Skip to content

What not to teach

An image consulting class at a respectable Toronto college goes off the rails

  • by

Do me a favor. Stand up, wherever you are, and repeat the following mantra aloud:

“I allow myself to be whoever I am. The good, the bad, the ugly, and the goddess.”

If you’re a man, feel free to substitute “god” for “goddess.” Now repeat it several more times, and, each time you do, ramp up the volume and quavering emotion – because you are a god/goddess. I’ll bet you didn’t know that.

Do you feel better about yourself?

I didn’t either.

I have an embarrassing confession to make: this mantra represents, in a nutshell, the content of my summer. I return to McGill a human self-help section, well versed in everything from affirmations to wacky health regimes, with a sprinkling of discredited sciences for good measure (phrenology, anyone?). How did this happen? Neither a career-enhancing internship nor a profitable job awaited me when I left Montreal last May – I had zero prospects. As a last resort, I enrolled in a five-week image-consulting program at George Brown College in Toronto, a short subway ride from my house. I wanted to add a line to my CV, while spending five weeks talking about clothes. And, at first, I got exactly that.

It began as all classes do, with the purchase of an overpriced course pack, followed in short order by filing awkwardly into a fluorescent-lit classroom with a bunch of strangers. My class was composed of twelve women, ranging in age from 20 to mid-50s, some fresh out of school and some looking to reboot their flagging careers.

That first day, I listened with rapt attention as our teacher, a beautiful South Asian woman in a perfect pant suit, took us through the rules of dressing different body types. I answered questions and took notes, happy to discuss who can wear tweed, and whether a tall man should wear a suit with a high or low chest closure (high, by the way). When I came home that afternoon, I was happy to report that at the very least I would walk away with a good understanding of style and design, able to play “what not to wear” with every person I saw.

A few days in, things took a decidedly weird turn. As style class ended, so did the sensible advice about patterns and tailoring of the previous days. With the same teacher, we began “personality style” class, which turned out to be bland in name only. What we were actually studying was physiognomy – the practice of using someone’s physical attributes to infer things about their character and personality. According to the charts in our textbooks, features such as “large dreamy eyes” or a “high aristocratic forehead” lump you in one of six personality type categories: classic, creative, aristocratic, natural, romantic, or dramatic. The descriptions of the personality types were accompanied by some cultural stereotypes in bullet point form. For instance, the natural  type was described as “passionate about the environment,” while the dramatic type was said to be “a lover of expensive restaurants and nightclubs.” Mainly, though, which category you fell into was determined by how you looked – the shape of your nose, the texture of your hair, your height. Our job as image consultants, we were told, was to assess which category our clients fell into and then steer them towards their true natures. No resistance on their part should stand in the way of their re-education.

(Physiognomy, long considered a pseudoscience, has been revived by reputable scientists in recent years. One study, for example, showed that men with wider faces had higher concentrations of testosterone in their saliva, making them more aggressive. Nothing in the new wave of physiognomy, though, points to the kind of weird specificity of the George Brown version.)

In order to practice, we were called to the front of the room one by one. We stood there silently as the rest of the class determined what category we most resembled. While the class discussed my delicate wrists and fine, thin hair, I was both totally mortified and perversely pleased with the attention. Others seemed to be on the same page – they were embarassed, but they returned to their seats grinning.

Superficially, physiognomy is an appealing concept – it’s fun in the way reading your horoscope in the paper is fun. It makes you feel special to be placed in a category, unique and yet safely ensconced in the herd. But if you accept the notion that a nose or a chin is a viable method of making inferences into that person’s true nature, physiognomy opens the door to something ugly.

As personality style class wore on, the glow of inclusion cooled rapidly. It was replaced with a sense of horror that physiognomy was still around, and, even worse, was being taught in a publicly funded, usually well-regarded college, such as George Brown. There we were, studying a largely discredited remnant of eugenics that would horrify the average person (to say nothing of the average client). The strangest part? Everyone seemed pleased, and nobody raised a single objection. As the sound of diligent note taking filled the room, I took to rolling my eyes at the wall – I had no partner in outrage.

It only got crazier from there. Our next teacher, Bryan (not his real name), was a thirtyish, baldingish, handsomish man, who began his class on personal development with the following announcement: “When I meet people, I know a lot about them already. I’ve had this ability since I was born.” Not only was Bryan psychic, he was deeply paranoid – everything from the American Medical Association (complicit with the media and government in the great vaccination cover-up) to sugar (“one of the biggest challenges we have in the world now”) found a way into his bad books. Even tofu was suspect. Its crime? Frequently making Bryan “sleepy.” Thanks to the Fukoshima earthquake in Japan and the resulting radiation, he advised us not to swim in the ocean. Or in pools. Or drink tap water. (Oh wait, that was because of fluoride.) The class ooh-ed and aah-ed appreciatively at each new revelation.

Yet again, the women in my class raised startlingly few objections. It could have had something to do with the way he spoke. When one women dared to ask if krill oil (krill oil?) was really the safest fish oil to consume, and that she had read otherwise, his ever-present all-knowing smile melted away and he thundered: “FALSE. WHAT’S THE SOURCE? FALSE.”  That put an end to that.

