IT looks such fun at the outset: a low-risk fast-track to social identity… fancifying the semiotics of self into an avatar then living through it, one safe step back from reality.
Grooming ourselves to an image is a step popular culture powerfully incites us to take… constructing, inhabiting, then becoming bound to identities we hope others will reward with attention, companionship, opportunities and hard cash. The Photoshopped ideal may be impossible to achieve in the flesh but a fair approximation is alluringly within reach. And it brings us many of the things we crave… not least, a romantic sense of “me”.
But one day, sadly, it’s bound to bite.
In the world — part real, part imagined — that attaches itself to our image, it’s possible, even desirable, to unhook body, mind and spirit from each other, and it’s a rare person who can sustain that sort of existential dismemberment, day in and day out, without a gathering awareness of conflicting needs. Our necessary devotion to sustaining the vital, youthful, attractive image that represents “me” is likely to fully preoccupy us. So, as the groomed self eclipses the real self… happiness gets less reassuring, relationships falter for want of depth… we trust less fully, more conditionally and less impulsively. We feel we’re doing what we “have to” rather than what stimulates or satisfies us. Worse, we sense both the fragility of that “self” that others relate to, and its hold over us. Just when we most need our whole selves, they seem furthest from us… denial and anti-depressants are easier.
Real “real life” is an unstoppable process that rolls implacably along: from birth, through childhood, into adulthood, on to old age and, finally, to death. Our bodies are magnets for scars, lines that deepen to wrinkles, imperfect teeth, cellulite, liver spots, split ends and grey hairs. Our skin dehydrates and roughens, our muscles lose tone. Our demeanour drifts; our hair thins, our libido wanes and our memory unwinds; our stamina weakens. Pains and aches disturb our sleep and change our gait. Short of dying young there’s no way to stop it.
The physical trajectory of life is vividly clear. What popular culture would deny us is the opportunity for that trajectory to be experienced as liberating, continually surprising and filled with meaning and delight — as an ongoing release into the full flow of life.
The great secret of life is not about making it last forever; it’s about living it well. It’s about following vectors of beauty, truth, passion, curiosity and love every step of the way — and it takes some time to learn the art. Popular culture is not about living life well; it’s become a heavily promoted, cash-flow driven escape from life, as abusive as it is addictive.
So, more and more, for example, we see “normal” physiological processes being re-branded — and medicated — as pathologies. There are pills to govern sleeping and wakefulness, activity levels, moods and emotions, appetites and libidos. And such is the anxiety about pain levels that we’ll take painkillers when we feel a headache “coming on”. And there’s advertising to focus us on our disappointments and encourage our sense of entitlement to a never-ending twenties-something “lifestyle”. It renders us less free to be, to become or to explore the truths of our relationship with experience… and it’s all about market extension.
So, in the churning wake of global “Big Pharma”, there bobs along the less intimidating nuisance of the “health products” industry, its extracts, potions and placebos all of which would be obviated by a sensibly varied diet, the acceptance of minor discomfort and a little more exercise.
Similarly specious, but with more marketing whack, are the overtures of processed food purveyors who have taken to add “health” claims to their products, usually based on alleged properties of additives they have added to all of the other additives. So, along with the preservatives, colourants and colour retention agents, acids and acid regulators, thickeners, bulking agents, texture and moisture regulators, emulsifiers, artificial flavourings, salt, sugar, corn syrup and canola oil… we also get vitamins, iron, antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, fibre… breakfast is about making my bowels move after all of the substances I’ve unwittingly just consumed? This is “reality”?
In 2010, Joanna Jastrzebska, a psychiatrist in North Shields, England, wrote in frustration to New Scientist magazine about seeing “an increasing number of people consulting psychiatrists for all sorts of life-related problems and using diagnostic terms to tell us that they are ‘depressed’, ‘bipolar’ or ‘suicidal’.
“I am astounded,” she wrote, “by the number of people who come to me for a diagnosis, and who then are unhappy when I try to explain that this is called ‘life’.
“At first “I thought it was all the fault of us doctors, that we medicalise these poor, unhappy, non-coping people. But the longer I work, the more clearly I see that people want a ‘diagnosis’ because a diagnosis means there must be a treatment, and a treatment amounts to an easy way of getting their life or themselves fixed. …They want tablets to stop them crying, although their mother died only a few weeks ago, or something to calm them down when they become aggressive after they have a drink. They ask us to sort out their unruly children who have ever known any boundaries. They want it sorted and they want it now. This problem is partly a result of the modern pressure to be happy and advert-perfect all the time; if you aren’t, there must be something wrong with you.”
By the beginning of the millennium, anti-ageing treatments and technologies were a serious business. It’s led to some eloquent moments of naivety. In 2009, for example, the American Advertising Standards Authority compelled Estee Lauder to withdraw an advertisement after a touchingly credulous customer complained that Estee Lauder’s premium-priced Tri-Aktiline Instant Deep Wrinkle Filler failed to make her wrinkles “disappear instantly” as the advertisement claimed it would.
