In America alone self-help is at least an eleven billion dollar industry. You read that right billions with a b. On top of that Americans spend over 200 billion dollars on mental health, these numbers are more than every other country in the world combined. Self-help of course can be needed and mental health problems are often very real but I suspect the extreme disparity between the United Stated and the world is a symptom of a greater issue. Americans care a whole lot about ourselves, more so than any people group that has ever lived. The strange thing though is the American obsession with self comes in many forms; some Americans give their whole life to the support of more other Americans give their lives to be more themselves. The strange truth of America is we can be simultaneously one of the most unhealthy countries in the world while also leading the world in gym membership and diet spending. The only reason we are not a walking contradiction is seemingly every one of these paths is an inward focused one. We live for our selves, talk a whole lot about ourselves, and frankly our greatest national idol is ourselves. A product of this strange American naval gazing is the popular new book Girl, Wash Your Face by Rachel Hollis. Despite having some clear strengths, Hollis’ new bestseller is nothing if it’s not self focused.
Girl, Wash Your Face has received some HARSH criticism and EMPHATIC praise already. Several reputable Christian ministries have issued sharp rebukes of Hollis’ words while audiences are absolutely raving about the new book on sites like Amazon and Good Reads. The buzz around this book is not surprising as the book is the rare Christian book to top the New York Times bestseller list and months after it came out it is still incredibly hard to find (it took me a week and who lot of luck to get the print edition) and as of this article being written the various formats rank #1, #2, and #4 on Amazon’s Christian bestsellers list. In a post literature world somehow Girl, Wash Your Face is the biggest Christian breakout hit in many many years.
There is some debate as to whether or not we can call Girl, Wash Your Face a religious book or not. I want to navigate this in the beginning because it’s important. GWYF is under a Christian publishing company, is marketed strongly to the “Christian market”, and Hollis quite frequently talked about her faith even if she has an awareness non-Christians will read her book. We must call this an attempt at a Christian book and that’s why Christian leaders must take it seriously. I disagreed profoundly with the worldview of the family film Trolls but as it makes no claim of being Christian I’m merely mildly annoyed with it. If Trolls was sold at Family Christian Bookstores I would oppose it and if GWYF were any ordinary secular self-help book I would still have disagreements with it but I would probably ignore it.
Before addressing the considerable problems of Rachel Hollis’ worldview I want to acknowledge both strengths in Girl, Wash Your Face and discount some unfair criticism. A friend of mine stopped reading GWYF half way in and she really missed out. The third quarter of GWYF really surprised me. A few consecutive chapters have little objectable claims in them and Hollis’ chapters on weight loss and alcohol consumption are really helpful. Hollis urges dietary and alcohol moderation with both thoughtfulness and needed boldness. Hollis wants women and probably men to have healthier lifestyles not so they can look amazing but so they can have wellness and energy. In urging this Hollis is practical and stays away from dietary old wives tales so popular in her genre. Some of the criticism of GWYF is misguided as well. Some quote an early chapter to suggest Hollis believes you can trust the obese. This claim looks really concerning especially when paired with a particular sentence from GWYF. Sadly those critiques have substantially ignored the context and Hollis could not be accurately labeled a “fat shamer.” The other critique that I think goes to far is the claim that GWTF advocates Religious Pluralism or the view that all ways to God are equally valid. Hollis probably does believe the similar heresy of Universalism that says all will come to Christ through Jesus whether they worship Him now or not. This said Hollis knows her intended audience in GWYF and seems to only dance close with universalism rather than clearly teach it.
While not every criticism of GWYF sticks, the problems in this book are significant and nearly omnipresent throughout the book. This book somehow even more than most self-helps works is extraordinarily self-focused at times even verging on narcissism. Hollis does indeed write that women need to understand themselves as the hero of their story, which is problematic. The bigger problem isn’t this famous quote but that she repeats the premise over and over and over again and she makes it crystal clear in both the dangerous introduction and the final chapter that this putting yourself first is the fundamental premise of this book. Some claim that when Hollis says “you are meant to be the hero of your own story” or when she constantly repeats “you control your own life” she is just rejecting passivity but before the first quote she clearly alludes to the classic humanist poem Invictus. Hollis believes every woman needs to build her life around herself, she needs to be her own hero as her final chapter says over and over again. This is so clearly at odds with scripture that identifies Jesus as the hero of our story (John 3:17), God as our refuge and strength (Psalm 46:1-3), and our purpose being to glorify God (Is 43:7). To be clear, Hollis does eventually in the absolute final chapter acknowledge she needs God on her side to fulfill her great story but even in this God is presented as a tool to help Rachel accomplish her goals not the sovereign Lord of the universe. In this Hollis actually is reminiscent of the Revivalist Charles Finney who stressed moral formation and right living with God merely as the one who helps us pick ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Hollis actually refers to the old adage about God only helping those who help themselves without realizing this is fundamentally at odds with the Jesus who came not for the healthy but the sick. Rachel Hollis sees herself as her own God with “the creator” at best being the wind beneath her wings. All of this self-power focus is bad but what makes it worse is Hollis gives anything but the indication that this self care is for God’s glory, she’s far worse than Finney. Hollis gives specific examples of the dreams she has and is controlling her life to achieve. In the past she aspired to meet Matt Damon and to purchase a $1000 purse (both of which she achieves). The purse example is especially troubling as she portrays her multiple year obsession with the status symbol as a really good thing because it urged her to work harder and do great things. This is text book envy (which is against the 10 commandments for goodness sake). On top of that Peter commands women to be modest by not having gaudy garments in 1 Peter. If that purse is modest I don’t know what isn’t. This selfish envy that looks for treasures in this world didn’t stop in the past. Now Rachel is inspired by her dream of having a high end Hawaiian beach house where she will be serenaded by her favorite celebrities. Matthew 6:19-20 shows us Rachel is looking for treasure in the wrong world (vain treasure at that) and if her treasures are on this earth so will her heart be.
