A Decade of Advice for Women and Men in the Best-Selling Self-Help Literature

By Zimmerman, Toni Schindler; Holm, Kristen E. et al. | Family Relations, April 2001 | Go to article overview

A Decade of Advice for Women and Men in the Best-Selling Self-Help Literature


Zimmerman, Toni Schindler, Holm, Kristen E., Haddock, Shelley A., Family Relations


INNOVATIVE STRATEGIES & TECHNIQUES

Key Words: couples, feminist, gender, popular press, self-help literature.

The purpose of this study was to analyze the 10 best-selling self-help books between 1988 and 1998 according to the advice presented on how women and men should behave and how the genders should relate with one another. The books were analyzed according to the degree to which they empower men and women to recognize and resist the constraining influences of gender-based socialization. Because of the prevalence of the self-help industry and its relationship to many human service professions, it is important for human service professionals to be aware of the advice contained in these books about achieving personal and relationship well-being and satisfaction.

An increasing number of people in American society are reading self-help books and using them to inform their perspectives on themselves as individuals and members of relationships (Simonds, 1992). The self-help industry is influential and pervasive-a "firm part of the fabric of American society" (Starker, 1989, p. 2). One example of the power of the self-help industry lies in the popularity of the best-selling self-help book of this decade, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus (Gray, 1992). As of June 1999, an astounding seven million copies of this book had been purchased by people around the world. The ideas in this book have swept the nation to the extent that when we hear the words "Mars" and "Venus," many of us no longer first think of planets; we think of men and women.

Similar to other forms of mass media, such as television, movies, and magazines, the self-help industry reflects and sustains cultural beliefs and values. As such, these books contain many messages about how individuals should behave as women and men and how the genders should relate with one another. Unlike other media, however, self-help books are "explicit instruction manuals" (Starker, 1989) for achieving personal and relationship well-being. Readers are purposefully seeking personal or relationship advice from these books. Because of the popularity of some of these books and the way in which many of the authors are billed as experts, self-help books are imbued with a certain authority that may or may not be warranted.

A relationship is evident between the self-help industry and many human service professions, including therapy, parent education, and early childhood education. Many people use selfhelp books for personal or relationship advice "instead of," prior to, or during involvement with human service professionals. Self-help books are perceived as an inexpensive alternative to seeking professional help, providing greater privacy, less cost, and less societal stigma. These books are also easier to access than many support services and are consistent with American values of independence and individualism (Simonds, 1992; Starker, 1989). Additionally, many human service professionals use these books to supplement their services. For instance, a survey of 105 psychologists revealed that 88.6% of the sample reported that they regularly assigned self-help books to augment their therapy (Starker).

Self-help books can have a beneficial or detrimental impact on prevention and intervention efforts. Professionals can utilize these books to educate clients on specific topics, reducing the need for services. These books also can be an effective method for assisting clients to recognize and resist gender-based messages. On the other hand, self-help books can be harmful by providing inaccurate information or promoting stereotypical gender expectations.

To reap the benefits and minimize the potential harm of selfhelp books, human service professionals must review these materials to determine their appropriateness for inclusion in the therapeutic process. What messages about gender are relayed in these books? In other words, do they empower readers to free themselves from restrictive gender expectations, or do they perpetuate detrimental messages about how to behave as men and women? …

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