'Eat, Pray, Love, Scam' merchandise fleeces soul searchers

You can't buy your way out of unhappiness, Julia Roberts. While Elizabeth Gilbert's book Eat, Pray, Love tells readers that it's better to look within for spiritual succor, the movie's maker, Sony Pictures, is flatly contradicting her by unleashing a tsunami of merchandise that suggests we find inner peace through purchasing. The movie's target audience, unfulfilled women, are proving just unfulfilled enough to fall for it.

In a piece titled "Eat, Pray, Zilch," the New York Post laments over an unfortunate bandwagon effect stemming from the Eat, Pray, Love bestseller bonfire -- which was fanned by Oprah Winfrey and is now fully ablaze through an over-hyped movie, opening this weekend. The newspaper suggests the book, and now the movie, shortchange Americans by teaching them that laying out some cash for a movie-themed chair or a yoga retreat might be enough to cure what ails them.

The Post story tells about professionals who, inspired by the novel, looked outside of themselves for emotional nourishment and found themselves ripped off by unscrupulous yogis and ashrams, or even just disappointed by the costly getaways they bought for themselves.

There's no shortage of Eat, Pray, Love-themed merchandising, both sanctioned by Sony and of the parasitic variety. Cost Plus World Market blithely offers an official line of tunics, journals, and handbags. A jewelry company named Dogeared managed to get its movie-themed trinkets onto shelves at the upscale ABC Carpet & Home in Manhattan. Even existing products, such as Lonely Planet guide books, are trying to hitch a ride into Sony's publicity machine with tie-in contests and promotions.

Anyone can visit India comfortably for $10 a day, but a company called Micato Safaris is selling an Eat, Pray, Love-themed, 18-day trip from for $19,795. The Four Seasons hotel in Bali also wants to cash in on Gilbert's inner quest by selling a package complete with "floral bath" and a "Love Concierge." That costs $750 a night. You don't have to go abroad to buy in, either: The movie's press junket was held in Napa, California, presumably because the region's self-image as a gustatory draw most imitates the American stereotype of Italy.

The Associated Press found some women in Rome who were methodically following in the footsteps of Gilbert's personal journey, going as far as to seek out gelato at the same gelateria, which of course is precisely contrary to Gilbert's point about following the path set by your own heart. But where pilgrimages are born, purses are filled.

The Eat, Pray, Love sales frenzy is, to me, as hollow and subtly misogynistic as some other recent travel trends geared toward exploiting female consumers, including "girlfriend getaways" and Sex and the City hotel packages. These, like the Eat, Pray, Love trips, are more about social displays of indulgence than about true introspection.

It's worth noting that the ashram where Gilbert spent several months, Gurudev Siddha Peeth at Ganeshpuri in Maharashtra, doesn't accept off-the-street visitors and requires a protracted application process.

Glbert's implied message, in which dissatisfied women can be redeemed by traveling to other lands, is nothing new in the literary world. A Room with a View, Under the Tuscan Sun, and Shirley Valentine all received film adaptations in the last generation. Every few years, consumers fall for the same movie retold with another winsome actress. It's one of our modern-day archetypes as wealthy consumers: Meet the "simple" people to learn the truth about yourself.

The true message of Gilbert's book has more to do with looking within for redemption, but Americans are solidly conditioned to believe they can buy themselves out of any jam. That includes going to see the latest feel-good chick flick or laying down a few grand to acquire enlightenment that could just as easily have been bought by turning off the TV and breathing deeply.

Can you find enlightenment by detaching from your everyday life and seeing things from a different angle? Without question. That's one of the principal benefits of travel. But if you want to look within through travel, go independently. You will find that the cheapest route is often the most unencumbered. As the Post notes, "friends who spend tons of hard-earned money to pursue inner peace generally try to at least pretend they've found it."

If you really look at it in terms of the book's core message, the smorgasbord of Eat, Pray, Love merchandise is nothing more than spiritual fast food. For real sustenance, look more closely at something Gilbert writes in her book, which has now printed more than five million copies:

"It's better to live your own destiny imperfectly than to live an imitation of somebody else's life with perfection. So now I have started living my own life. Imperfect and clumsy as it may look, it is resembling me now, thoroughly."

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