He spoke with enormous confidence, over-enunciating and emphasizing words with reckless abandon. It was as if he had created a no-gravity zone for logic – within the confines of our classroom, where he was always and absolutely right. He had a habit of saying something, then repeating it ever so slowly while looking each person in the room in the eye, elevating whatever he said to mantra status. “It’s okay to be risky,” he’d say, referring to nothing in particular. “It. Is. O. K. To. Be. Risky.”  I hated holding his gaze and, yet, I found myself smiling and nodding along, hoping for approval.  Perhaps, I thought, my classmates failed to object for the same reasons as me. Maybe they too silently seethed as he told us that prehistoric times “were debatable,” but found his rock solid conviction and vortex-like gaze impossible to overcome.

Lunches with my classmates dispelled that theory. Sitting outside in the sun with the others, I would ask what they thought of the course. “I love it!” was the most frequent reply. “It’s not what I expected, but it’s so interesting!” was another. I liked these women. They were friendly and warm, eager to share stories about their families and jobs. They seemed to share a set of beliefs with our teachers – with Bryan especially – that I couldn’t imagine buying into. In their view, the body was full of toxins, in desperate need of purification. The news was falsified. Doctors were not to be trusted. Facial shape determined personality, and sugar was the root of all evil.

They told revealing stories in class. One talked about travelling through time in her sleep. Another described successfully willing herself to never get parking tickets.

It soon became evident that all of our teachers were espousing slightly tweaked versions of the same life philosophy – and that my classmates loved it. You may have heard of “The Law of Attraction”– it’s the premise of the mega popular book and film “The Secret,” as well as a philosophy cherished by Oprah and a panoply of self-help authors. The basic idea is that if you have good energy, you attract the same – love, health, and money all come easily. Negative energy, on the other hand, brings nothing but sickness and misery. At first glance, this all seems well and good. As a fridge magnet, the Law of Attraction sounds great. Have positive emotions! You are powerful! Expanded from bumper sticker to life philosophy, however, and it starts unravelling. It demands a super-human level of control over the events that shape your life. Bad luck happens. And things are made all the more difficult if you can only blame yourself for not being positive enough. Bryan went so far as to insist that good energy alone could, among other things, restore vision, conquer cancer, and even regrow a spine. Another teacher claimed that, thanks to “high level energy,” her unvaccinated children were able to resist any illness that came their way, from polio to scarlet fever. Should her child come down with measles, would she blame them for letting their energy slip below the “high level” mark?

Despite the patently ridiculous physiognomy classes, the crazy health advice, and my objections to The Law of Attraction, I still felt guilty. Every night I’d regale my friends or family with the day’s latest, whether it was a hilarious Bryan quote or a story my classmate told (one said her lowest point involved over-exfoliating her face). I worried that I was exploiting them for cheap laughs – that I was being too critical, and not open-minded enough. The class had departed wildly from its original purpose – image consulting was barely mentioned on the Bryan days – but if my classmates were enjoying themselves and felt they had gotten their money’s worth, then who was I to sit there, shaking my head? After all, people rely on all sorts of belief systems to help them understand their lives and to help cope with the curveballs. Here I was, a stuck-up McGill undergrad, attending community college by day only to make snarky comments to my friends at night.

My guilt might have continued, were it not for Bryan, who took care of it for me in his final class, “The Business of Image Consulting.” I took the first day off, citing my mental health, in order to justify watching a season of 30 Rock in my basement. I arrived on day two to find a monumental shift had occurred in the tenor of the class. Somehow, Bryan had convinced the other women that they should all go into business together as image consultants. Their name would be Image Goddesses. “Your group is exceptional,” he told them. “You could tell everyone on the planet and no one else could create it.”

There was an awkward moment when Bryan asked my plans after graduation: would I pursue image consulting? I admitted I wasn’t sure. “That’s okay,” Bryan said, giving me an insipid smile. “Kate doesn’t want to be a partner anyways.” He then described in detail what he thought the women’s website should look like, how he thought they should set up, and how much money they would make. “Can you say Cha-Ching?” he said.

At lunch that day, my classmates excitedly discussed their business. I worried for them silently – four weeks of physiognomy and paranoia did not a successful image consultant make. That goes especially for a group of women who barely knew each other. I wondered at Bryan’s motives – why was he so intent on convincing them they could be successful?

The answer came on our final day. Bryan, alternating between stories about his brushes with the spirit world and praise for the Image Goddesses concept, began making allusions to future meetings with the women. “In two weeks,” he said “we’ll continue discussing networking possibilities for you ladies.” I was presently reminded that Bryan, in addition to teaching, made money as an “empowerment specialist” – coaching clients on how to improve their lives and businesses. It appeared, on that first day, that he had pitched the Image Goddesses idea to my classmates with the intention of becoming their paid business coach. When one of my fellow classmates asked if Bryan had ever coached his students in the past, he admitted that he had, many times. Were they currently successful image consultants? He hemmed and hawed, finally disclosing that, no, in fact, they weren’t. A couple had quit on him. One of them that had remained, he reported, found herself more in need of his life coaching skills then his business counsel. She had spent several months working through her personal issues with him while, presumably, her career went nowhere.

My guilt was gone. Who cares if I snickered at his zany theories? Whether the business sank or swam, Bryan would be there, charging consulting fees. His charisma suddenly seemed menacing. I felt a growing concern for my classmates as we filed out of the classroom on that final day. I wished them the best, and meant it. As we said our goodbyes, I couldn’t help but think the realization that good energy doesn’t move mountains would dawn on them sooner rather than later.

When I emerged from the college into the bright sunshine of an August afternoon, I felt relieved to return, finally, to the real world, where no one gives a second thought to krill oil or physiognomy. Still, sometimes Bryan’s teachings filter up through the transom of my mind. So if you catch me whispering a self-help mantra in the hall, look away. I went through a lot this summer.