Skip to main content

Girl, Wash Your Face - The Prosperity Gospel in Sheep's Clothing (And What You Should Read Instead)

Submitted by Bethany on Fri, 01/04/2019 - 10:00

Book Review: Girl, Wash Your Face: Stop Believing the Lies About Who You Are So You Can Become Who You Were Meant to Be by Rachel Hollis

I'm going to start off by saying that this review is probably going to be controversial. Almost everyone I know who has read this book, loves it and I was hoping I would love it too. My anticipation kept building as rave after rave review came in while I spent 3+ months on the waiting list to check it out from the library (on my Kindle since we are traveling.) Clearly this book has hit a nerve in a good way with its target audience, of which I am a part in every way except that I am not a mom. This book hit a nerve with me, too, but in a very bad way. 

I'll say it straight - I didn't like it. 

I read it during our epic road trip throughout the UK, and I kept finding myself much more angered and annoyed than inspired. Many times I would stop to read a passage out loud to Joel and Steve so I could check my reaction to it to see if I was overreacting in some way. They confirmed that I was not, and in fact it led to many discussions on the material in the book.

The whole premise of the book is that Hollis asks us to stop believing the lies that we (and society) tell ourselves. It's an interesting premise, and she definitely hit on some lies that I tell myself - "I'll start tomorrow" (procrastination is my biggest vice), "I'm a terrible writer" (I struggle with confidence) and more. But in the end, I think she simply trades these lies for different lies - ones that, overall, I find more damaging. 

Throughout my reading of the book I kept finding ideas and pieces that I disliked, but I didn't figure out the overarching theme of what bothered me until I started reading another book shortly after. It seems Spirit-led that I ended up with both of these books on my Kindle at once as I was on the waiting list for both and it is unusual that they came available around the same time. The second book is Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I've Loved by Kate Bowler. Both books about lies - both by female Christian authors - but very different books from one another. 

Hollis tells us that "You, and only you, are ultimately responsible for who you become and how happy you are." Bowler tells us "Control is a drug, and we are all hooked, whether or not we believe in the prosperity gospel's assurance that we can master the future with our words and attitudes." It was at this line that I realized why Hollis' preaching angered me so much - it is the prosperity gospel in disguise. It's not marketed as such, and I doubt Hollis would claim it as such, but that is exactly what it is, through and through. 

Hollis' teaching is the prosperity gospel in disguise - a wolf in sheep's clothing.

Prosperity gospel teaches us that we get in this life what we deserve, that everything good that befalls you is because of your virtue, and everything bad is because of your sin. Does that message sound familiar? That you are ultimately in control? It is exactly what Hollis teaches. And it is exactly what Bowler deconstructs as she shares her story about facing her own mortality and stage IV cancer at age 35. 

Bowler writes further:

For Christians not of the prosperity persuasion, surrender is a virtue; the writings of the saints are full of commands to "let go" and to submit yourself to what seems to be the will of the Almighty. All of American culture and pop psychology scream against that. Never give up on your dreams! Just keep knocking, that door is about to open! Think positively! Self-improvement guaranteed!! The entire motivational-speaking industry rests on the assumption that you can have what you want, you can be what you want. Just do it.

If these two books weren't published on exactly the same date (February 6, 2018) I would have guessed that Bowler was writing that paragraph precisely in response to Hollis' book. One of Hollis' chapters is titled "The Lie: No is the Final Answer" and it's all about never giving up on your dreams and thinking positively even when the world tells you otherwise. Good advice in theory, but damaging when it doesn't acknowledge the limitations that life does often give. 

At one point Hollis writes, "You are in charge of your life, sister, and there's not one thing in it that you're not allowing to be there. Think about it." Well, I did think about it, and to me, this statement smacks of privilege. This statement can only be said by someone who hasn't really been knocked down by the harsh realities of life - not in any way that she wasn't able to smile her way out of. This is not to say that her life has been all sunshine and roses: she had a tough childhood, grew up poor, and lost her brother to suicide - but she paints these difficulties as things to be overcome with a plucky attitude and then moved on from completely. 

I can't help but wonder how Hollis would respond were she put in Bowler's situation - finding herself dying of cancer at age 35 rather than buying Louis Vuitton and dreaming of owning a vacation house in Hawaii. How would she positively think herself out of that? Would she simply not allow the cancer to exist? What Hollis preaches is that everything is in your control, and that ultimately it is up to you to save yourself. That is 100% against the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The idea that it is up to us to save ourselves is 100% the opposite of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

It is exactly one of the lies that Bowler learned in life and then learned to let go of in her book. The truth and beauty of the gospel of Jesus is that we do not have to save ourselves - he has already done that for us. In fact, Jesus tells us that we cannot save ourselves - and rather than that being a statement of defeat, it is a statement of relief and surrender. I don't have to be anyone's savior, not even my own. Jesus Christ is my savior. 

