Who Influences the Influencers? On SARK and Sarah Ban Breathnach’s Lite Feminism

We all know about GOOP. The dangers of jade yoni eggs, the cashmere joggers in a saved Chrome tab, the wildly popular Gwyneth profile in the NYT Magazine. Many of us have a soft spot for Mormon mommy bloggers. And even if we’d never heard of her before, 2019 brought striving scammer Caroline Calloway’s wild ride into our lives. But lifestyle ladies weren’t invented in the 2000s. Let’s talk about what we want to call the Vintage Beautiful Life Brand ladies.

Since the 1980s, SARK and Sarah Ban Breathnach have cultivated and tended self-help empires to the tune of over 7 million books sold, appearances on Oprah then and now, and popular online classes, laying the groundwork for their contemporary successors. How has their co-opting of Audre Lorde’s radical and explicitly political concept of self-care evolved into the splurge-focused lite feminism we are constantly exhorted to participate in by crunchier-than-thou parenting bloggers and Instagram sylphs clad in shapeless, earth-toned linen smocks? How are women like Sarah Ban Breathnach and SARK still going strong since the mid-80s, influencing the influencers, while no one under 35 seems to have heard of them?

The Vintage Beautiful Life Brand Ladies neither receive enough credit for nor are subject to thoughtful criticism of their work and its real effects. It’s easy to brush aside the work of popular self-help authors — that’s exactly what our culture does, even as it’s being made over by self-help practices like gratitude journaling — but Ban Breathnach, SARK and others in their cohort deserve to be taken seriously and to be criticized for their contributions to the culture as a whole.

If you attended a women’s college in the 1990s, The Poster was impossible to avoid. Susan Ariel Rainbow Kennedy aka SARK’s massive HOW TO BE A FABULOUS FEMINIST manifesto loomed down from dorm room walls, as ubiquitous as Ani DiFranco strumming her way out of the stereo (all the while insisting that she, a beautiful woman, was somehow “not a pretty girl”) and Constant Comment tea steaming away in a mug that informed everyone that our alma mater was not a girls’ school without men but a women’s college without boys. The Poster employed childish, colorful, hand-lettering, and INSISTENT AGGRESSION couched in guileless whimsy: FIGHT SEXISM. DO IT NOW. SAY YES TO FEMALE- TO JUSTICE- TO FREEDOM. INVENT NEW HERSTORY. SHATTER MYTHS. PIONEER, TRAILBLAZE. DISCOVER SHE-HER-WE-I-WOMAN. HONOR LESBIANS. SAY YES TO POWER. LOVE YOUR BODY. HAVE HAPPY SEX. DO IT NOW.

[photo credit: Mo Daviau, who owned The Poster as a Smith College undergrad and saw this copy of it in the wild in 2016 at a Berkeley Airbnb.]

 

(N.B.: The Poster was written by someone else & lettered by SARK. The original author is a mystery to us and we note an aggressive tone at odds with her other posters. And for the first time, after seeing How To Be A Fabulous Feminist approximately one bazillion times over the last three decades, we finally noticed the Magic Eye-style reveal, that the symbol for WOMAN is visible in the hot-pink typography in the center of it all.)

The omnipresence of The Poster (although it turns out SARK merely LETTERED the poster and didn’t actually write it), along with a full line of greeting cards, as well as over 2 million copies sold of SARK’s books featuring titles such as Inspiration Sandwich (1992), Living Juicy: Daily Morsels For Your Creative Soul (1994), Eat Mangoes Naked: Finding Pleasure Everywhere (2001), and Succulent Wild Woman: Dancing With Your Wonder-full Self (1997) suggest that her message spoke to a lot of people; you could often find a copy of Living Juicy in the bathrooms of certain moms. Are you picturing them? They’re lightly ritzy and very sincerely New Age-embracing middle-aged (white) ladies clad in Eileen Fisher and lots of giant turquoise-and-sterling jewelry. SARK’s extremely specific and instantly recognizable aesthetic is a literal ode to coloring outside the lines. She addresses this near the beginning of Succulent Wild Woman:

The books I write have colorful, happy covers, which can cause people to think: It must be easy for her. It isn’t easy for any of us to transcend the past, or pain we might have suffered. Yet, there are gifts in those pains, and we can choose to let light into those dark places. We are not alone! 

SARK follows up this paragraph by disclosing that her older brother physically and sexually abused her, setting up “patterns of self-destruction that became addictions and self-hatred that persisted for many years.” However, “after many years of self-healing, therapy, and investigating my interior, I bring you this collection of stories, memories, simple truths, and succulence.” This journey from darkness to an (over?)abundance of color and joy fit right in with the earthy hippie/herbal tea/barefoot ‘n free/Lilith Fair dorm room feminism aesthetic of the late 90s, but it also speaks directly and honestly to the work that comes with leaving home in one’s late teens and early 20s and seeking to make a way in the world for the first time. 

Substance abuse, sexual abuse, eating disorders, heartbreak, exhaustion, family, friendship and relationship drama, and financial vulnerability are just a few of the possible mitigating factors an incubating succulent person can be navigating while trying to establish themselves as a whole and healthily functioning person in the world. Before the internet served up hashtags like #talkingaboutit or #metoo, people relied on self-help books to, well, help themselves, and SARK’s combination of blindingly cheerful and whimsical graphic design with explicit, unashamed, often dark real talk was both spoonful of sugar and necessary medicine.

