Simone de Beauvoir famously said that one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman. What she meant was that in patriarchal society — which is to say, society — men are seen as the product of nature and women as an expression of culture. Nature is free, naturally, while culture is policed. Seven decades later, the problem remains: Womanhood is a moldy salad of contradictory demands, impossible expectations, arbitrary prohibitions, and way too many rules, which would explain all the detailed instructions. Which would explain all the books.
It feels like every month another famous woman who has children releases a book that marks her transition from performing artist to lifestyle guru. The formula is well-established: a hybrid of cookbook, memoir, and coffee-table book stuffed with recipes and reminiscences, tips and tricks, and spiritual uplift. The celebrity — always a straight woman, always beautiful, and overwhelmingly white — is featured on the cover. Pictured in her luxurious kitchen or sunny garden, foregrounded by cornucopias of health-giving foods, she smiles radiantly or gazes into the middle distance. Inside, artful food photography intermingles with artful family portraiture, blond children, and handsome husbands. A party is always “a gathering,” and it never needs to be fancy. The food is either extremely health-conscious or wildly decadent. Either way, the women are thin and fit. Everyone is blessed.
I have a stack of these books on my desk, in a wide variety of flavors. At the top of the heap is Gwyneth Paltrow’s fifth, The Clean Plate: Eat, Reset, Heal, which offers a guide to six cleanses, complete with recipes, interviews, and many photographs of clean food and a shining Paltrow. Next is Reese Witherspoon’s Whiskey in a Teacup: What Growing Up in the South Taught Me About Life, Love, and Baking Biscuits, in which Witherspoon imparts Southern lady manners and tips. There are two books by former TV stars Tiffani Thiessen (Pull Up a Chair: Recipes from My Family to Yours) and Kristin Cavallari (True Roots: A Mindful Kitchen with More Than 100 Recipes Free of Gluten, Dairy, and Refined Sugar), and two that are less focused on recipes for eating and more on recipes for living, written by TV dancer Jenna Dewan (Gracefully You) and country star Jessie James Decker (My Guide to Love, Life, Family, and Food).
Amazon, meanwhile, keeps suggesting more. How about Magnolia Table: Recipes for Gathering by Joanna Gaines? Or Cravings: Recipes for All the Food You Want to Eat by Chrissy Teigen? Or Pretty Happy: Healthy Ways to Love Your Body or Pretty Fun: Creating and Celebrating a Lifetime of Tradition by Kate Hudson? Lessons: My Path to a Meaningful Life by Gisele Bündchen? I have not read Lessons, and, until recently, I would have guessed the Venn diagram of people searching for meaning and people wanting to buy a book by Gisele Bündchen resembled two side-by-side circles with a thigh gap in between.
But in the past decade, bookshelf space and psychic terrain once occupied by experts — chefs, nutritionists, psychotherapists, spiritual leaders — has been taken over by people whose lack of expertise is a selling point. Nobody with an iPhone, after all, needs a hardbound recipe for chia pudding; expertise, or what passes for it, has become cheap. Meanwhile, what these books really offer — the warm, refracted glow of idealized womanhood — is unattainably expensive. The books sell images of the life women are led to believe they have a moral, civic, and spiritual duty to try to attain, along with the consolation of seeing one’s own frustrations expressed by a lithe, glamorous star with reclaimed wood cabinets. They are a backdrop against which the reader can project herself, a fantasy where she, too, is admired for whipping up unpronounceable breakfasts with hard-to-source ingredients while beaming at someone or something off-camera. The books absorb your deepest longings, the ones you’ve been conditioned to stoke and nurture from birth, and reflect them back to you, lifetuned.
In her book’s intro, Paltrow talks about how life is messy, how we’re all juggling too much, how “there’s just so much that’s outside our control.” In response, she offers a fantasy of complete control. The Clean Plate is part of the “toolbox for optimal wellness” that everyone possesses (right?); it’s a book of “healing cleanses” that anyone (with lots of money and times on their hands) can follow. Some of the recipes it offers are simple, some are a bit recondite and needlessly complex, but they are consistent and, for a certain person, utilitarian.
Reese Witherspoon’s Whiskey in a Teacup — which we learn is how Witherspoon’s grandmother described Southern women — slots squarely into the “hybrid cookbook, memoir, and coffee-table” category. It begins with old family photos, segues into sweet tea and skewers, then veers into decorating tips: “You can get a ton of stuff for the home, cheap, at a good flea market.”