While I believe that message is the most damaging aspect of Hollis' book, it's not the only harmful piece. In chapter 2 she has a whole section that is so incredibly fat-shaming it made me gasp. She describes a co-worker called Pam, who starts a diet one week, and is off it a few weeks later. She doesn't even imply but rather straight up states that this makes Pam (and anyone like her) untrustworthy, unreliable, and not worthy of respect. In chapter 5 she goes to great lengths to describe an emotionally abusive relationship she experienced at a young age and how she finally had enough self-respect to end it. I was cheering for her until she revealed in the very next paragraph that the abuser is her husband (totally reformed and awesome now, of course). 

In chapter 14 she describes her experience of receiving her first bad review on one of her books - it was a gut wrenching experience that made her question her own skills and ability. I relate to this so much - I am easily swayed by others opinions of me; when I worked in full time ministry, learning to have a thicker skin was one of my biggest obstacles to overcome. But Hollis takes her reaction to (in my opinion) an extreme. She declares that "SOMEONE ELSE'S OPINION OF ME IS NONE OF MY BUSINESS" and that she will never again read reviews of her work. There is a fine line between being confident and strong and just not giving a sh*t what anyone thinks of you. The former is what we should all strive for, the latter is dangerous. 

Some people's opinions of you do matter. Random internet commenter? Sure, ignore those. But your spouse? Your children? Your close family and friends? Valued colleagues and experts in your field? Those opinions should matter. We all need someone willing to tell us when we are being terrible and we need to be able to listen to those people when they tell us. Yes, it hurts. But when we listen to constructive criticism we become better people for it. 

In the end, Hollis' book did actually inspire me - just not in the way she intended. 

I am inspired to speak out against her version of the gospel. I am inspired to instead champion Kate Bowler's work that truly does dismantle the damaging lies society tells - including Hollis. I am inspired to get more of my own writing out into the world regardless of the reactions I might get. But in all of it, I am inspired in spite of everything Hollis wrote, rather than because of it. 

I am fat. I have failed at more diets than I can count. I will probably never be a millionaire and even if I am I will never own a Louis Vuitton bag (one of Hollis' long held dreams that finally came true for her). My whole life and happiness is not in my own hands, it is in God's. I am not my own savior - I'll rely on Jesus Christ for that thank you very much. 

My hope for you is that if you read both of these books you will do so with your own open and discerning eyes to examine what they are telling you. If you have already read Hollis' book I encourage you to go check out Bowler's to compare, and if you only want to read one, please make it Kate Bowler's book Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I've Loved. They were published at the same time, with similar goals, but one contains the prosperity gospel, and one contains the gospel of Jesus Christ. 

Choose wisely, my friends. 

XOXO, Bethany 

P.S. For other good articles critiquing Hollis' work, which I drew inspiration from, check out this Buzzfeed article here, and this Christian-centric critique here

Your thoughts?

Thank you for sharing your thoughtful critique, I had been recommended Hollis' book but something even about the title was making me uneasy. You saved me from a read that would have made me mad and in one swoop recommended another book I was thinking about. Good work. 

I agree, even the title is unsettling. With a new baby I'm sure your time to read it shorter so you need to be pickier about what you read. I hope you love Bowler's book and I'd love to chat with you about it someday!

Laurel Alice C…

Sat, 01/05/2019 - 09:22

Thank you for writing this, Bethany! As someone living with mental illness, meaning there are literally days that I don’t wash my face because my brain just isn’t having it today, I’ve been wary of this book. Most of my friends who have read it, love it, but I was worried that for me, it would be more hurtful than helpful. I mean, sometimes my wellness something involves “behavioral activation” (a fancy term a therapist used once which I take to basically mean “just do it,” like “just go to the dinner party” or “just go for a walk”), but sometimes it’s still a no. Sometimes the biggest accomplishment of my day is drinking a glass of water (and the homework goes undone, the face remains unwashed, and my dinner ends up being a handful of Oreos and some crackers). And other times, the biggest accomplishment of my day is remembering that God gives me more grace than I give myself, and thanks be for that. I’m so glad you found Kate Bowler’s book to be life-giving (I did, too), and I’m grateful that you were willing to contribute your voice to this issue!

Thank you for reading and for sharing your story. The message of "just get your act together and everything will be great" can definitely be a damaging one for those living with mental illness. I believe we all live in this world by the grace of God (as you articulated) and I heard none of that in what she had to say. 

Also thank you for the heads up about Bowler's podcast, I am loving it!

