"Many years ago there lived an Emperor who was so fond of new clothes that he spent all his money on them in order to be beautifully dressed. He did not care about his soldiers, he did not care about the theatre; he only liked to go out walking to show off his new clothes. He had a coat for every hour of the day; and just as they say of a king, 'He is in the council-chamber,' they always said here, 'The Emperor is in the wardrobe."
- The Emperor's New Clothes by Hans Christian Anderson
Ever since Adam and Eve adopted the fig leaves in the Garden of Eden, we've been consumed with the quest to cover up our shame, insecurity, loneliness; those dreaded feelings of being left out or missing out. And marketers have been only too happy to help us along in this pursuit of the ideal self: the one which is more commensurate with standards set by the prevailing Zeitgeist – the cool jeans, the best washing powder, the right music, the new drink, the latest techno gadget – with all the commensurate labels (hipster, fashionista, geek, fangirl, party girl, surfie, alpha male) and in turn their own media offshoots (TV shows, magazines, websites, books) to help us define more adequately who we are and our path... Onward to popularity via the mega-mall!
Just who are we beneath all this junk; these shiny, materialistic distractions?
"Even in our present era of 10,000 niches, mass customization, and the “long tail”— of companies selling fewer items from a far vaster inventory—we are, arguably, governed more than ever by what’s popular," write the editors of Bloomberg Business Week. "Thanks to the Internet’s ability to rank everything, one can dwell almost exclusively in the world of trending Twitter topics, of top-reviewed restaurants, of Amazon.com bestselling books, of the cutest cute-cat YouTube videos. News sites all feature tallies of the Most Read, Most E-mailed, and Most Commented On articles—creating a self- reinforcing conversation."
The project of making over the self and remaining part of the conversation can be an exhaustive lifelong pursuit, usually starting with the awareness, sometime in childhood, that some fault, some flaw, or deficit of yours needs to be fixed or made up for. For those children whose families inoculate them from the messages sent here, there and everywhere, by the world, there is more hope – but for even those children who meet or exceed expectations, the race towards self-betterment and lifestyle idealism can seem like the singular pursuit of Westernised humanity.
And it's an expensive one at that – not only in the sense of money (which has landed America the grand total of $14,594,874,110,347 in national debt and a credit rating downgraded to AA+ from the prized AAA), but in the expenditure of time, energy and the true self. In the worst of cases, you wake one day to find that you are not a whole but, indeed, an assembly of lots of selves and cultural artefacts. Your attempts to emulate, to run with the pack, or even stay two steps ahead, have left you flat with nothing to give back. You feel like an iPhony. So the quest to find your true self begins... only beneath all the clutter, you're not so sure you're going to like what you find. Not to worry: more stuff will numb that straight away!
The ubiquity of our new media culture only adds to the problem: the pull of homogeneity haunts us from every corner, from the street to the web, with the promise of guaranteeing us the elusive status of "popular". This is not a uniquely female dilemma, nor one with divisions of class – in fact, it is made keenly clear, looking at images of teens ransacking shops in London, that the pursuit of popularity via misappropriated consumer mechanisms, is not the exclusive project of monied people; in fact, the desire to rise above one's circumstances – of bridging the gap between 'us' and 'them' – is part of the problem: the exploitation of aspiration and desire above the exhortation that simply having one's basic needs met is the aim of almost every brand.
Is all this popularity account keeping enriching us, or does it obscure new paths of discovery?
Emma, Clueless, Educating Rita... there are several novels and films based on the premise of the makeover; of turning into something, or someone, better than the original self via education, grooming, refinement. "What, you can bear that I'm educated now," says Rita to her mentor, Frank. "I've got what you have an 'y' don't like it... I don't need you anymore. I've got a room full of books. I know what clothes to wear, what wine to buy, what plays to see, what papers and books to read. I can do without you."
The narrative metamorphosis is further entrenched by our reality TV show and gossip magazine obsession: your new, improved self is the one we really want to know and celebrate – the message: compete or be obsolete. Add Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr accounts to update to the mix, with their combustion-chamber scrutiny, compound with pressures to achieve, and you've got a hotbed of generational anxiety.
Our preoccupation with perfection and popularity – which are said to lead to empowerment (falsity!) – ultimately intersects with a crisis of identity and a showing up of a deficit in true self-awareness, particularly when confronted with images or visions of the former self. Unless, of course, we can be canny, conscious consumers – clever, clever cats – who, like Rita and Eve before her, realise that romanticised visions of aspirational ideals act to steal away from our contentment; that it's not one's social status that makes them better, but how they make the most of whatever they've been given.
“I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my soul shall be joyful in my God; for He hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, He hath covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with ornaments, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels” (Isaiah 61:10).
Girl With a Satchel