I am angry. Angry that these cultural mandates exist in the first place. But I'm even angrier that these businesswomen, far from working to dismantle them and really empower other women (as they claim to do) by doing some form of social justice or environmental work (e.g. bringing awareness to important collective issues, using their positions to rally for women or other marginalised groups, encouraging us to think deeply about our conditioning and how it hurts us), are actually capitalising on and thus perpetuating toxic social structures and hurtful ideals.
Are they aware of it? Maybe some of them are not - they're just as naive, clumsy, hungry for "success" without being clear on what real service they're actually offering to humanity, lost, and uninformed as many of us - as I was (more about that soon). Perhaps this applies to the budding female entrepreneur who's been told she can have it all if she just uses certain marketing formulae, the words "goddess" "beautiful", "sexy" and "financial freedom", and a few yoga poses or styled photos of "evolved" young women in white gowns thrown in for good measure.
But I'd say many of these businesswomen know exactly what they're doing - particularly those who've been in the game for a long time and have succeeded by using these questionable tactics. They are indeed strategic business tacticians. What they are not are the spiritual, revolutionary, badass leaders they position themselves as.
Finally, I'm sad. Sad because I work in a field where I see just some of the casualties of this tide of wannabe sexy, slim, spiritual women: Chronic health-obsessed dieters who juice cleanse, starve and binge their way to poorer health. Compulsive exercisers who do two yoga and one pilates class, every day of the week, plus Crossfit or 4-5 weekly heavy weights sessions. Women with serious eating disorders - eating disorders that destroy lives and sometimes, kill.
Women who never feel good enough because they don't match the image of the privileged few. Women who've blown year of savings on "life changing" goddess programs or "empowering" female business development courses, only to come out the other end more confused, broke and looking for the next program to save them or finally get their micro-business off the ground.
This is the result of playing on the individual and collective insecurities of women. The reality is that the current patriarchal systems in place have made us desperately in need of rest, nurturing, independence, and autonomy. We want - need - a voice and aspiring to the sexy, successful empowered female ideal is the newest and seemingly best option presented to us. It keeps us obedient, preoccupied, fragmented. It stops us from rising up en mass because we're too busy "working on ourselves first" - because we're not quite good enough yet.
Use of the Sexy, Successful, Spiritual Woman ideal for personal financial gain and empire expansion is more than dishonest. It's predatory, it's harmful, and it's cruel.
My experience trying out the SSSW ideal
At the time I didn't fully understand the shady undertones of the manipulative marketing ploys I was crudely fumbling with. I was just following what all the other big successful female entrepreneurs were doing (even though it felt kinda gross and disingenuous). I read the books they read. I researched the teachers they raved about. And on rare occasion, I purchased the (very expensive) programs they had either used themselves, or created.
Then I'd try to incorporate some of their tactics into my own business. For example, the classic rags-to-riches story that highlights why, "Now, I'm so much better than YOU - don't you wanna be just like me?", rather than just laying out what I know and what I do in a straightforward way that doesn't capitalise on people's insecurities.
I'd start writing e-books and programs that, when I look back on them now, make me want to retch in horror! (Thankfully most of them didn't see the light of day - probably because they just felt wrong.)
The products I was trying to develop were awful - not just because I still partly subscribed to a diet-centric approach and that shit is bananas (today I'm strictly non-diet / HAES). Not just because my editing and quality of writing at the time was pretty abysmal.
For the most part, they were horrible pieces of work because there was barely a smidgen of my real self left inside of them. My authenticity (and morals) had left the building (probably to go hang out in oversized sunnies by the pool of an exclusive Balinese yoga resort, and drink $12 green juices whilst taking mostly-naked handstand selfies and captioning how I'd finaaaaallly discovered my inner goddess and was now AWESOME.... but I digress.)
I'm ashamed to say it, but I was trying to adopt some of the same manipulative marketing tactics many of these hyper-successful businesswomen routinely use. Tactics like: Making out I was perfect.... "but I haven't always been! Once I was just like you!". Leveraging my (then) privileges of youth, thinness, and seemingly vibrant health (I had a borderline eating disorder at the time). Creating a shitty rags-to-riches story. Generating a feeling of lack and inadequacy in potential clients. And creating a complete illusion of who I really was to elevate myself above my target audience in an effort to get them to see me as an expert, rather than letting my credentials, experience, and personal values speak for themselves.
Clearly, this kind of stuff is complete bullshit. It is NOT ok. I was wrong to do it. But I was young(er), naive and desperate to succeed. And interestingly, I was not yet recovered from my own disordered eating... but that didn't stop me from pretending I had it all. Figured. Out.