Who is this information for? No sooner has the question formed than we’ve moved on to a chapter called “Hot Rollers, Red Lipstick, and Steel Magnolias.” Here is Witherspoon using hot rollers on her hair. Here she is driving in curlers. There isn’t a plan in this book so much as instructions on how to inhabit an identity rooted in a nostalgic, idealized version of her own, a compendium of tropes that gives one’s existence a context and a history. (Two things, incidentally, that social media has destroyed.) In the epilogue, after more recipes, and detours into Dolly Parton and female friendship, Witherspoon writes, “So let’s all move to the South!”
Tiffani Thiessen’s book, Pull Up a Chair, is a more straightforward cookbook offering “recipes from my family to yours.” This exchange presupposes a cozy familiarity, and Thiessen gamely plays the harried regular mom — she’s not an aesthete, nor an ascetic; she’s just a down-to-earth girl whose dad worked two jobs. If your house is anything like hers, meals (“if you can call them that!”) are often eaten “on the run,” and her husband “has been known to sneak [her] daughter out to McDonald’s so [she] can have a few quiet moments with her toddler son (no judgments please!)” Intermixed with the recipes are beautiful close-ups of food, and beautiful pictures of her husband and kids eating it.
Jenna Dewan, the dancer, has written a book that does not center around food, but on “finding beauty and balance in the everyday.” She finds it by being mystical and edgy, mostly. Inside you can find a guide to crystals, and instructions on how to prepare cinnamon toast. The book is filled with photos of her deep in meditation, or twirling her skirt. She meditates, twirls, meditates, twirls. She writes about a bath she took once in the jungle of Peru. She tips you off to her favorite Agua de Florida, an inexpensive bergamot-based cologne that was introduced in New York in the early 19th century, became popular across Latin America, and was drawn into shamanic culture. (Dewan buys it online.)
Then there’s Jessie James Decker, a country singer, wife, and mother whose “amazing fans” asked her “how she does it all” so frequently that she decided to finally put the question to rest by writing a whole book detailing how. The answer is mostly “be her.” Like Witherspoon’s book, hers includes old photos of herself as a baby, as a kid on the day of her First Communion, as a cheerleader. Her favorite restaurant is Tommy Bahama. Her favorite movie is Forrest Gump. She lists her favorite actresses, her favorite foods, her favorite colors. Just when the experience starts to feel like having a conversation with a kindergartner, she touches on postpartum depression, and how to lose a lot of weight fast, and of course there are recipes. “We are in this together,” she writes. “That is why I wrote this book.”
Kristin Cavallari, by contrast, openly grapples with the existential angst of commodifying one's life inevitably. “Why?” she writes. “That was the question I kept asking myself when I sat down to write this introduction. Why am I writing this cookbook? And what do I want my message to be?” Still, she wrote it. True Roots, subtitled “A Mindful Kitchen with More Than 100 Recipes Free of Gluten, Dairy, and Refined Sugar,” is refreshingly specific and straightforward, and includes an introduction to her personal chef, Michael Kubiesa, who developed the frankly delicious-looking recipes. He came into Kristin’s life to help with meals when she had three little kids. The honesty is appreciated. This is how you get to have baked oatmeal with berry sauce for breakfast and still get your kids to school and yourself to work on time. This is how you live the life depicted in these books.
Celebrities have been engaged as the glamorous, recognizable spokespeople of lifestyle brands and products since the dawn of advertising. Now they're cutting out the middleman. Jane Fonda, a pioneer in this respect, found she could use her celebrity to launch a second career as a fitness guru, which in turn revived the acting career cut prematurely short by systemic Hollywood ageism. Thirty years later, stars like Paltrow or Witherspoon parlayed fame into production companies that segued into multimedia empires that spawned product lines. Lesser lights — the Real Housewives, etc. — quickly understood reality show fame to be a branding opportunity, a chance to turn oneself into a saleable product that spawns saleable products. Fame is just a precondition for fulfilling the market imperative to extend your tentacular brand in every possible direction; these books are a bridge from entertainment to branded spatulas.