Elesa Marie Labanz

Mon, 01/07/2019 - 14:43

I went to see Rachel's Documentary "Made for More" before I had really heard of her or her book. The most powerful takeaway I had from the movie was her heart for the pain that so many people have experienced. She did this exercise at the conference that the documentary filmed where every woman was given a sheet of paper with a very large list of experiences on it. You were to put a check mark next to each experience you had had - being raped, being assaulted, drug addiction, suffering a miscarriage, death of a child, death of a parent, and so on - I certainly don't remember the extensive list. Then you folded your paper and handed it back - then left - then up - then right - then catty corner - over and over and over  until nobody had any idea where their list was or whose list they now had. She called it standing up for your sister - as each experience was read off, if there was a check mark next to it on your list, you stood up for the woman who had suffered. It was incredibly powerful experience to me, watching this. Something so smart about thinking it up as such a cathartic experience. I still tear up thinking about it.  So that was my introduction to her.

I would need to re-read the book to give a really coherent impression of it as you have. But these are my random thoughts from it. I think we have these public figures/speakers in our country who achieve national fame and accolades and their writing comes under intense scrutiny due to their instant influence on a large swath of people. So then you go to read the book thinking either "she's a genius" or "she's a fraud...let me figure out how" and she's neither. Some of her stories are instantly relatable to me, some of them are not but probably are to someone else. The purse story, for instance, I can relate to from a very different perspective. I always dreamed that one day I could have a Mercedes of my own. To me that meant I had made it. When I was 28 I got that Mercedes when we moved to Germany. It cost us $1. The seller was getting ready to leave and be posted back to the US and had not been able to unload it. The seats were all ripped up. The front left quarter-panel was primer colored while the rest was mustard yellow. The FIRST WEEK we had it we drove to a restaurant and while we were there someone snapped the Mercedes emblem off the front of the hood. It felt like an enormous karmic joke and lesson in humility. I've never had any desire to place my worth in an automobile again. 

I feel like Girl, Wash Your Face is just one woman's tales and experiences in learning how to navigate the world. I tend to be from the "God helps those who help themselves" and "I sent you a cop, a rowboard and a helicoptor" school of thought so her encouragement to rely on yourself and take responsibility for the you that you are doesn't bother me.  The story about Dave, her husband, is a disturbing one, but remember we don't have his view of the same story and also, people mature and grow up. I have a story about my own husband that I have zero intention of ever sharing, from before we were married, but we've been married 34+ years and I couldn't ask for a better partner in life. 

I enjoy listening to her morning lives as I get ready for the day. Her last 90 days challenge was a brilliant idea, I thought, reminding people that there is no need to wait until January 1st to take care of yourself and become a better you. There is surely a lot of rambling but it doesn't bother me. It's free. If you're looking for more directed content, that's what their blogs are for. 

Her faith seems to be a very big part of her life and I know that the articles that have come out criticizing her from a Christian perspective have been extremely hurtful to her but she seems to have a large posse of followers who try to build her up afterwards. I no longer consider myself a Christian (after a years long stint working for a big church) so that criticism isn't something I have a great deal of interest in (besides your article being very well written). I have bought a ticket to go to her Rise conference in Minnesota in June. I am super-excited. I love that feeling of coming together for a purpose and with common enthusiasm and I miss it from church and/or chorus!

This sure rambled all over the place but I told you I would write about my experience or opinion of her/the book. I thought the book was fine. Didn't change my life. Rachel Hollis live intrigues me much more. I will say that her next book "Girl, Stop Apologizing" intrigues me more than this last one. We women do like our apologies!

Bethany

Wed, 01/09/2019 - 13:51

In reply to by Elesa Marie Labanz

Hi Elesa! 

Thank you so much for commenting and sharing your perspective. I know we chatted more via PM but I thought I would respond here as well. 

That exercise from her documentary sounds really interesting. It certainly is helpful for people to know they are not alone in the world with their rough experiences. 

I love your story about the Mercedes - how interesting! I can't recall ever choosing a material item to strive for and know that I've "made it" when I get that object. I don't think it's because I'm not materialistic, but perhaps because I'm just not that ambitious, lol. So I find it hard to relate to those stories. 

I would agree that the book is "one woman's tales and experiences in learning how to navigate the world" but I think she pushes it a little harder than that. Her attitude is here's what I did and if you just do it you too will be as awesome as me. I 100% agree with the "I sent you a cop, a rowboat, and a helicopter" school of thought but I disagree strongly with "God helps those who help themselves" - and don't get me started on people who claim that philosophy as being in the Bible, lol. 

What I saw of the 90 day challenge I did like!

A lot of the criticism coming at her from Christian circles is, I think, misplaced. Many people have a problem with her support of LGBTQ+ people and that is actually one point where I agree with her. I, too, struggle with being hurt by criticism, so I don't give it lightly. Of course, I'm a small fish so she'll never read what I have to say, lol. 

I will plan on reading her next book to see what I think of it! 

I'm glad you are finding what you need from her in other social media places. I hope you enjoy the conference! 

Thank you again for sharing your perspective!