Cosmetic surgery, in the United States alone, was a $10 billion a year industry by 2007. That was the year that, at the terrifyingly advanced age of 44, the erstwhile Hollywood actress Demi Moore, by then married to her 29 year-old third husband and having spent half a million dollars on cosmetic surgery, announced she’d drawn a line in the sand and launched a campaign against “ageism” in Hollywood… she wasn’t getting $12 million movie roles any more.
That kind of ego-gouging discrimination is disproportionately but not exclusively inflicted on women. For men, the nightmare issue is “erectile dysfunction”: the inability to indefinitely sustain a hammer-hard erection. In fact, a song to celebrate this decrepitude, called The Fumbler’s Rant, was doing the rounds in Glasgow, Scotland, back in the early 19th century. It went, in part, like this:
Come Carls a’ of Fumbler’s Ha’, (old men all of Fumbler’s Hall)
and I will tell you o’ our fate,
Since we ha’e married wives that’s braw,
and canna please them when ’tis late.
A pint we’ll tak, our hearts to chear;
what fauts we ha’e, our wives can tell; (faults)
Gar bring us in baith ale and beer, (then… both)
the auldest bairn we hae’s oursell. (oldest child)
Our bairn’s tocher is a’ paid, (child’s dowry)
we’re masters o’ the gear our sel'; (masters of our own goods)
Let either weel or wae betide, (good or bad)
here’s a health to a’ the wives that’s yell. (barren)
Nowadays, let this sort of libido failure last three months, and many doctors — instead of pulling a fumbler’s pint to celebrate — will deem it a “clinical condition. Erectile dysfunction crushes the self-esteem of 40 per cent of 40 year-old men and 70 per cent of 70 year-old men. It’s caused by a complicated set of interacting psychosocial, neurological, and vascular factors commonly known as “ageing”. Come on, guys. It’s permission to relax, to lighten up and laugh.
While, on the one hand, there’s this aversion to life-as-it-is, there’s an almost hysterical reluctance to let go of it.
The Eighth International Congress on Anti-Ageing and Biomedical Technology in 2000, held not inappropriately in Las Vegas, gambling capital of the world, attracted more than 3,300 physicians and scientists — “experts” — half of whom said they fully expected to live to be at least 120 years old. For the men, that would add about 45 years of erectile dysfunction anxiety to their lives and, for the women, more than 32 additional years of expensively disappointing encounters with miracle moisturizing creams.
It’s ironic that, while youthfulness is such a favoured state, so many people seem eager to vest greater proportions of their whole-life experience in the socially despised and marginalised condition of old age… all of those added years of incontinence and hospital gowns, your butt moulded to a bedpan, gumming food that tastes like denatured tapioca and sitting in your wheelchair in “care facility” lounges watching daytime television or comparing medical histories. I lack words to express how much I’d sooner slash my wrists with the shards of a freshly-emptied bottle of malt whisky.
In contexts like these, it’s perplexing to realise that there’ve been simpler societies that have not only accepted ageing but have embraced it with genuine respect for the elderly. Their respect had to do with the wisdom their elders gained through real-life encounters with real stuff in the real world… and perhaps they were not so lacking in grace as to spend their time trying to ape the hyperactive sex lives of 20 year-olds.
Around the whole of what can be thought of as “popular culture” there runs a fence — the morbid fear of death — but popular culture is so vast and vigorous that there is no need to constantly fret about it. More noticeable is the strong attractive force at its centre: a comfort zone.
Comfort zones, sustained as they are by pharmaceuticals, mass media, 24/7 entertainment and the efficiency of supermarkets, and accessorised with high tech toys and other totems of consumption, provide at least the mirage of a life without pain or uncertainty, or threats of unfamiliar moods and foods, sensations and vexations.
So the further one imagines venturing from the hearth of one’s comfort zone, the larger looms the razor-wire of fear: fears of criminals, of spiders, of asteroid strikes and of terrorists, of foreigners, of dogs and cats, bedbugs and crowds, of “third hand smoke” (the lethal residues that are said to linger where people used to smoke), of carcinogens and snakes, of the “devil”, of alien abductors, of darkness, of young people, of germs and allergens and “bad things” in general, imagined and unimaginable.
To be persuasive, a genuine risk needn’t even exist. Almost anything a little unusual — a petite woman with her head demurely covered by a headscarf, for example — can get a hotter hazard rating than real and immediate dangers that lurk in the inner sanctum of the comfort zone. In most societies, for example, murder victims are far more likely to have been done-in by a friend, acquaintance or family member than by any of the countless strangers they’re bound to have met during their shortened lives. Accidents carry off many more souls than assaults. Your car and your home are high-risk areas. And obesity is deadlier yet… statistically, fast food queues are killing zones.
Popular culture creates the illusion that there’s always an “off” switch to deal with discomfort. It gives breath to the lie that our actions needn’t carry consequences and that virtual worlds do no harm. But, at the end, it can feel like impalement… and that shouldn’t be a surprise: it’s not as though we evolved to inhabit comfort zones.
The Astroturf is no greener out there. It’s not even Astroturf… it’s grass, and YOUR LIFE, your real life that’s out there. It’s freedom and it’s wonderful.
One day, you’re almost sure to hear it howling, like a wolf in the night.
I suggest you run to it.
Freedom’s where spirits expand and “lives” become life.