Looking to radically reset your life? Be wary of the superficial Eat Pray Love approach
Real healing is messy — the movie's version of inspiration mostly just made ordinary people feel inadequate
Anne-iversaries is a bi-weekly column by writer Anne T. Donahue that explores and celebrates the pop culture that defined the '90s and 2000s and the way it affects us now (with, of course, a few personal anecdotes along the way).
One decade ago, the film adaptation of author Elizabeth Gilbert's bestselling memoir Eat Pray Love hit the big screen. Directed by Ryan Murphy (believe it!), the cinematic interpretation of one woman's journey to find herself amidst the chaos and complacency of her day-to-day life made a lasting impact on anyone who's ever wanted to do the same...except that this impact wasn't necessarily good.
For anyone who's felt lost, felt like a failure, or felt like they were flailing amidst a mental and emotional whirlpool, the movie was sold as a testament to the power of self-love and fearlessly upending your life. But Gilbert's account of divorce, subsequent life implosion, and eventual experiences finding food (in Italy), spirituality (in India), and romance (in Indonesia) is one steeped in extreme privilege. After all, this is someone who is professionally successful, has disposable income, and can take a year off to make sense of herself; most of us are just trying to make it through the day. And while Gilbert's book does offer insight into her personal history and the reasons behind her decisions (which give her existential crisis a little more context and empathy), the movie, well, doesn't. Instead, we watch a glorified montage of a woman doing the absolute most in the name of "self-love" before inevitably finding happiness via — of course — a new and exciting romantic interest.
We see her subscribing to Hinduism without acknowledging the ins and outs of a religion that requires much more than merely showing up to meditate. We watch her engage in a brief love affair with pizza, merely touching on society's obsession with thinness and food while failing to explore how and why it sinks its hooks into women (as well as men) across the world. And then we see her fall in love with Javier Bardem and unlearn her existing dating and relationship habits, and voila! All is, presumably, healed.
But that isn't what healing really looks like. (Unless I've been doing it wrong.)
The first time I saw Eat Pray Love, I watched it on television in the midst of one of my own emotional and mental meltdowns. I felt lost, and I was tired of feeling that way. And while I knew I'd likely never be in a monetary position to use world travel as a means of making sense of my then-quite-shitty life, I still secretly hoped that the journey of Elizabeth Gilbert as portrayed by Julia Roberts would inspire me to begin living in a way that optimized more than just my own perspectives. Had I read the book? Absolutely not. But a movie that featured a Florence Welch song in the trailer couldn't possibly be that disappointing. After all, I too enjoy pizza.
But that's the thing about anybody's story of self-discovery: unless it's defined by the pain necessary for thorough self-examination, it will be little more than a montage accompanied by pop music.
Gilbert's memoir was still rich in her own white privilege (the book wouldn't exist without it), but she at least had the room to elaborate on what brought her to the choices she made. (Does it justify using other cultures to find her self-worth? Absolutely not, but it at least offers some context.) The movie, on the other hand, merely suggests that self-reflection is easy; that yes, pain serves as the catalyst, but much of that pain can be extinguished by visiting India and offering a surface-level interpretation of a culture and community. It sells the idea that romantic love will immediately follow radical self-love (you know, like a friend telling you that as soon as you love yourself, you'll find love with someone else...and, well, no). And it tells us that you can cure toxic ideologies about weight and food by going to a beautiful country, indulging in the food and drink that have become intertwined with its identity, and happily embracing the fact that your jeans no longer fit. (Shoutout to everybody I know who has long accepted that their own disordered eating will take years to finally overcome — if it happens at all.) Ultimately, it's Live, Love, Laugh: The Movie.
If you go into it with the belief that Eat Pray Love is not a movie about authentically finding oneself as much as it is about what you can obtain with enough money, time, and everything else that most of us do not have because we're working class, it's possible to accept it as a story about a woman who likes to travel, or a fun, free-wheeling tale about divorce as a jumping off point for relative freedom. But that was not the way it was sold to us. Instead, the film was an oversimplification of the messiness of finding oneself, undermining the soul-destroying process of taking inventory over one's existence. It also flew the flag for the decade's "new age" approach to self-care — a trend in which belief systems like The Secret (positive thinking, baby!) or Kabbalah (an actual religious practice that was reduced to wearing a bracelet) laid the foundation for what self-care has since become: an industry that markets personal growth in the shallowest of terms. A quick fix for the complexities of real life.
The battle scars that come with change are badges of honour. And for most of us, there's more comfort in movie characters who wear theirs with pride.- Anne T. Donahue
Of course, those who have followed Gilbert's actual life and writings will know that her trajectory has been much more than a beautiful trip ending with a beautiful romance. Instead, she got divorced from the man she met in Indonesia. She later found love with her female best friend, and after that partner sadly passed, she began a new partnership with someone she'd long held dear. Elizabeth Gilbert's real life has not been a Ryan Murphy experience, defined by movie star haircuts or glazed-over revelations — and most people's lives aren't. Instead, when we find ourselves questioning our choices, who we are, and whether we can come back from the decisions we've made, that process looks messy. It begins at home (and may stay there, depending on your financial situation). And it would be accompanied by the Psycho theme instead of "Dog Days Are Over."
Eat Pray Love sold us a reality that exists for the very few and then made any other way of living feel inadequate. It peddled the lie that it's easy to start over or even just to make concrete changes in the wake of chaos. And that does a disservice to the process of finding oneself and evolving into the person you've spent so long trying to become. Because, frankly, the battle scars that come with change are badges of honour. And for most of us, there's more comfort in movie characters who wear theirs with pride.