Tuesday, 23 April 2013

How NOT to be Cool in a Modern Era, a Personal Story of Letting Go

I would like you to meet Oliver. He is a benevolent bear: benevolent meaning humane, compassionate, kind-hearted and tender. Obviously the idea of making a ‘good’ bear had not left me after the completion of the terrible Theobold (see my post He is Not a Tame Bear for further details). But I have to say that the true idea behind his creation was sparked by a book Gary brought home from work one day. The book is called “Ways of Seeing” by John Berger. It was originally a four-part television series made for the BBC in 1972. John Berger then created this book with his producer Mike Dibb and also Sven Blomberg, Chris Fox and Richard Hollis.

I have decided I will share the book and series with you in a more in-depth way in my *Recommends* blog in the future. The book contains seven essays and for now, I would like to discuss the impact that one of the seven essays had on me. When I read back over the essay now it is not even the main theme of the piece that really sparked something in me; it was a point that the author made about glamour that really stuck in my head and changed the way I see things.

The essay I am writing about is about many things but publicity is at the heart of it with themes of modern technological advances, oil painting and the impact that ideological images have on us as they surround us and saturate our environments. It speaks about how the publicity machines sell us not products, but the dream of a future happier self with all the money, possessions and companionship that a person could want or need.

“Publicity persuades us of such a transformation by showing us people who have apparently been transformed and are, as a result, enviable. The state of being envied is what constitutes glamour. And publicity is the process of manufacturing glamour.”

The glamorising of this future self leaves us feeling dissatisfied with our present selves and so, we must start striving to buy and acquire all the products that the dream machine sell to us as the cure to our present dissatisfied and unsatisfactory state.

Berger also shares his belief that publicity preys on our fears and targets our anxieties, making its presence in our lives not a benign force but something that actively plays a role in our decision making and the development of our culture. This is quite a crude outline of all that is contained in the essay, the writing itself is beautifully interwoven with art history, political implications and thought provoking imagery. I highly recommend you check it out for yourself.

“Glamour cannot exist without personal social envy being a common and widespread emotion. The industrial society which has moved towards democracy and then stopped half way is the ideal society for generating such an emotion. The pursuit of individual happiness has been acknowledged as a universal right. Yet the existing social conditions make the individual feel powerless. He lives in the contradiction between what he is and what he would like to be. Either he then becomes fully conscious of the contradiction and its causes, and so joins the political struggle for a full democracy which entails, amongst other thing, the overthrow of capitalism; or else he lives, continually subject to an envy which, compounded with his sense of powerlessness, dissolves into recurrent day-dreams.”

There is one main paragraph in the essay that really influenced a thought pattern in my mind and which then led me to make this bear. Let me share it with you.

“Being envied is a solitary form of reassurance. It depends precisely upon not sharing your experience with those who envy you. You are observed with interest but you do not observe with interest - if you do, you will become less enviable. In this respect the envied are like bureaucrats; the more impersonal they are, the greater the illusion (for themselves and for others) of their power. The power of the glamorous resides in their supposed happiness: the power of the bureaucrat in his supposed authority. It is this which explains the absent, unfocused look of so many glamour images. They look out over the looks of envy which sustain them.”

When I read this small grouping of words it seemed to me that they were lit up on the page, highlighting its message and it called out like an invitation to a new world. It said to me, in such a clear and straight forward manner, a truth that I felt in my guts.

As I read the paragraph for the third time I replaced the word ‘glamour’ with the word ‘cool’. I felt from my own life experience the absence of being the ‘cool kid’. Art College was an amazing experience for me but there is an aspect of it that I never really participated in. I feel I struggled in a social sense, I never felt like I had the coolest clothes, the best taste in music or that I had any edge. I have never been a drinker or a drug taker and I have found it hard to go with the flow. I was a hard worker, an enthusiastic learner and I also had high and low moods that needed constant attendance. I have always been a person of extremes but I think my extremes are definitely of the un-cool variety, there is very little glamour with them.

The idea this paragraph presented to me was that ‘glamour’ or ‘cool’ was something that was constructed to aid a very specific goal that actually bore no relation to my well being and more than likely would be unable to deliver on any of its thin promises.

It said to me that being ‘cool’ or ‘glamorous’ was a tactic created to bring power and control to a certain group of people and if you were willing to learn the ways of it and take action, you too could have the power of cool and glamour on your side. It is not something you are born with, it is not something special about you, it is just the manipulation of factors with a more or less guaranteed outcome that has been observed and harnessed for the purposes of selling perfume, lipstick and really expensive cars.

I felt the actions I would need to take in order to obtain this kind of glamour were the opposite of most of the things I was striving for in my life. The line “You are observed with interest but you do not observe with interest” jumped off the page. I thought how sad it would be to appear disinterested in everyone and everything in order to maintain a fa├žade of superiority. You could not let anyone get to know you because if they begin to relate to you, you become less fictionalised and therefore more real, with problems, imperfect skin and ailing relations like everybody else. The glamour story sells us about a world where none of those things occur anymore. Super models don’t have split ends and aunts with breast cancer. They wear bikinis all year round and their only care is where the next martini is coming from, they don’t have emotional needs and they definitely don’t nag.

I feel I have been striving for perfection my whole life. I have a long held belief that I am unsatisfactory. I do believe the constant stream of overtly sexualised images of women, long shimmering legs, flat stomachs and prancing smiling girls has impacted on this expectation of myself. You don’t have to agree with me, it is my belief. I think women are constantly sold the idea of physical happiness through a specific body type that will equal life happiness and life fulfilment. I believed for a long time in my teens and early twenties that being thin would solve all my problems. I swallowed the lie and chased the dream.

After a lot of work on myself I have come to realise that that old story is just that, a story and that dream will never be fulfilled. Not that I can’t lose weight, no, that the losing of weight will answer the question of life happiness. It is a hard dream to let go of, it is all encompassing and simple. One answer to a million questions; Brilliant! But I have known too many beautiful, kind and intelligent women who have suffered with eating disorders and have been distressed by image problems to have much faith in that dream any more.

So let me come to Oliver. Oliver has a loving, warm smile on his face. On his t-shirt I have embroidered the slogan “Too Warm to be Cool”. This just about sums me up. I have tried to be kind, understanding and compassionate for most of my life. I have great interests in many things and I love sharing these interests with other people. My enthusiasm bubbles over when I see a good film or I read an excellent book. The thought of having to keep that to myself, to hide my excitement about life when I find it, to have to “…look out over the looks of envy which sustain them” in order to be thought to be ‘cool’ or ‘glamorous’ is just not worth it to me.

The day I read that essay is the day I let go of chasing the idea of COOL. Now that really is Brilliant! I don’t mean to imply that now I am magically fixed so that I don’t care how I look or how I am perceived. I think I have just let go of the one big answer and have started to pursue the millions of individual answers to life’s questions. What makes me happy? How do I accept myself as I am? What will I make? What do I want to say? The list goes on and on as does the work to answer these questions. I do know that I have warm blushed cheeks, a warm heart and warm ideas. I have set coolness and its cold ways aside. I could learn to be cool and it might come in handy along the way. But for today I will bask in the warmth of a perfectly imperfect self.

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