Think your way into nirvana
Life coaches, mindset shifts, and magical thinking
Since I gave Tonya Leigh my email address on September 27th, she’s sent me 17 emails. In those 17 emails, she’s promised that she can “make money feel beautiful,” she’s assured me that with her help, I could “replace the weight of self-limiting beliefs, monotonous routines, and internalized criticism with possibilities, love and enchantment.” I could even “connect with the most extraordinary community and perhaps meet [my] best friends.” On her website, she reveals that she can also help me reframe my relationship to food, personal style, home decor, my career, and embrace the “extraordinary woman I truly am.”
If I want what can only be viewed as a perfect life, I can join Leigh’s School of Self Image for $97.00 a month (or $997.00 a year). I can attend a weekend retreat in New Orleans. The regular admission price is $1,997.00 (and does not include hotel expenses) and the the VIP ticket is $3,997.00. If cost is a barrier to entry, I can also visit the free Money Garden (a 5 day virtual workshop) or sign up for the free Self-Image Makeover Workshop to “create extraordinary results.”
Leigh isn’t a therapist, a psychiatrist, a financial advisor, an interior designer, a nutritionist, a career counselor, or a stylist. She’s a life coach.
According to Peabody and Emmy Award–winning journalist Jane Marie’s reporting in season three of her must-listen podcast, The Dream, the business of life coaching has doubled in the last decade, and currently encompasses a three billion dollar industry. 23,000 people practice as “certified” life coaches, and there’s no good metric for assessing how many thousands more are practicing as “uncertified” life coaches, nor does it matter very much because “accredited” coaching programs vary widely in terms of length, education requirements, and industry-wide standards.
Tonya Leigh’s bio is hard to summarize. On her Linkedin profile, she describes herself as the “Founder of the School of Self-Image, a global brand for those who refuse to see themselves as less than extraordinary.” In the School of Self Image “About” page, she points to her “decade of experience as a Self-Image Coach.” She cites a BA from Boston University, and several years as a critical care nurse. She frequently highlights her upbringing in a “trailer,” her past struggles with weight, and her inability to be understood due to her “thick Southern accent” in order to emphasize the drama of her transformation (which operates as an advertisement for your potential transformation).
It was during a nightshift in her former life as a nurse that a doctor asked her “who she wanted to be as a woman.” And after considering the question, Leigh realized she “wanted to be a woman who wasn’t intimidated by designer boutiques or fancy labels. A woman who believed in herself. A woman who could converse about business, the arts or many subject matters.” Leigh continues:
Of course, my brain went a bit crazy convincing me of all the reasons why this was impossible...
You grew up in a trailer.
You’re 50 pounds overweight.
You have such a thick Southern accent.
You’ve never traveled outside of a few states.
You don’t have an Ivy League education.
You’re not smart enough, pretty enough, rich enough.
Little by little — I started to think like her, dress like her, show up like her, and create surroundings that felt like her. And, today I can look in the mirror and honestly say, “I’ve become her.”
When folks pay Tonya Leigh, they are paying her to teach them how to think their way into a better life. Since it’s very hard to quantify the quality or strength of a person’s thoughts, it’s very hard to quantify the quality of Leigh’s offerings. It’s very easy, on the other hand, to blame a person’s inability to become a different person through mindset alone on that person’s lack of effort, commitment, or work ethic.
Tonya Leigh has over 63K followers on Instagram, where she mostly posts photos of herself looking fabulous.
In addition to advertising programs like POISE, Leigh’s “3 Secrets for Being a Woman
Who’s Always Cool, Calm, and Collected (Okay, like 92% of the Time),” Leigh also shares words of wisdom through infographics. Your mileage will vary in terms of actionability. “If you want to have more beautiful days, notice when you feel the most beautiful, and then your job is to do more of that.” There’s nothing wrong with pursuits of beauty, or reflecting on what fills you up, or what brings you joy, but what does “feeling beautiful” really mean, and should it be the basis for our life choices? As
As I write this, I’m feeling confident, motivated, and relatively comfortable with my life choices (it’s a good day!) I can’t say though, that I feel particularly beautiful. I’m wearing my usual uniform of soft cotton. My face is free of makeup, my hair is not NOT dirty, and I’m sitting at the kitchen table, which is bedecked with a vase of hydrangeas that Tonya Leigh would certainly approve of. But the vase is joined by two of those green plastic sticks from this nightmare of a toy, the game of Clue, not one but TWO remote control cars, a box of Maldon sea salt, a cup of cold echinacea tea, my lunch plate, a plastic bin of crayons, three sketchpads, and my ear plugs. I suppose it’s no wonder that I’m writing this newsletter instead of a future Pulitzer nominee because my self-presentation, my wardrobe, and my surroundings indicate that I’m not “taking myself seriously.” Central to Leigh’s selling of a life well lived is external presentation. The appearance of one’s home should be an reflection of one’s relationship to one’s self. One’s clothing should be able to “attract dreams,” and while Leigh regularly tells her followers to stop focusing on what others think and start focusing on self-love, her visuals tell a different story.
Leigh’s ethos, whether it’s changing your body, your home, your wardrobe, or your bank account, hinges on assessing your vibes and determining whether or not they align with your dream life, your dream you. The choice—between poverty and wealth, thinness and fatness, happiness and depression, love and loneliness, career success and career failure, healthy self-esteem or self-loathing—is yours and yours alone.
According to Leigh’s story of her personal success, she decided to drop her toxic relationship to food and weight. She decided to be rich (in every sense of the word). She decided to believe that her wardrobe and home furnishings reflect her inner worth. And all of these decisions came so easily because first she decided to create a new and improved self-image. Leigh teaches that our brains create our realities, and justifies this claim by holding herself up as an example.
