Rachel Hollis has done a lot of things. Growing up in a tragic family situation, she moved to Los Angeles in her teens, married a marketing professional in the entertainment industry, worked as an event planner, had four children and fostered others, took up blogging, started a business, wrote novels, ran marathons, and describes herself as aiming to control a media empire. Hollis recounts these stories in her self-help book Girl, Wash Your Face, but her real goal is to share everything she has learned from her adventures about living well and chasing her dreams. It’s an illuminating read, but perhaps not for the reasons Hollis intended.
The book is structured as a list of lies that Hollis has encountered and overcome in her life. Some of the lies, such as “I’ll Start Tomorrow,” are lies we tell ourselves. Others, such as “I am defined by my weight,” come from messages around us. Most of the direct advice appears in the list of “Things That Helped Me” found at the end of each chapter. These are the most practical parts of the book. The essays themselves are a blend of anecdote and exhortation, intended to motivate the reader to implement the practical tips.
The relationship between each chapter’s “lie” and the associated essay ranges from direct to convoluted. “I Can’t Tell the Truth” is mostly about Hollis’s experiences with the foster system; it’s only about truth-telling in the sense that Hollis is sharing a true, painful story. Other chapters are more focused, like “No Is the Final Answer,” in which Hollis urges us to rethink obstacles rather than accepting “no.” In this respect, Girl is reminiscent of other books written by bloggers, and the chapters read like an assemblage of blog posts. Those familiar with this quirk of bloggers-turned-authors can adapt, but others will find it disjointed. The tone will also be familiar; Hollis employs a casual, folksy voice, sprinkling her paragraphs with interjections of “girlfriend” and “sister” or minced oaths such as “honest to dog.” This makes it an easy read, though some will find the interjections distracting.
The central premise, assumed in some chapters and directly argued in others, is that you are in control of your own happiness, and that you can choose to pursue your dreams, overcome hardship, and become a “better version of yourself.” The lies are things you believe that keep you from acting on your own agency. Hollis refrains from specifying in too much detail what a better version of yourself looks like, preferring to hold up her own life as a loose, inspirational example for readers to emulate. She advances this argument by two means: assertion of opinion and anecdotes from her life. Despite admitting interest in gurus and life coaches, she doesn’t interact with other self-help books or teachers. Nor does she present empirical evidence or logical argument. While self-help books aren’t meant to be densely argued, inclusion of these elements would make Hollis’s case more plausible without weighing Girl down. The reliance on story and opinion creates another problem: some of the stories operate as faux arguments. They appear to prove the point Hollis is making only because the reader’s suspension of disbelief (activated by the narrative structure) covers gaps in the logic. Stories operate by asking readers to fill in elisions in order to preserve momentum and narrative force. This is appropriate in storytelling. When substituted for proof or argumentation, though, it weakens claims and can mislead.
This is evident in chapter 5, “Loving Him Is Enough for Me.” Hollis tells the story of how she met her husband, a relationship she admits began in-auspiciously. The couple broke up for a time, during which Hollis gave her then-boyfriend an ultimatum. The moral Hollis draws from the story is that she had been mistakenly dependent on her boyfriend’s affection and that she needed to believe she deserved better. But the upshot of the ultimatum is that, within hours, they were reconciled and went on to be married. How does this fit with Hollis’s argument? It feels cathartic and therefore appears to prove a point, but when examined closely the logic isn’t clear. Presenting explicit reasoning and evidence, instead of relying entirely on a story to make her case, would have saved Hollis from incoherence.
Another route Hollis could have taken is argument from shared principles, such as Scripture. Hollis identifies herself as Pentecostal, and clearly she has attempted to ground her advice in her faith. Especially in the latter part of the book, Scripture quotations and discussions of God’s love pepper the text. However, there are few arguments from biblical principles. Appeal to public standards, such as empirical evidence or a shared creed, would give Hollis a base that her folksy anecdotes cannot provide.
In fact, the creed that best unifies the disparate elements of Hollis’s book isn’t a publically codified one. It’s the loose set of ideas described by sociologist Christian Smith as “moralistic therapeutic deism”: God is out there, but you ultimately choose your own destiny. God wants you to be happy, to be a better version of yourself. Hollis has strong opinions about being happy and healthy, and this is presented as basically the same thing as being good. You just have to try really hard, “give yourself grace” when you fail, and try again (hence the title “wash your face” refers to wiping away tears after you’ve failed).
This makes sense. Hollis is, after all, part of the cohort Smith studied; and based on what we see in Girl, she shares their dominant religious principles. For Christian readers, however, it’s important to see this in context. Historic Christian doctrines—such as God’s sovereignty, human sinfulness, Christ’s sacrifice, and final judgment—sit uneasily with the individualistic, performance-oriented, therapeutic vision Hollis employs.
Finally, a word about privilege. It’s clear from Hollis’s descriptions that her household is both affluent and multi-income. This prosperity has freed her from many constraints. For example, Hollis describes sending a babysitter to pick up her children from school so she can attend business events, with only a token acknowledgement that this is not typical. This is not mere finger-pointing; the privilege question poses a serious problem for Hollis’s central argument that you determine how happy you will be. It’s hard not to suspect that it’s a lot easier to choose the shape of your life if you have the resources to shape it in whatever form you like. On a physical level, the toll on the brain from long-term stress or poor medical care makes such exercises of willpower less plausible. On a financial level, lack of money enforces trade-offs between what we want and what we (and our families) need.
Without a thorough exploration of how those trade-offs work and how to navigate them, the injunction to pursue your dreams isn’t practical. Hollis admits that we can’t control our circumstances. But those very circumstances undermine the choices that Hollis says we can control. This calls into question the radical individualism of Hollis’s premise, and perhaps of her entire philosophy.
Girl, Wash Your Face provides a case study of how Christian Smith’s teenagers are navigating their thirties. It’s a quick, painless read if you are curious to see moralistic therapeutic deism in action. As a guide to living well, however, it provides little that is either new or effectively argued.
Leslie A. Wicke graduated with a degree in history from Patrick Henry College. She is a writer and artist whose work can be found at www.leslieawicke.com and www.tbjeremiah.com. She and her husband currently live in Virginia.