Twenty years ago, I was asked to review another genre for women that was suddenly everywhere: girl guides. Books like Swell: A Girl's Guide to the Good Life, The Bad Girl's Guide to Getting What You Want, Three Black Skirts: All You Need to Survive, and The Go-Girl Guide: Surviving Your 20s With Savvy, Soul and Style were cutesy manuals on embodying the platonic ideal of the single girl in the city. They offered advice about how to invest in wardrobe staples, how to throw an impromptu dinner party in a studio apartment, how to get over a breakup, and how to take a bath. Though illustrated in an abstract way, the manuals conjured the image of Carrie Bradshaw. I argued that the girl guide’s roots could be traced to the spinster guides of the Victorian era, which encouraged women who had failed to marry to make themselves useful, preferably by serving others. The modern girl guides assumed that you, like Bridget Jones, were broke, out-of-shape, awash in toxins, and terrified of dying alone in your apartment, half-eaten by your dog. Much of the advice centered on dissimulating — on making this condition look fabulous until a boyfriend came along.
Since then, the sad cloud of Gen X despair that hung over the genre has lifted, and the imaginary “girl” in the book, the stand-in for you, the intended reader, probably no longer needs to be reminded to plan lots of “activities” to keep despair at bay. She already dwells in a social media bubble of algorithm-optimized, shot-on-iPhone aspiration, constantly shopping for the “goals” identity that best reflects her identity. It’s no longer only a prerequisite of modern celebrity for stars to be just like us. We’re expected to be just like them, too. (In our era of direct-to-consumer fame, this feels like an attainable goal.) Celebrity lifestyle books feel less like self-improvement manuals than social media profiles on semi-gloss paper.
At the same time, though, these books feel so antiquated. Reading them, I’m reminded again of the Victorian era, when the rise of market capitalism steered women away from entertainment like poetry and romantic fiction and toward an ethics of continual self-improvement. Those who managed to escape spinsterhood were met with a sudden throng of women’s magazines — from 1880 to 1900, 48 new titles were published — teaching them how to raise their social standing through thrift, domestic management, home economics, cooking, fashion, gardening, and hygiene; instructing them on how to educate their children and please their husbands.
In these magazines, the home was where women were expected to form the family’s class identity through consumption. The more affluent the family, the more servants they employed, the more this work became conflated with leisure. In her book, Consuming Angels: Advertising and Victorian Women, Lori Anne Loeb quotes the 1869 marriage manual Cassell’s Household Guide, which described the household as the place where “the fruits of man’s labor are ultimately enjoyed.” Spending in the name of her family’s health was reified in magazine advertisements from “Absolutely pure” Cadbury’s cocoa to Bile Beans laxative (slogan: “Home, Health and Happiness”).
Women’s magazines and ads went on to be hugely instrumental in defining the emerging middle-class’ self-concept — its tastes and values, which it placed in the hands of women. They combined aesthetics, practical information, and leisure in a way that still dominates women’s media today. And while this kind of content has evolved, it has never strayed far from its roots. But the audience for this content has changed. Women are less likely to marry and have children; when they do, the majority of them continue to work — as well as continue to do more of the housework.
The lifestyle depicted in the pages of celebrity cookbooks and lifestyle guides — the recipes alone — seem impossible for anyone with a job to pull off. The authors of these books are media moguls cosplaying as wives, portraying a way of life so elaborate and time-consuming it would preclude having to work. Sure, celebrity lifestyle books might, like glossy magazines before them, serve as an aspirational template for the middle class. But then, what middle class? Extreme income inequality has put us back in the gilded age, where the manuals originate, leaving very few of us with time for a leisurely pursuit of the domestic arts.
When Gwyneth Paltrow embarks on a six-day Ayurvedic cleanse, does she actually prepare each meal from scratch? A different recipe at every meal for six straight days — recipes that serve only two because, as she points out, the kids will need something else to eat? I don’t know. But I fail to see how it would help someone who’s juggling too much. Just reading the plan for the cleanse — thinking about how I’d swing all the shopping, cooking, and cleaning — completely overwhelms me. The suggestion that I make my own seed cracker from scratch, when they are so easily procured at the store, makes my blood pressure rise ever so slightly. But the dinner entrees look appetizing and deceptively simple, requiring little more than a worldly pantry and a robust CSA share. What if I were that kind of person? There’s always one more pointer to read; the manuals beckon the longing where it wants to go. They make promises they can’t keep. It’s how they keep us coming back.