Meanwhile, Sarah Ban Breathnach’s Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy may have caught your eye at a used book sale or on the coffee table of an affluent family you babysat for. The unique trim size — a slightly narrow, tall rectangle — and the cover’s vaguely Arts & Crafts Movement vine pattern on a dusty rose background suggest a worldliness and sophistication several leagues away from SARK, and yet what readers find in Ban Breathnach’s pages is not far off from what they’ll read in Succulent Wild Woman:

I proposed writing a downshifting lifestyle book for women who want, as I do to live by their own lights […] Now I understand that all my hours aren’t billable; finding a quiet center in which to create and sustain an authentic life has become as essential as breathing. 

The way Ban Breathnach (pronounced “Bon Brannock”) describes the work she did to get to a place where she could write Simple Abundance will ring about a dozen loud wind chimes to anyone who spends more than five seconds on The Lady Internet here at the dawn of the 2020s: “Gratitude, simplicity, order, harmony, beauty, and joy… Simple Abundance has enabled me to encounter everyday epiphanies, find the Sacred in the ordinary, the Mystical in the mundane, fully enter into the sacrament of the present moment.” Look for magic in the daily routine, indeed.

Ban Breathnach’s style — synthesizing a trenchant quote, combined with insights and questions from a knowing, insightful cousin-type who you can rely on to chuck you under the chin while gently placing a cup of tea before you — is potent as hell to millions of readers looking for a relatable aspirational figure. It’s soothing, it gives the reader something to do while also reassuring her that things are going to work out, especially if she recognizes all the things she has to be grateful for. We can draw a pretty straight line from Simple Abundance to mommy blogs to Tumblr to Instagram influencers, all the way down to the Live, Laugh, Love visual culture that now dominates Etsy and Home Goods.

Simple Abundance’s initial success led Ban Breathnach to publish many follow-up books using her original philosophy as applied to homekeeping, money matters, and masculinity. Her meisterwerk is still in print, and as of November 2019, you can read a new edition, “fully updated and expanded for fans of the original and a whole new generation that needs it now more than ever.” Today, SARK carries on with PlanetSark.com, writes a daily newsletter, regularly speaks at conferences, appears to be releasing a memoir, and posts often on Instagram–on December 28th she told us it was Time For Self Caring in her usual colorful, blurry watercolors-and-handlettering style and reminded us that “⁣I think that self care and self love often get misconstrued as selfish, or misunderstood as being primarily about manicures and bubble baths – both of those are good – they’re just not the whole story. I call it “exquisite self care” and sometimes it will feel everything but exquisite.⁣⁣⁣”

Both SARK and Ban Breathnach are very clear about the problem(s) their work is trying to address: our culture’s demands that women be superb in all of our efforts, without ceasing and without complaint. SARK delivers her techniques in a Crayola-bright package, Ban Breathnach uses a sleeker aesthetic descended from William Morris, but both authors are saying on every page that you, reader, are enough. It’s lovely to receive a daily reminder that a very caring person sees you and your imperfections and doesn’t find you wanting. In every book, on every poster, is permission to call bullshit on the expectations you inherited (even ones you maybe thought were fine for years!) and to set your own life priorities. It’s also worth mentioning that when SARK and Ban Breathnach started publishing, going to therapy was usually still something that was whispered about, if it was talked about at all, and then it was often done with shame and fear of judgement. 

This is arguably the reason self-help as a genre had such a massive boom in the ‘80s and ‘90s: people began to recognize the need to prioritize and care for their mental and emotional health but were often not ready or simply unable to seek professional help and so they turned to accessible and privacy-friendly books. It’s likely that Ban Breathnach, SARK, and other self-helpers were many women’s first experience with centering their own needs and prioritizing nurturing one’s self in addition to (or even instead of!) doing so for others. 

What the Vintage Beautiful Life Brand Ladies don’t ever do is suggest that these acts of rebellion could be collective. Even as we’re on the personal archaeology dig of our lives and living juicy as hell, the system itself — you know, the one that makes it necessary for these writers to tell us it’s ok to say out loud that the current system is bullshit — is one that we should tear down or reform on a scale beyond the individual. 

It’s a tremendous accomplishment for these authors to have been so successful for going on 40 years, and that sits right beside our queasiness at some of the unintended consequences of how well and thoroughly they continue to influence the influencers. Even though their work is fundamentally a rebellion against our perpetual optimization culture, the tools SARK and Ban Breathnach encourage us to use have been co-opted by a work culture that keeps everyone down. It’s the self-care of sheet masks rather than affordable, accessible therapy. Weekly donuts in the break room instead of unionization. NO WHINING signs in your supervisor’s office.

This ouroboros has an elegant, if vile, logic: late capitalism is both the problem that launched SARK and Ban Breathnach’s careers, and the very thing ensuring that they continue to get paid for sharing their very real gifts with the world. It makes sense that wedding a mildly woo-woo aesthetic to a doggedly entrepreneurial spirit would find success in the marketplace. They’re corny and too much and kind of embarrassing in a gosh, MOM sort of way, but we also owe them a debt of gratitude for saying out loud that we deserve more. The Vintage Beautiful Life Brand Ladies claimed and carved out space for their daughters to occupy and share with others as our birthright. We’re profoundly moved by it, even as we recognize that individual solutions don’t cut it. 

Sophie Brookover is a dangerously powerful culture witch with more opinions than is healthy, probably. She’s also the co-editor of Two Bossy Dames, a weekly newsletter of cultural recommendations and an ornament to inboxes everywhere. Join her in some hearty yelling about Vintage Beautiful Life Brand Ladies on Twitter, where she scribbles away as @sophiebiblio.

–Karen Corday is a writer, teacher, and karaoke advice columnist. Let’s process: @NewOldKaren