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How should I live?
Veronica le Nevez is a recent arrival at Webdiary. She writes of herself:
This is the first piece that Veronica has contributed to Webdiary; many thanks.
How should I live?
I was so moved by the Gwyneth Paltrow lifestyle advice site Goop.com that despite being lazy and having a good number of other more important things to do, I decided to contribute my thoughts on it to Webdiary. Appropriate sniggering on Ms Paltrow's choice of site name has already been provided by many, so I will avoid that tantalisingly cheap shot and get straight into the substance.
When we're presented with beautiful little vignettes of a celebrity's life (you know, the Annie Liebovitz photo shoot and accompanying breathy homage to the celebrity du jour), it's tempting to think what a charmed life a film star has. Getting a golden tan on a beautiful Mediterranean beach. Tick. Marrying a rock star. Tick. With a social conscience. Tick, tick, tick! But we know that this is all a confection – a fantasy that we participate in while we're in the supermarket queue or the doctor's waiting room. Don't we?
You see the thing that surprised me most about Ms Paltrow's website was that she has bought into the fantasy hook, line and sinker. Goop starts with a slogan 'nourish the inner aspect'. A key question here is, the inner aspect of what? But I will return to that later.
You could be forgiven at this point for thinking that the purpose of Goop is to provide some information on spirituality or living a life of meaning and purpose. No, no, no. Inside Goop are articles on the following topics: – food, diet, travel, lifestyle advice, fashion, and things to see and do. Bog standard fare for any women's magazine. Only with Goop, we get the benefit of Gwyneth's sage advice:
What's the message here? That having the perfect butt can change your life.
Or there is Gwyneth's fashion advice:
At first glance, the message here is that if you are clever about your clothing purchases, you can look great without spending a fortune. However when you scroll down to the pictures, it is a different story. There's Gwyneth wearing shoes by Roger Vivier, then a belt by Yves Saint Lawrence, then boots by Christian Louboutin, etc. The real message is, Gwyneth Paltrow is rich and successful, and if you want to be like Gwyneth you're going to have to find a way to be rich and successful too.
Which brings me back to the slogan 'nourish the inner aspect'. The slogan implies that this website is about spirituality; an inward focus. And yet, everything published on it suggests that Gwyneth's view of spirituality is shopping, dieting, travelling and getting the perfect butt – all while patronisingly imparting her pearls of wisdom from her extraordinary life experience. The question 'what are we nourishing the inner aspect of' is a valid one because Gwyneth's website seems to nourish consumerism, vacuousness and self-worship.
However, the Goop website's similarity to New Idea and New Weekly merely demonstrates a disturbing reality – that our society values the kind of confection portrayed in these magazines as the ultimate life, over a real, rewarding and satisfying life. Clive Hamilton's recent book The Freedom Paradox says it more eloquently:
Alain de Botton gives it a name – status anxiety. In his book of the same name he defines status anxiety as:
Indeed. I realised I was experiencing status anxiety as recently as last weekend.
My husband and I decided to spend the night at an expensive 5 star hotel to celebrate our anniversary and live it up in the lap of luxury for a night. The assumption in this situation is that luxury is good and you will have a good time experiencing it.
On the contrary, I found that very little about the night in the luxury hotel was enjoyable. Not being accustomed to this kind of accommodation, we didn't know how to act, instantly marking ourselves out as 'outsiders' in this situation – partaking in something above our class. We were given a room with no view, which confirmed that in a luxury hotel guests are divided into various classes designed to give rise to instant status anxiety about what class you are assigned to. When we dined in the restaurant, we were given a table with no view, in keeping with our assigned class. The bar was so outrageously expensive that we decided to only have one drink, and were then informed by the staff that they do not take orders at the bar (this was another cue that we were out of our league here). So we decided to have a drink in our room, but the minibar was also so expensive that we decided to ditch all ideas of drinking and celebrated our anniversary with cans of ginger ale and diet coke. The most enjoyable thing about the whole experience was spending time with my husband – something that we could have done at home for free.
So why did we choose the 5 star hotel? I suppose because for one fleeting moment we allowed ourselves to be seduced by the message. The message of the 5 star hotel is simple – 'You've MADE it!' That's the message that's used to sell everything, from clothes to diets to holidays. You've made it, you're worth it – we want to shout to the rooftops that we are successful! But the moment of triumphalism is always short-lived, and always followed by a hollowness – the void that waits for the next purchase, the next triumph. We are so bombarded with choices, and with persuasive arguments for them, that we choose poorly. Perhaps the answer is to cultivate an awareness of the messages we are fed in our society, so that the choices we make bring us more happiness and less status anxiety.
It is refreshing to see that Ms Paltrow, despite thinking that 'guru' and 'film star' are the same thing, has as little idea of how to answer the question 'How should I live?' as the rest of us.
De Botton, A. 2004. Status Anxiety. Penguin Books,
Hamilton, C. 2008. The Freedom Paradox. Towards a post-secular ethics. Allen & Unwin,