Hollis’ self first worldview is able to be achieved because she doesn’t see humanity as fundamentally broken or in need of grace. Her view of self (her Gospel) is, “I studied the gospel and finally grasped the divine knowledge that I am loved and worthy and enough as I am.” Rachel doesn’t believe she is enough in Jesus but that she is worthy to God of great things in her born fallen state. This explains why Hollis over and over states the main tenant of Christianity is loving people rather than the divine truth of salvation in Jesus. Hollis’s “Christianity” is about being a good person not realizing none of us are good enough but Jesus gives grace (Romans 3:23, 6:23).
Even that goodness of Hollis’ religion is only goodness to self. An example of this is her words about parenting. Hollis is clearly a mom who works hard in every sense. She obviously works outside of the home but she makes clear if a woman prefer to stay at home with her babies that’s great for them. I have no problem with moms working outside the home but Hollis’ reasons for mothers choosing to work or stay at home are actually both deeply selfish and reflective of this me first mentality. Hollis is very clear she works outside of the home not to help provide the family’s basic needs but to pursue her dreams. Hollis actually thinks putting her dreams before being with the kids more than the babysitter as a great parenting move. She says, “Did I really want them to see me spending my life pursuing a dream while also anxiously acting as though I didn’t deserve that right? Absolutely not.” In Hollis’ worldview the pursuit of our own dreams is the most important thing and also the most important lesson for her kids. The Proverbs 31 woman on the other hand works hard even in ways she doesn’t want out of a desire to love her family more than herself.
“You should be the very first of your priorities!” That line is from near the beginning of Girl, Wash Your Face and it should trouble Christians. Rachel Hollis clearly worships what she sees in the mirror more than anything else and because she targets Christians with this message she is therefore a false teaching heretic to say it bluntly. I think Hollis’ (and several others to be fair) message of putting self first is probably the most dangerous false Gospel today and the one that we least notice in our pews. Hollis’ worldview is peppered throughout Girl, Wash Your Face and I honestly have to question how someone who truly understands or believes the Gospel of salvation through Jesus can possibly not be bothered by it. Maybe if you are a church member and find the words in this book speak more to you than Biblical preaching it’s because Hollis’ false religion is also your false religion. If this is the case read Romans and John far before the self help books.
The theological danger of Girl, Wash Your Face is by far the biggest problem but beyond that there is a likewise dangerous secondary premise; you can accomplish all your dreams if you just work hard enough. This is obviously unbiblical but further this is naïve to the point of being cancerous for society at large. Psychological studies have shown a causative link between self-help movements and anxiety, Alisa Childers is right to call this all exhausting. Rachel Hollis doubles down on this to disastrous effect. Hollis bluntly says “if you’re unhappy, that’s on you.” How exhausting? We need to make ourselves better and if we are ever unsatisfied we just need to put in more hard work?
I especially can’t imagine how frustrated someone in the majority world would be reading this book. In the Congo where most people earn less in a year than Rachel Hollis makes in a few minutes would dreaming bring you any closer to that beach home in Hawaii? Should a paralyzed boy in Vietnam ignore the authority figure who tells him he’ll never be the Ravens star Receiver? Realistically most Americans probably are hardly more likely to achieve their dreams than the previous examples but in most countries Hollis’ words only help as kindling. If everyone believes they can achieve whatever magnanimous dreams they have the vast majority realistically will miss by alot and could go broke in the process. Studies have consistently shown Self Help books have a marginal impact at best but ones like this can definitely leave you depressed when you probably do fail. The one thing we consistently find the self help movement successfully able to do is give those in middle Management enough aspiration to be their boss that they don’t question their boss or the system they are in. Rachel Hollis’ ugliest quality is arrogance but oddly I think her arrogance is the kind of arrogance our society regrettable honors. Rachel acts like because she was supposedly able to work harder and dream harder than others she has pulled herself up by her own bootstrap without having any kind of societal advantages. Rachel clearly has innate talents that few have (I don’t), married a successful husband, and genetics convenient for her time. She has undoubtedly gone through deep sadness but she is arrogant to assume she rescued herself from them and so can you.
Similar self important creative work comes in the lyrics of Katy Perry music. Katy Perry sings how she will make people hear her roar and how we are all fireworks meant to shoot high in the sky. This is all foolish, selfish, and arrogant but nobody claims Perry is a strong Christian; at least not anymore. Katy Perry had a similar sentimental Christian upbringing as Hollis but Perry stopped claiming to be an Evangelical at some point. Many say Katy Perry’s lyrics emphasizing a self idolatry are emblematic of her rebellion against her Christian upbringing. Maybe Katy Perry didn’t really rebel, maybe Katy Perry merely followed a religion of self worship often disguised as Christianity to its logical conclusion. Maybe there is no outside force pushing our kids to idolize self-expression. Maybe that voice of self worship is coming from within American Christianity and spreading as our only effective evangelism. If so Girl, Wash Your Face is nothing but a gospel tract for the worst false gospel to infiltrate American Christianity. Read Girl, Wash Your Face or follow Rachel Hollis on the gram if you’d like but do not let yourself be deluded into thinking she’s remotely consistent with the Christian worldview.