I know. It’s the 4th of January and you’ve already read hundreds of features called ‘New Year, New You’. We’re told to ask ourselves all kinds of big questions: is my life going in the right direction? Am I the best person I can be? Can I lose 20 pounds? What isn’t questioned is the assumption that we all need to improve ourselves.
And that’s fair enough. After all, it’s nice to be motivated to improve ourselves and our lives. But I suspect it is no coincidence that so many of the self-improvements suggested to us involve buying things. A gym membership. A self-help book for the career/relationship/diet/self-confidence. A new wardrobe. A new lipstick. A new hairstyle.
Well, hang on now, this looks familiar. Why, it’s all about being hot and sexy! Of course, if I can just transmogrify myself into Gisele Bündchen by following Cosmo’s 10 easy steps, then everything in my life will be wildly successful and fabulous.
So by buying things to make me hot and sexy, I will become an amazing gorgeous person living in bliss. Strangely, this sounds like a recipe for success not for me, but for the lady magazines, the lady products and the corporations that sell them all. When did that happen?
I’m going to say the 1950s. At least, I have learned from Stephen Gundle’s excellent book, Glamour: A History (2008) that the 50s was when mass production brought luxury to the middle and working classes. Suddenly cars, jewellery, cosmetics and the clothes worn by models could actually be bought by the woman in the street. For the first time, everyone could genuinely aspire to be like the models and celebrities in the magazines, could wear the same lipstick as a film star.
It seems odd now to think of such availability as a novelty, but it was. For instance, fashion designers originally dealt only in couture, making bespoke clothes for the few who could afford them. Sometimes they would sell the rights to their patterns, so that other companies could make cheap quick versions, but this was not the same as the new breed of designers who emerged in the 1960s – Calvin Klein is probably the most famous – who pioneered the market in designer ready-to-wear. This market, in which original designer dresses, shirts and underwear were on sale to the masses at almost accessible prices, was brand new.
And since these desirable, aspirational products were now readily available, they needed publicity. And we know how that ended up – fashion and lifestyle magazines who have become so dependent on advertising income that all their content raves about the products advertised in their pages with little room for anything else. And the aspirations that we absorb from the magazines are all about what you look like and what you own.
So of course ‘New Year, New You’ comes to be less about being kinder to people and saving more money over the coming year, but rather to identify new (or perennial) problems with our appearances and purchase lots of stuff to fix them.
Need I ask about the success rate of such resolutions, or how they make us all feel?
How’s about a nice, obvious New Year’s resolution, in which we attempt to Not Buy Stuff and Do Important Things Instead. Pour moi? My resolution is to (not buy stuff) and blog more regularly. You see? Selfless.