What (We Think) We Know

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

I

I was quite young when I heard the expression “breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, dinner like a pauper”. My parents didn’t say it, but it was in the ether. Up until very recently when intermittent fasting became popular, the idea of skipping breakfast seemed unfathomable. Eating poorly for this first meal meant I could be destroying my health. 

The origin of this expression? Kelloggs, the makers of breakfast cereals. 

When early shampoo manufacturers wanted to increase their sales, their advertisers added a line on their bottles to promote this: “rinse and repeat”. 

A diamond engagement ring – as well as the notion that that diamonds are forever or that it should cost the man three months’ salary – was a “tradition” started in the 20th century by De Beers, the diamond company.

As for lavish or destination weddings – whether it’s wearing a designer white dress and walking down an aisle, or a Bollywood-style extravaganza across multiple days of events – has become entirely normalised thanks to popular films and television shows.

As a film person, I can tell you that no brand ever appears on screen by mistake. At the very least, the brand gives permission to show their product without money exchanging hands (as in the case of Apple products). But most often, brands paying substantial sums to have their products shown on screen. 

Whether it’s Rolex and BMW in James Bond films, or Doritos and Pepsi in Never Have I Ever, they are there intentionally. And that intention is to sell you something.

Magazines and billboards have notoriously used aspirational images to sell designer goods. Tara Button, in her excellent book A Life Less Throwaway, talks of her days working in advertising when they Photoshopped together parts of three different women to create one “perfect” woman to sell a car. 

II

Yeah, yeah, I know: we live in a consumerist culture, and that’s the price we have to pay for all the comfortable lifestyle we have. 

But the price can be very high. Because advertisers worked out a long time ago that happy, content people don’t buy things for any other reason that they genuinely need it (a screwdriver, an oven). 

So the rise of consumerism is not just the rise of materialism, but the rise of the Not-Enough-ism. 

The culture wants to keep you destabilised because nothing makes us spend money like insecurity. So we are constantly fed the message that we are not clean enough, not loved enough, and we (especially women) are certainly not pretty enough. We cannot ever believe we are good enough because, then, why would we want to purchase anything except the basic necessities? 

Advertisers also tap into our primal fear of being ousted from the tribe, so we all desperately want social belonging and approval. 

As Button says in A Life Less Throwaway about advertising campaigns: “The model’s [disdainful] expression is designed to make you question your status and to see them as superior to you so subconsciously you want what they have. And, crucially, to assure people who already own that brand that anyone who sees them with it will feel inferior in their presence.”

Only an insane culture tells you your clothes are out of style and need be replaced each season when they’re still completely functional. Or that you need eyelash extensions or a mascara to make it appear as if you are wearing false lashes. Or that you should fight any possibility of smelling like a human being. 

Every time we think we “should” do something, or that’s “just how it is” – it’s almost certainly because commercial entities have created a fear of the consequences.

An unhappy and fearful population will keep looking to soothe itself. And when we feel broken, we try to mend it from the outside with excess processed food, with alcohol and drugs, and – of course – with shopping. And spending money is the most socially sanctioned coping mechanism in our society.

III

Despite my fairly heightened awareness of all this, I still participate. Nobody has forced me to do any of it, but I’ve engaged with mainstream society long enough, and no matter where I am in the world, the messages are much the same. 

What’s been interesting is how the lockdown has started to make this come apart in the seams. It began by how I wasn’t able to do the things I normally do – such as dyeing my grey roots. And it morphed into I couldn’t be arsed to do any more – wear jewellery or, indeed, any clothing that wasn’t a t-shirt and leggings. The days I bothered to put on a bit of eyeliner (to perk myself up – old habits die hard), I felt like I’d dressed for an award show. 

I used to sometimes wonder – what would I do if nobody is watching? Well, now I found out. I’d shower less, sleep more, and be waaaay more sloppy. 

So what would you believe if you weren’t fed by the consumerist machinery of our culture? Is avoiding propaganda even possible? I’m not sure, honestly. We’ve sucked it up through osmosis by this point. And it can be exhausting to always double check – is this what I truly believe and want, or is it because I’ve been told it enough times that it is so? 

But the real question to ask is: what would you do if nobody is judging you?

There’s a lot at stake going against the status quo. I don’t just mean what you wear or what phone you carry. It goes a lot deeper and wider. It means examining all the things you’re supposed to believe make up a successful life, and then design one that suits just you. 

I have a lot more to say on that front personally, and I hope to articulate it all soon enough. But as countries are opening up now and life gets geared back up, this is a good time to accept that things won’t go back to “normal”. And that the old normal had a lot that needed improvement. But we were in so deep, we stopped noticing. 

So, this is a good time to ask: how do I choose to live now? 

“If tomorrow, women woke up and decided they really liked their bodies, just think how many industries would go out of business.” — Professor Gail Dines

Related Recommendations

“Well, let me tell you ’bout the way she looked / The way she acts and the colour of her hair / Her voice was soft and cool / Her eyes were clear and bright / But she’s not there.” I love the song, She’s Not There, originally by The Zombies. My favourite version is by Neil MacArthur. 

Articles of Interest, hosted by Avery Trufelman, is a limited series of podcasts under 99 Percent Invisible. Both seasons are excellent, but the recent, second, one is especially so. I’ve learnt so much about, among other things, diamond rings and men’s suits. I geek out on this stuff – it’s fascinating. 

In her book, A Life Less Throwaway, Tara Button talks about planned obsolecense (where products are designed to stop working within a set time so that you’re forced to buy a replacement) and many other practices by companies to get you to buy their products. She also has a website, Buy Me Once, where they find products that are created with integrity and built to last, so you waste less money and resources. 

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