Late last year I went through a particularly tough time. Confidence-wise. Motivation-wise. Just about anything-wise. And so, one day, whilst hurriedly doing my last-minute Christmas shopping, the bold words You Are A Badass caught my attention from all the way across the store. These beckoning words came from a bright yellow book, with the words “You Are A Badass: How To Stop Doubting Your Greatness And Start Living An Awesome Life” shining from the cover. Apparently, this book is a New York Times bestseller.
I thought it might just be the kind of book I needed in my life. I even tweeted the author, Jen Sincero, a picture of me reading her book in a bubble bath. Who wouldn’t be excited about trying this ‘Badass’ thing out?
— Rachel Sarah (@aveganmess) 1 January 2017
Jen liked my tweet. Which is now awkward, because I was sorely disappointed.
On finishing the book, I was confused by the persistent mixed messages, and I felt pure anger at the lack of acknowledgement of the author’s privilege and the negative attitude she apparently harboured towards ‘fatness’ and mental health issues.
This problematic content has likely alienated a whole variety of audiences. Those who are least likely to find offence in this text are, in the words of Chloe King “middle or upper class young white women” who “seem to be the demographic of the radical self-love movement”. I am, myself, part of this privileged demographic and may have very well missed many of the issues with this text were it not for my own body issues, experiences with depression, and exploration of my own privilege.
Sincero’s relationship with the word ‘fat’
Fatness is referenced several times throughout the book, and the vibe isn’t exactly awash with positivity. Instead, the book literally puts the word alongside ‘unsexy’. This doesn’t feel very feminist nor body positive to me.
Though Sincero acknowledges that judging people by their size is one of many wrong indoctrinations we learn from society, the book then carries on to commit fatphobic microaggressions. One of many hypocrisies in this book is that — and it feels like Sincero is trying to squeeze every positive message ever into these 300 pages — you must forgive everybody but also throw problematic people out of your life. Also, size doesn’t matter but if you’re fat you’re also unsexy.
When giving examples of ways people damage their lives, Sincero often uses eating and weight as examples: “eating that fourth doughnut” is problematic behaviour, and if you “can’t stop shoving food in your face” you should be ashamed. It’s aspirational to have a goal like “I just wanna see if I can lose 100 pounds” and at one point Sincero straight out says “If you’re always overweight, maybe your problem is ‘I have no self-discipline’”.
As somebody who has struggled with body issues my whole life, I was full of rage. I’ve spent my early twenties trying to rid myself of the negativity associated with my own weight gain. Sincero herself may be harbouring some internal weight issues from her past, but I’m not in a place to make assumptions nor make excuses for the blatant fatphobia in this book.
What effect does this fatphobic language have?
By treating fatness the way Sincero does, she has essentially made it synonymous with being unsuccessful, unintelligent, and unambitious in life — holding up the already solid patriarchal and oppressive constructions of beauty and ‘health’. These structures convince us that to be happy we must be thin, we must be lithe, we must be fit in with the Instagram-clean eating aesthetic. If we stray from this ideal, we are unmotivated slobs.
Think about the people who will be reading this book. They are, likely, already feeling insecure, and desperate for a life change. They are picking up this book hoping for some confidence. If you’re a fat person confident in your body, these lines might make you angry and unreceptive to any other message in the book. And worse, if you’re fat and insecure about your body, this book only shames and could bring you down even further. As best put by the National Post:
People who feel stigmatized or shamed about their weight are more likely to suffer depression, low self-esteem, anxiety, poor body image and thoughts of suicide
Tough love and mental health
The world has opened up about mental health these past years, with the still-strong stigmas being broken down by the sharing of experiences, new studies, and the awareness that the way we feel can sometimes be out of our comfortable control and that’s okay.
Our author does reference a guy and his amazing journey overcoming his depression. Unfortunately, it’s almost as if, after doing this, Sincero felt she then had a free pass to disregard the motivational struggles people have due to their mental health. Of course, she isn’t trained in this field and shouldn’t be giving potentially detrimental advice to readers struggling with mental health issues. But it would have been wonderful to see Sincero referencing other books and inspirational people that would perhaps help. These references could have provided her readers the means to begin getting themselves out of their “cosy” beds and stop drinking beer at breakfast.
This excerpt above offended me so much I was spluttering, poking my best friend and saying “Can you believe she has written this?!” The way Sincero treats the issue of depression here is troubling and offensive on several fronts.
First, it paints depression as a disease with perks. She literally says they are “rewards” elsewhere in the text. It romanticises the lying in bed; the dependence on others. It’s a good thing! We with mental health issues can spend all day chilling out and getting sympathy from people! So, although we feel sad, we’re still getting these lovely little perks.
Second, it paints depression as something you can just… get out of. Easily. With a positive attitude and a spring in your step. She literally tells those who feel like they are spiralling to… not. I mean. Thanks, Jen, next time I begin to spiral I will just “learn three jokes” and try a different routine.
And third, it ignores those with depression, and other mental health issues, who don’t have access to any of these “comforts”. The text forgets about the privilege of even being able to lie in bed or have somebody take care of us. This is a prize example of how this book alienates readers and the lack of privilege acknowledgement from Sincero throughout.
Reader alienation and privilege
Not everybody has a community of family or friends to pick us up when we hit rock bottom. Some people don’t have a choice in functioning, so damaging their health because if they don’t get out of bed, rent isn’t paid. Some people don’t even have a bed because of their circumstances and health.
This book seemed like some cute advice from a conventionally attractive, privileged white woman, aimed towards me, also a privileged white woman. And though the book touches on difference in privilege, it generally washes over them, giving examples of successful people who’d risen from their circumstances. I cringed quite a lot when reading the part about “poor, blind, black Ray Charles” being her inspiration. “Because if HE can do it. So can SHE. So can YOU!” I want to send Sincero the My disability is not your inspiration TED Talk by Stella Young to see if she understands just how offensive she is being.
Yes, I am a badass. But it wasn’t Sincero who reminded me of that.
I was excited to read this book. I enjoyed parts, and felt twinges of “Ah, I may revaluate this aspect of my life”. I can see how parts of this book could be useful to somebody who hadn’t explored the concepts of daily positivity and self-care before, and there were some parts that resonated with me, such as the section on analysing our relationship and attitudes to money.
This book could certainly could be a catalyst for positive change for the conventionally attractive, middle class, white, cis women target group, and perhaps some outside of that group. Yet, I was unable to feel a sense of awe and positive excitement as I noticed the micro (and decidedly not micro) aggressions towards fat people and those with mental health issues. I generally just saw some confusing hypocrisy, and line after line of, basically ‘Just Do It’ and ‘Love Yourself’.