Thankfully I didn't dabble in this phase for too long (maybe a year, give or take), on account of it all just feeling so gross. I wanted to be "successful" (whatever the fuck that means) - but not at the cost of my ethics. So slowly, surely, I moved away from this bullshit. (Discovering HAES helped.) I took yucky stuff off of my website and replaced it with more authentic content - a standard I continually work hard on maintaining. I stopped teaching and working in a way that elevated me above my clients. I worked hard on recovering from a fucked up relationship with food and my body (sadly, orthorexia is often marketed as "healthy living"). And I'm bloody glad I did.
I also came to some realisations. There was a point when I stopped pretending that it was my dream to own a multinational health corporation, or even a well-oiled machine of a yoga studio combined with a detox retreat centre (eeeeek!). Because that's not actually what I want.
(P.S. it's not everyone's obligation or destiny to build an amaaaazing business doing "what you're passionate about" - another myth perpetuated by the same people who milk the SSSW ideal.)
I've since learnt that even though that glamorous sounding stuff is what I should want (i.e. IT ALL - because we women can have it all, right? Right?!)... what I actually want is far less grandiose, but far more meaningful to me personally.
So what DO I want?
To start with... I want to help people to help themselves rather than be their saviour. I want to form meaningful relationships with my clients, not hierarchical ones. I want to make a difference - not because I want to be famous, but because there's a shitload of work that needs to be done in this world to make it a better place for everyone to be.
More specifically... I want to lift all women up and free them from the shackles of obedient dieting, body torture and self-loathing. I want to educate people on the REAL issues concerning health and weight. I want to fight weight stigma and healthism. I want to let adolescent girls know that they don't have to yield to these ridiculous societal expectations to be worthy.
But I don't have to become a SSSW, or even pretend to be one, to do any of those things. To do so would actually oppose what I'm trying to accomplish.
In fact, I want to stay right the hell away from the SSSW ideal. Because I believe it is destructive to most women who attempt to mould themselves to it. It's obedient at best, and orthorexic - or even fatal - at worst.
gold Amongst the bullshit
But please know that amongst the bullshit, there are some genuine spiritual teachers, wellbeing leaders and business coaches with real wisdom to offer. Businesswomen who don't use manipulative SSSW marketing ploys. But they are few and far between. And they usually aren't the type to buy Instagram followers, or pay for ultra-glamorous professional photos. So how do we spot them? Well, first it helps to know how to spot when the SSSW ideal is being used against you.
11 clues the SSSW ideal is being used against you
- Disproportionately expensive trainings, programs and courses targeted at women.
- Products and services that use a lot of spiritual, female-empowerment, and "beauty" fluff in the sales pitch. How do you know it's fluff? You don't understand it, it sounds glamorously suss, or you show it to a trusted boyfriend / male friend / brother (i.e. someone not burdened by the numerous societal expectations placed on women) and he can see it's bullshit.
- Noticing a feeling of shame and inadequacy as your read or watch the sales pitch, followed by hope and excitement that buying this product or service will finally make you worthy / beautiful / thin / successful.
- Noticing a desire to be like the centre stage woman selling the product or service i.e. she has positioned herself as an aspiration, expert figure, physically or otherwise perfect, etc.
- Noticing a feeling of urgency to buy, often prompted by cues of scarcity e.g. "only a limited number of places; last time being offered; only available until tonight!"
- Loads of too-good-to-be-true testimonials.
- A shitty rags to riches story (I was hopeless / fat / poor, but now I'm great!), and no other real signs of personal vulnerability, imperfection or otherwise from the businesswoman in question.
- Promises to "reveal secrets" only known to beautiful women / successful female entrepreneurs / spiritually advanced goddesses (there are very few secrets left in the world).
- Payment plans for said expensive courses that capitalise on poverty by charging significantly more than if you could afford the lump sum upfront.
- Adopting spiritual concepts and/or a dream language of meritocracy to sell weight loss, body transformation, beauty, promises of financial freedom E.g. "NamasLay the fat away"; "get the body / life you deserve".
- A total focus on improving the individual, with no real sign of focus on any wider social justice / environmental / inequality issues that would elevate an entire group of people rather than just make you rich / beautiful / desirable / whatever.
It's still ok to do a yoga challenge
Maybe if we asked this question and lived by the answers, life would look completely different. Or maybe it would look similar but your motives would change. Maybe you'd no longer do resistance training to get abs, but to be able to wrangle small children without hurting your back.
Maybe you'd do a 12-week yoga challenge with the ability to filter out the appearance- and beauty-centric bullshit and just enjoy some mindful movement for a discounted price.
Maybe you'd cook more meals at home not to trim down and do what your paleo trainer / vegan yoga teacher told you to, but because you're excited to discover new tastes, feel good in your body, and/or save money on takeaway.
Get clear on your values - YOUR values, not those fed to us from people who stand to profit from our insecurities. Know how to identify when the SSSW ideal is being hurled at you, and avoid that shit like the plague. It's time we recognised this savvy but sinister marketing for what it is and stopped getting pulled in by it's shiny sexy spiritual wrapping. You're better than that.