Monday, March 16, 2015

The Discontent of Authenticity

Death to the Stock Photo

Almost every time I scroll through Instagram, a question dances on the periphery of my screen. It’s one I find myself asking frequently when I sit down for a binge on lifestyle blogs:

When did sharing discontent become a requirement for proving authenticity?

A few years ago, we all decried the artifice displayed on social media. We were stuck in the hamster wheel of keeping up with the Jones but the Joneses weren’t just next door anymore – they were everywhere. Moreover, we realized that we were at fault for this, we in the blogging community. By posting only the inspirational and the aspirational, we were holding ourselves and our followers to a Sisyphean standard, a standard that was neither satisfying to work towards nor sustainable when (if) achieved.

(This was the era in which a new “comparison is the thief of joy” graphic would appear every time we opened up Pinterest. Remember that? I blogged about it in 2012 and again in 2013, as I’m sure many of us did then.)

We started posting anecdotes from real life - #wokeuplikethis selfies, Christmas decorations left up until February, coffee spilled across breakfast tables. We started being honest about the messier side of things, about leaving freshly laundered clothes in a pile because we hate folding, about making repeated dinners out of chips and hummus, about choosing Law and Order marathons over lacing up our sneakers for trail runs. And, for a brief moment, we found genuine humor in reality and didn’t try to make it anything more.

Somehow, though, that morphed into the commercial comedy of relatability. “Your life isn’t perfect,” we captioned our photos, “and neither is mine! Look how busy I am, a Must Have planner and a Cult Brand coffee angled just so on my desk next to a pile of Best Seller books topped by artfully scattered Expensive Designer bangles with an Etsy Famous print hanging on the wall. How normal I am, like you! How crazy is life!” Honesty (or at least something calling itself that) became a commodity on social media, and suddenly though perhaps not surprisingly we tumbled from there into authenticity, the buzzword that’s been batted around blogland for the past year or so.

Here’s what disturbs me: we stopped sharing simple moments of unstyled reality when we started being “authentic” and we started weighting everything that isn’t perfect with metaphysical malaise. Authenticity became a trope through which to communicate not just literal but existential mess; now to be truly authentic online, it seems, we have to be dissatisfied with where we are in life.

Of course, it’s impossible for bloggers to avoid examining who we are and why and how. Blogging is, at its core, a navel-gazing activity, and very few if any still claim to blog only for themselves at this point in the game, which means that our introspection is part of what draws our readers in and keeps them captivated. Our authenticity – how genuine and transparent we are, or at least seem – is a key component of forming relationships with our readers and we therefore egg each other on to discover ever more profound things about ourselves and to challenge ourselves to be even more fundamentally us.

It’s all too easy for us to slide from there into discontent. After all, we need to keep our readers interested in what we have to say; introspection is useless as an engagement tactic if we’re not finding aspects of ourselves to improve.

That’s why, I think, we hear so much about bloggers feeling lost in their own lives and we read so many pieces on how to “craft” and “design” and “curate” our futures. Bloggers are constantly declaring they want to intentionally – that’s another word that crops up repeatedly – find themselves and the path they’re meant to be on. (You often get a sense of faith in fate, either directly or indirectly, from these posts and captions and comments, regardless of how much hard work and overcoming obstacles is understood to be a part of the discovery of true north.) It's hard to admit we’re not where we want to be in our lives and I give the women who are honest about their struggles a lot of credit for sharing them in such a public way. But sometimes I get the feeling that we’re mining our lives for largely surmountable complications to coat in a rosy gloss of deeper meaning just so we can work ourselves up into a lather of “authenticity”.

That’s why I wonder: how much introspection is too much?   At what point does exploring who you are and why and how and where stop being productive?  When do you realize that you're going in circles or, worse, creating more identity crises than you're resolving?

I don’t know that I have answers to these questions. What do you think?

Friday, March 13, 2015

Happy Birthday Charlie - Love Jon

As I write this, our (almost) four year old black Labrador is splayed out across our hard wooden floor, watching me intently as I type in my study. He has the option of two dog beds, one human bed (yeah, we tried to keep him off at first), one armchair, one large sofa and three rugs on which to make himself comfortable, but he chooses the hardest surfaces he can find for himself. Why? Because he has mastered the victim complex; despite a life of fulfillment, luxury, and the presence of numerous hard-working adults prepared to drop everything on his behalf, he has mastered the art of appearing forlorn and overlooked as a highly effective means of asserting his presence. I really don’t ask for much, his sad little yellow eyes say, except for the complete and undivided attention and subservience of everyone in this household whenever I demand it. Is that so much to ask?

Charlie's birthday is tomorrow, and he’s a huge presence (literally and emotionally)  in our lives. People demand binary statuses when it comes to stating a pet preference, so under those conditions I’ve always firmly been a cat person. I have two awesome family cats back in the UK, Tiffy and Topsy, who I miss terribly, and I have to admit that I’ve sometimes looked down on dogs because of their tendency to display unconditional affection. As a typical British person, I’m naturally suspicious of friendliness and prefer to start relationships with people based on mutual suspicion before gradually using alcohol as a replacement for talking when it comes to getting to know one another. Cats are exactly the same, except with head scratches replacing booze.

However, Charlie’s different. When I showed up on Betsy’s doorstep in September to start my new life in the USA, his enthusiastic greeting practically floored me (again, literally and emotionally). I was worried that Charlie would resent the presence of a new love in Betsy’s life, and the situation would be like a middle-aged man trying to bond with his new wife’s surly teenage son. As a precaution, I came armed with treats and every other bribe I could think of (particularly things that squeaked). Charlie didn’t see things that way, though; instead, he saw me as a whole new person to do his bidding! Betsy won’t feed me at the table, but hey, maybe this new guy will! Betsy shifts me over when I cut off the circulation to her legs, so let’s try lying on Jon! Charlie welcomed me wholehearted and enthusiastically, and, as long as I continue to abide by the few small things he asks of me (see first paragraph), I’m ok by him.

So happy birthday, Charlie! Thank you for welcoming me so affectionately and not peeing in my shoes. There are always challenges when starting life in a new country, particularly when I was mostly working from home and searching for a full-time job here. Having him keeping me company, and knowing when to smile/gurn/pant at me when things were frustrating, made a huge difference and kept me sane through a difficult first few months. I’m still not 100% a dog person in general, but I am most definitely a Charlie person.