“I’ve only just started it, but I’m already certain it’s going to make me into the person I’ve always wanted to be.” This was a text message that I sent to my sister in January, after buying a copy of Marie Kondo’s now legendary self-help book, The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying. Spoiler alert: I remain the same person, and my home remains an unmagical mess.
That text was the latest instalment of a long-running joke. Over the decades, the developments that were supposed to make my sister and I into The People We’ve Always Wanted To Be have included new hair colours, evening courses, pieces of furniture and handbags. The gag is born from a kernel of truth – that, somehow, certain purchases represent the person you wish you were. For a lovely moment, they seem to finally unlock the more wonderful you that you’ve been struggling to access. It’s an illusion that is fostered by much of our culture – fashion magazine editors, for example, are often asked why they fill half their pages with items that only one per cent of their readership can afford. The truth is that it helps them to sell lucrative advertising, but the official line is often something more nebulous: “Our fashion pages are aspirational.”
An aspiration is “a strong desire to achieve something high or great”, according to my dictionary, and it’s also the crux of a lot of glossy media. High-end magazines, luxury products and anyone using the word “artisanal” in their business – they’re all aiming to trigger in us a yearning and striving for something better. The management at Aintree have even asked guests at the Grand National 2016 to be more “aspirational” in their outfit choices this year, whatever we may read into that. Pinterest and Instagram claim to be about inspiration but, in practice, they’re as much about aspiration – the former is a place where we can advertise our desires; the latter is our opportunity to make others envious by parading our finest moments. We are living in the age of Not Fabulous Enough and Must Try Harder, and it’s making a lot of people a lot of money.
Comedian Bella Younger, like many of us, has been struck by the smug, grass-really-is-greener feel of the images she sees on Instagram. “I did what a lot of people have done, where you sit at home and you scroll through Instagram for four hours while you’re half-watching Netflix,” she says. “And I realised that I’d seen the same photos over and over again – it was beach yoga, avocado on toast, everyone looking phenomenally fantastic. And I was really hungover, probably with a bit of Mars Bar in my hair. I thought, ‘This is not real’.” She decided to set up the account @deliciouslystella, where she now routinely skewers the "wellness" trend. Sample caption: “I’ve been trying to get some more colour into my diet, so today I’m starting my day with some Skittles and a rainbow bagel.” Right now, she has 107,000 appreciative followers. I would guess that they, like me, are tired of everything being so relentlessly aspirational.
If I could accept myself as ‘good enough’, perhaps I would spend less time ticking things off, and more time being aimless – a feeling I used to revel in as a child
A flick through Instagram today reveals 104,421 posts under the hashtag “#aspirations”. The nine top posts include four quotes, as insistent and ominous as dictatorial propaganda: “A negative mind will never give you a positive life” warns one, while another advises: “In order to grow, you must be willing to change.” After all, why be yourself, when you could be a bit better?
The poster woman for this way of thinking is Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones, who, in the 1990s, threw herself into step aerobics, feng shui and self-help books, in an attempt to become an irresistible sex goddess with inner poise. “I think what rang true about Bridget Jones for so many women, and certainly for me,” says novelist Mhairi McFarlane, “is this idea that your natural weight is about a stone and a half under where you always are – that there is a thinner, better, more disciplined you, ready to just shed this skin and jump out.”
It’s true that many of us – perhaps especially women – think of ourselves as works in progress, full of yet unrealised potential. In the 2001 film, Bridget’s friends react incredulously to the news that Mark Darcy likes her just as she is: “Just as you are?” they ask. “Not… thinner? Cleverer? Slightly bigger breasts or a slightly smaller nose?” I get it: I like myself as I am, but I’d prefer a me who has straight teeth and is fluent in French.
We start this frantic aspiring at a young age. When I was a teenager, I longed for boobs and the ability to smoke a cigarette without coughing; now, adolescent aspiration seems to be about thigh gaps and #squadgoals. In a post-Bridget era, where we are all heavily plugged into each other’s existences via social media, the awareness of your shortcomings is harder than ever to ignore – one friend seems to be the perfect mother, while another’s gym selfies are depressingly impressive. “I think the problem is that everyone’s lives are a series of peaks and troughs, but we’re only seeing a shitload of peaks,” says Younger, wisely.
It’s true that many of us – perhaps especially women – think of ourselves as works in progress, full of yet unrealised potential
Aside from social media, the constant accessibility of the internet also ramps up our attempts at self-improvement. I read articles, watch interviews and listen to podcasts at every opportunity – in bed, on the Tube, in the bath. I am impeccably well-primed if you want to know the name of the current must-see Broadway show (Hamilton: The Musical), or Clive James’ most recent poetry book (Sentenced To Life). I know that Liberty has just collaborated with Uniqlo, that the Women’s Equality Party has just launched an anti-violence campaign and that there’s a fantastic photography exhibition right now at the Tate Modern. If there is a way to be a more culturally informed me, I will try to make time for it.
As a result, I guess I feel like I’m taking part in the world, to an extent. But the problem with all this effort is that it’s endless and exhausting – at times, it feels like pushing a rock up a hill. “A lot of us do strive to be the best we can possibly be,” says cognitive behavioural psychotherapist Dr Rita Santos. “The media allows that to happen to some extent, but it also complicates things. It causes anxiety for a lot of people, especially if you are someone who takes other people’s opinions into a high level of consideration.”
If I could accept myself as “good enough”, perhaps I would spend less time ticking things off, and more time being aimless – a feeling I used to revel in as a child. Santos’ advice is to stop striving for a perfect you that might exist in the future, and “focus on what you’re experiencing right now”. And indeed it can be an enormous relief to tune out some of the noise. “My sister-in-law is just not interested in social media,” says McFarlane. “But she doesn’t lack a single thing by not bothering. That does feel quite instructive, because Facebook is this big thing that we’re all addicted to – yet someone can take it out of their life with no apparent loss at all.”
The truth is, sometimes the aspirational ideas that you ingest from social media, the internet and even glossy fashion spreads can improve you, a little – from time to time, they expand your horizons, introduce you to something that you’ll truly value, or permanently change your perspective. These are baby steps towards what one hopes might be the considerable self-improvement you can achieve over a lifetime. But there is a benefit to turning down the volume and focusing more attention on the elements of your life and yourself that are already good enough. If I could just master doing that a little more often, I think it might turn me into the relaxed, confident person I’ve always thought I could be.