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Photo: Etsy – SewLongEmbroidery

LIFE HONESTLY

This is self-help – but as you’ve never seen it before

Gone are the days of condescension, self-flagellation and super-woman. (Well, gone-ish.) The new era is all about eating, dating and wearing what you want

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By Phoebe Hurst on

There’s an episode of Sex And The City that sees Charlotte browsing a bookstore. Recently separated from her dashing but ineffectual husband, Trey, she wanders into the shop’s self-help section. On the shelves are books with front covers in sipid shades of pastel and titles like The Path To Love and Starting Over, Yet Again. In one corner, a woman sobs into a copy of Please Understand Me.

Charlotte lasts about 20 seconds. She drops her book and rushes out, pretending to have been looking for the travel section all along.

The scene might be a cartoonish vision of what went on in Manhattan bookstores in the late 90s (was SATC ever known for its subtlety?), but the sentiment still largely holds true: women’s self-help books are for the heartbroken or perpetually single. Think Bridget Jones navigating her haphazard dating life with Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.

A look at the bestselling personal-improvement books aimed at women from the last three decades would appear to confirm this. From Women Who Love Too Much to I Can Make You Thin and Why Men Love Bitches, they proffer a mix of condescending advice and tough love to action us into becoming better versions of ourselves – usually by losing weight or seducing a man.

While many of these books remain in print (we’ve all got a dog-eared copy of He’s Just Not That Into You lurking on our bookshelf), 2018 has ushered in a new wave of personal-growth books.

Earlier this year, former The Great British Bake Off contestant Ruby Tandoh published Eat Up: Food, Appetite and Eating What You Want, a food-memoir-stroke-treatise on the joy of eating. With honest references to Tandoh’s own struggles with disordered eating (plus lyrical eulogies to Cadbury’s Creme Eggs), the book is about as far as it gets from Skinny Bitch. Then came The Sunday Times dating columnist Dolly Alderton’s Everything I Know About Love, an autobiographical book about, well, love – but, also, the mates who see us through when love doesn’t quite go to plan (something very few heterosexual dating books ever mention, much less celebrate). Plus-size blogger and activist Bethany Rutter also released Plus+, a fashion photo book with “style inspiration for everyone, no matter your size,” which is pretty much the antithesis to the draconian dressing guidelines of What Not To Wear: The Rules.

In the late 20th centuries, self-help was very focused on making everyone strong, confident and assertive. Now, we know that we don’t all need to be the same. Women see and act differently to men, that’s a great thing

The authors of these reimagined self-help books diverge from writers before them in one notable way: they condone eating, wearing and falling in love with whoever or whatever you choose. Could it be that the self-help genre is turning into the self-love genre?

Lisa Milton, executive publisher at HarperCollins imprint HQ, agrees that the tone of self-improvement books has undergone a radical shift in the last few decades.

“In the late 20th centuries, self-help was very focused on making everyone strong, confident and assertive,” she says. “Now, we know that we don’t all need to be the same. Women see and act differently to men, that’s a great thing and we need strong women to help us to understand this.”

Milton points to Catherine Mayer’s Attack of the 50 Ft. Women and the books of mental-health activist Bryony Gordon as examples of recently published non-fiction that celebrates female strength. Recent sales figures suggest that there is a renewed appetite for self-help books, perhaps informed by the rising popularity of these types of titles. The Publishers Association’s 2016 annual report showed that fitness and self-help book sales helped non-fiction sales overall in the UK rise by nine per cent, while sales monitors Nielsen Book found that purchases of books on spiritual growth grew by 13.3 per cent in 2017.

“I don’t have any data to confirm this, but I think more millennial women are reading non-fiction,” says Milton, adding: “Today’s audience know this is our time, our time for women to make a difference. We’ve found our voice and intend to use it.”

Finding your voice is a central to What A Time To Be Alone: The Slumflower's Guide To Why You Are Already Enough. Authored by the 23-year-old blogger and staunch defender of saggy boobs, Chidera Eggerue, the upcoming book promotes being single as a radical path towards self-worth. Rather than examine ways to attract a male partner, the book implores readers to enjoy their own company. “I’m optimistic that this book will encourage readers to spend more time alone because time spent in solitude leads to learning about self,” Eggerue tells me. “So, time spent learning yourself is never time wasted, no matter what it looks like.”

While Eggerue celebrates solitude, other newly published self-help authors explore the healing that can come from female friendship. Vlogger Lily Pebbles’ The F Word: A Personal Exploration of Modern Female Friendship was published by Hodder & Stoughton last month. “We grew up with Mean Girls as an example of how bitchy and competitive female friendships can be,” Pebbles says. “But there were very few celebrations of it and so I set out to bring the incredible depth of those friendships to the forefront.”

The self-help book of 2018 doesn’t just delve into our wellbeing and relationship issues – it has our careers covered too. Later this year, The Pool senior writer Yomi Adegoke and brand marketer Elizabeth Uviebinené publish Slay In Your Lane: The Black Girl Bible, a career and development guide for young black women.

“In 2015, while I was reading a few books around personal development and self-help, I spotted that black British women weren't widely represented,” says Uviebinené. “Something needed to be done to broaden the conversation in this category to include our voices.”

Slay In Your Lane includes interviews with over 30 high-achieving black women, such as Vogue publishing director Vanessa Kingori, skincare entrepreneur Clare Eluka and June Sarpong, as well as anecdotes from Uviebinené and Adegoke’s own lives. It’s an inspiring read, but Adegoke is hesitant to categorise the book as part of the self-help genre.  

“We hope this book not only emboldens our readers, but makes life a great deal easier for them,” she explains. “We were wary of the ‘self-help’ label because when it comes to racism and sexism, the issues are endemic. I say in the book, ‘You can't slay your way out of systematic and institutional racism,’ but you can navigate the world better with an understanding of the existing barriers and come equipped with the knowledge on how to tackle them.”

Self-help as a genre may not be perfect yet, but it is evolving. And when the Charlottes of today “accidentally” stumble into the self-help section of Waterstones, they’ll have a far more uplifting range of titles to choose from.

@phoebejanehurst

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