It started out the way these things usually do. Everyone seemed to be talking about it – and I have to admit that I was curious. It was good timing; I wanted to try something new.
At first, things felt pretty awkward. I remember being unsure whether or not I wanted to continue, thinking perhaps I was in over my head. I decided to give it a chance. As time passed, things became more comfortable. I began to open up and share things about my life: where I was from, the university I attended, stories and photographs. And so things progressed.
Fast forward six years, and although we’ve certainly had a lot of fun together, I’m again questioning whether or not I want to keep going. You see – I’m told every day that I am fat.
I’m told that I need to burn more calories and to do something about my excess belly fat, that I need to slim down for the summer. I’m shown before and after photos of women who have gone through remarkable physical transformations and urged to learn the latest celebrity diet secrets. I need a tighter tummy, to lose the muffin top, drop those last pesky pounds around my waist and burn more fat. Fat, fat, fat.
Of course – I’m not talking about an actual relationship. I’m talking about the marketing algorithms running in the background of Facebook.
Presumably, because I’m in the female demographic between the ages of 25 to 34, and because I read articles about wellness and fitness and buy healthy food at the grocery store – I am obsessed with my weight and my appearance. Let me explain.
In a fast paced world where time is finite, Facebook serves as a means to keep us up to speed with the people in our social networks, providing entertainment on a stage where the actors are people known to us; humorous anecdotes and useful tidbits of information, the sharing of passions, experiences and ideas. People share their important life events and accomplishments and it means something to us because we know who they are – whether we went to the same elementary school, served tables together during college or met during prenatal class, it’s nice to stay connected. The tabloid of the people.
I have some rules, naturally. I limit Facebook to times when it serves a purpose, like when I’m riding the train and welcome a diversion with quiet desperation; it’s helpful when you’re jammed in a metal can with dozens of strangers. I keep my friend list to a minimum so as to feel comfortable sharing things about my life. I make a conscious effort not to spam negativity into the webosphere, though when I have something less than rosy to say, I try to use humor in the delivery.
As a rule of thumb, I don’t put anything out there that I wouldn’t feel comfortable with my mother or my boss seeing. I try not to pose with alcohol or hurt anyone’s feelings, and I check with my daughter before posting anything to do with her. When life is happening and it’s time to engage, I do my best to turn it off and put it away. Overall I find most aspects of the experience to be positive. Lately though, things are changing. Advertising had to go and wreck Facebook for me.
Something you should know about me: I run a pretty tight ship when it comes to the information flow into my subconscious. To a highly sensitive individual with a strong tendency toward introversion, the current state of advertising is extremely toxic. It seems that there’s less and less responsibility and virtually zero accountability, not only amongst marketing corporations, but also for the platforms they use to cast their hooks. It has reached the point where I simply can’t stomach it.
My coping strategy in a world gone mad is to cut out the background noise. What does that look like in application? For me it means no cable television. No tabloid magazines – or magazines at all, really. These days they seem to contain more advertisements than intellectual content. No celebrity gossip websites. No radio, if I can help it – for fear of the painfully abrasive commercials. No shopping malls. No websites that overwhelm me with convulsion-inducing advertisements.
I avoid sensationalistic news pieces. Junk mail goes directly into the recycling bin. I don’t even answer the door when someone rings to solicit their wares or to offer up their spiel on spirituality. No spam – or at least as little as I can get away with. My filters are set to high. I want to be conscious of the content gaining access to my psyche.
No one forced me to do this. No one said I had to. It’s a thoroughly intentional, conscious decision I make every day. It can be challenging at times and it’s not always possible to eliminate 100% of the garbage media flying at me, but the amount that I can minimize is absolutely worth it – I find that life is so much better this way. I have a lot more peace.
Do you ever think about marketing? Consider your garden variety grocery store for a moment. It’s by no accident that grocers house their milk and eggs at the furthermost point from the entrance, usually tucked away in the back corner so that to obtain these common items, you have to walk the length of the entire store. Chances are good that you will spot something that you’ll end up purchasing in addition to your quart of milk.
It’s also not happenstance that children’s cereal packaging is nearly four times the size of the actual contents, placed at ground level where kids are able to access the hyper-spastically decorated boxes. Let’s not forget the candies and chocolate bars strategically placed at child’s height and within reaching distance from their seat in the shopping cart at the checkout corridor – that hateful entrapment bottleneck that every flustered parent has no choice but to pass through, overstimulated toddlers in tow. It’s all so contrived.
The type of breakfast cereal you buy your kid at the grocery store is linked to your name, email, home address and phone number, which in turn is linked to your Facebook feed. How did that happen? You unwittingly leave a trace of your consumer habits and information when you browse or shop online, or when you use rewards or loyalty cards when you make a purchase. The companies that Facebook is partnered with can then better target their marketing to you.
Living a healthy lifestyle is reflected in the items on your grocery receipt and your online interests. After the application of a mathematical algorithm, this of course translates to your being on a diet.
To your bewilderment, suddenly you have all kinds of diet advertisements showing up in your Facebook feed, even more than you would have, just in being a female in the target demographic. Sure, you can choose not to see a particular ad in your feed, fill your boots. But that’s not going to stop the insidious cogs from turning – ironically, this will only sharpen the scope of the marketing targeted at you.
