You and I are not Oprah, and she doesn’t live that way, either

I thought it would be a really fun/cute experiment to spend my evening the way Oprah would want in honor of her birthday today. I assumed that probably meant a face mask, maybe making a gratitude list and certainly texting my Gayle.

To be sure, I did some Googling and found that a woman named Robyn Okrant spent 2008 doing everything Oprah Winfrey suggested. I read an interview with her on Forbes and, while I was expecting some sort of Julie and Julia nonsense blogger cooing on about how she had finally let sunshine into her life, I was instead met with this:

It was incredibly draining, and it made me really sad. It made me sad to think of how many hours I’ve lost–even when I wasn’t doing the project–to blindly following advice and listening to what other people tell me I should be doing to create my own happiness. I wondered how many hours other women have lost in the course of their lives to that.

I absolutely grew up watching Oprah. Her show was on soon after I got home from school and I remember thinking that it pretty evenly oscillated from joyful, playful encounters to the most heart-wrenching stories. Sometimes we’d only watch long enough for my mom to decide that, no, it was too sad for how she wanted to feel that day–and that’s important to note, too: Oprah could dictate how you felt for the rest of the day.

I don’t recall the advice episodes quite as much, maybe because my own pubescent problems weren’t her typical themes. But I know they existed, just as much as O Magazine is chock full of quizzes, smoothie recipes and other solutions. Oprah was at the forefront of our modern self care and advice-seeking movement.

It’s a trend with very important roots, to be sure. Passing along home remedies or other less-Western solutions is a matter of survival for some, especially those marginalized and unable to get the care they need because of access issues or because they aren’t taken seriously. Self care is also largely about the willingness to share, especially in acknowledging your problems and–if not finding a solution–at least learning that you’re not alone.

As someone with extremely sensitive skin, I have spent more than my fair share online seeking solutions. Most of the time, I’m unsuccessful– yet, it’s just nice to know you’re not the only person out there who needs to dress head to toe in 100% cotton in the winter.

But I do see Okrant’s point. How many times have people, particularly women, gotten lost in the self care/self help/apple cider vinegar and intermittent fasting spiral? When does it serve us and when does it keep us from actually listening to what we need? Okrant acknowledged that she definitely went to extremes, but it was still an example of how so many live their lives around syndicated, blanket advice. “When I started the project I was resistant to following all of the advice,” she told Forbes. “About halfway through I realized I’d transitioned to this place where it was really easy to live that way–living risk free. I didn’t have to think; I just had to follow. It scared me completely.”

Magazines, websites and books are not personalized to the reader (not yet, at least). The advice and recommendations cannot be assumed best for every single person, just as much as a salad recipe may give one person a healthy glow and another person debilitating gas.

What I found interesting about Okrant’s experience is this: In a way, it seems to run counter to the lauded speech Oprah gave at the Golden Globes, during which she said: “What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have. And I’m especially proud and inspired by all the women who have felt strong enough and empowered enough to speak up and share their personal stories.”

Maybe the lesson we learn from Oprah is not to live by the book (that is, by the quizzes, the advice and the recipes). Maybe it’s to better listen to our own stories and other people’s stories, to connect the dots to see what problem we’re trying to solve, and then seek solutions that will probably require some amount of trial and error.

In that vein, I came home tonight and made myself some good food. I packed my meals for tomorrow and watched a funny show. I went through my evening ritual, using the face oils and creams I’ve tested and found to be best after years of reading recommendations. I climbed into bed and am sitting just awkwardly enough for my computer cord to reach the wall. It’s all some form of self care that’s good enough for me on a Monday night, and I’m sure Oprah would be proud.

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