But it doesn’t take a particularly close read of Leigh’s oeuvre to understand that what she’s selling is not internal strength or radical self-acceptance. She is selling external indicators of white patriarchal capitalist success. Poise, charm, elegance, sexiness, beauty, home furnishings, and “flattering clothes” are not only all entirely subjective and individual, but reliant on someone else’s gaze. I can’t believe myself to be charming, for example, without someone else in the room to absorb my charm.
The brilliance of Tonya Leigh’s platform though, is that she promotes an age-old performance of ideal femininity but she tells us this conservative message is radical by co-opting the language of self-help, self-love, and even body positivity. And she softens the message further by telling her followers that by choosing abundance, by choosing their extraordinary lives by way of champagne and pencil skirts and fresh flowers, they are empowered. Leigh coaches women to fake it until they make it [in a broken, inequitable society] rather than addressing the oppressive systemic forces in their lives and finding a way to live and thrive in spite of them. While some level of self-work often feels like the only way to avoid spiraling into hopelessness about the state of the world and one’s relative powerlessness to effect widespread change, there are many circumstances in which employing self-optimization is akin to applying a bandaid to a gaping chest wound.
In episode 8 of season 3 of The Dream, Jane Marie interviews Dr. Arline T. Geronimus, who studies how systemic inequality and oppression negatively impacts the health of people in marginalized communities. In response to some life coaches centering the bulk of their advice on “mindset shifts,” she says this:
Having to expend so much effort and coping with systemic injustice when it comes to racism and poverty - keeps you chronically stressed even when you're sleeping. You can’t just say let me mediate, let me try and reframe the situation, let me smile and put on my high heels and a pretty dress and feel positive.
According to Dr. Geronimus, systemic or environmental obstacles to our flourishing “are not individual things you can manage or control” even if you choose bliss and follow Tonya Leigh’s mandate to “stop being so poor” in order to be rich.
Like MLMs, the life coaching industry (and life coach training programs) targets women and mothers. In this Guardian piece by Rachel Monroe, Monroe interviews a representative from Brooke Castillo’s Life Coach School (Leigh cites Castillo as a mentor), who explained that LCS specifically markets to “‘people who are kind of stuck. New retirees who are bored, empty nesters whose kids are going off to college, stay-at-home moms who are tired of baby talk all day long . . . people who want something more.’”
And if those people who “want something more” fail to think their way into a rosier future? Or if they’re unable to change their external circumstances even if they’ve changed their self-image by way of vision boards? As with MLMS, they have only themselves to blame. “Within the world of LCS, there’s only one reason you’re not succeeding: your thoughts,” writes Monroe. ‘If you can’t make your money back on your tuition, you’re doing it wrong. Period,’ Castillo has said. Fortunately, there’s a simple solution: more coaching.”
Of course, not all life coaches are predatory. One of my favorite (and surprisingly moving) parts of season 3 of The Dream is Jane Marie’s quest to find her own life coach. So if a life coach works for you, yay! But because of the lack of oversight, the lack of agreed upon standards, and so many life coaches centering their offerings on mindset shifts and an emphasis on personal choice rather than navigating structural obstacles, it’s an industry rife with potential harm.
Even if life coaches like Tonya Leigh are operating from truly altruistic motives, a Before and After slideshow is not going to help the single parent without enough “me time,” or the daycare provider maxed out from expending emotional labor all day long only to return to her own three children and household to expend even more. It’s not going to help a new mother forced back to work at her minimum wage job a week after childbirth, or help a Black mother find words to talk to her Black child about police violence, or help a fat pregnant person struggling to access wealth inclusive healthcare, or help a person drowning in debt from college loans, or a parent trying to find gender-affirming healthcare for her trans child, or a person without access to cultural capital or generational wealth. Or, or, or.
In her Self-Image Makeover Course, Leigh makes the utterly baffling claim that “you can’t create results beyond your self-image so to get better results you need a better self-image. Maybe some of you have been trying to lose weight, but you still have a self-image of being overweight, some of you maybe wanted to have financial freedom, but you still have an image of yourself as someone who’s not good at finances . . . to get better results all you need is a better self image.”
This is like saying you can’t own a house without money so all you need to do is GET MONEY, or like saying you can’t feel loved without someone to love you so all you need to do is GET SOMEONE TO LOVE YOU. Like saying you can’t feel securely attached without a loving, supported childhood so GET YOURSELF A LOVING, SUPPORTED CHILDHOOD. I’m continuously blown away by the ability of gurus to build self-help empires on the basis of magical thinking. It takes a special kind of talent to convince people that sometimes maybe green is blue or that trauma, if viewed from the right angle, might actually be a gift.
Healing isn’t a one-size fits all process, and since everyone’s personal struggles are unique, it’s a good thing, not a bad thing, that we can choose (if we’re privileged enough to make such a choice) between different modalities, therapies, and programs to become more fulfilled, joyful, emotionally healthy people. People are complicated. Healing is complicated. This is why life coaches offering followers simple fixes or “one transformative solution” or generalized life advice centered on their own experiences, will always sound off alarm bells for me. There is no one way to thrive, and people can live worthy lives in trailers, in sweatpants, in large bodies, amidst clutter, and even, dare I say, without a great deal of poise.
While I didn’t have the space here to dig into how Tonya Leigh’s “self-love” rhetoric relies on the logic of diet culture and anti-fatness, paid subscribers will get something far better than my attempts to tackle the Before and After of it all :doing it instead! If you’d like to witness an artist at the height of her creative powers dissect the toxic messaging hiding in plain sight (and trust me, you really do), you can upgrade here. And if you haven’t already subscribed to Virginia’s invaluable newsletter, , you can remedy that here.
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