There is an undeniable positive correlation between points of contact and likelihood to purchase. A child who has seen numerous commercials for a particular brand of breakfast cereal while watching Saturday morning cartoons is more likely to point out that cereal when they see it at the grocery store. It’s pretty basic stuff. In the same way, we as adults can be conditioned to feel like we need a particular product. We are also constantly inundated with messages that without that product or brand-named item, we’re not good enough.
Marketing’s primary function is to convince us that we need something. This is done by making the product seem desirable, usually through cognitive associations. The human brain is outstanding at connecting the dots – behold, the power of inference.
This is what marketing campaigns are banking on – that we will allow our grey matter to coast on autopilot, so that when it comes time to part with our hard-earned dollars, we’ll choose the product whose associations are most pleasing to us. Enter the Suggestive Lady, the go-to advertisement strategy of our times.
Like a lot of women out there, and an increasing number of men, I have struggled with body image most of my life. The first time I decided to wear a bikini in public was last summer. Last summer. I am 32 years old, and although there is nothing ostensibly wrong with my body, I was petrified; crippled at the thought of other people scrutinizing my body with the same ruthless criticism I employed on myself. Methods I learned from every grocery store gossip rag I’d laid eyes on over the years, from every celebrity-based news article tearing apart someone’s appearance, every commercial or advertisement that implied I wasn’t good enough the way I was.
I had been marinating in these pollutive messages for as long as I could remember. It took a yearlong media cleanse, which ended up becoming a full-blown lifestyle change, to finally gain the courage to do it. And I did – last summer I rocked that motherfucking bikini. But the inspiration that precipitated these changes in the first place was her.
When I brought a perfect little girl into the world I realized that I had an important job to do, the most important charge of my life. The moment I first held my daughter, my perspective began to shift. As she grew older, I considered the cultural influences aimed at her impressionable young mind. Glimpsing the world through her eyes was truly overwhelming. It also made me reflect on how much I internalize the messages aimed in my direction.
There exists tremendous pressure on females in our society, and holy hell – it starts early. I want her to have a chance in this world, so that she might not be devoured by a culture that seeks to turn her inside out. Yet, we live in this culture – so how do we prevent it from affecting us? Plainly, we can’t. Not completely. We must learn to navigate a world gone mad and keep our sense of selves intact.
Giving a child the gift of a well-formed sense of self is an invaluable asset, and being a mother or father – or aunt, uncle or grandparent, for that matter – is an opportunity to make a positive impact on the world. Being active in a child’s life forces you to examine and evaluate the way you live your life. It makes you become a better version of yourself. You are the framework from which they will learn to experience the world, their little eyes looking to you.
An Open Letter to My Daughter
I want you to know that you’re beautiful, inside and out. Know it at your core and without a doubt, an indisputable fact that burns steadily inside your being. You must protect this knowledge, keep it burning all the days of your life. I want you to feel it in each step you take, in the angle at which you hold your head and in the ways you choose to express yourself. I want you to know it when you lay your head to rest and as your rise to face the world.
You’re going to see and hear a great many things in your life. I’m here to tell you that a lot of it is going to be absolute nonsense. People are going to try to trick you at every corner, so I want you to be smart – really smart. Smart enough to know the difference between someone wanting to take your money and something of value, smart enough to stand up to the pressures that attempt to tell you what you need.
Ask questions. Speak clearly. Understand. Use your voice.
I want you to be healthy. I did a lot to have you here and in this way you are an extension of me. It matters what you put into your body and into your mind. You are the most precious part of me and yet you walk and run and dance outside of me. Please be careful. I will teach you everything I know and relish everything I learn from you – you’ve already taught me so much.
I hope that I do a good job. It is my life’s goal to give you what you need to be happy in your own life. Love yourself. Be kind to yourself. Be brave. I promise to do the same and mend what is broken in me, to practice what I preach.
You are a gift. Take care of yourself. Laugh and love.
Always in your heart,
Your Mom xx
And so it was in this vein of thought that it occurred to me. We all seem to talk about living a healthier life, avoiding or eliminating things that aren’t good for us. Making better choices. Going green, going clean, going organic. We make extensive efforts to put quality ingredients into our bodies and walk our recycling to the curb so as to take better care of the planet. And this is good. It’s really good. But what about our minds?
We pollute our subconscious with salacious advertisements, violent entertainment and sensationalistic tidbits of pseudo-news. We cheapen the female form with its exploitative overuse; scantily clad women everywhere we turn. Cute puppies and babies tug on our heart strings to mimic the genuine article of true feelings; mental associations that forge an allegiance to a brand, a haze that fuzzies our reality and causes us to focus on the material.
We fat shame, skinny shame, shame other women for their body shape or lifestyle choices, when the only shame we should feel is that of being so horrible to one another, to ourselves. Psychological pollution.
Messages that prompt us to seek out our imperfections and obsess over them are not healthy. I don’t want my daughter to fixate on her supposed imperfections because she’s been psychologically primed to do so since the tender age at which media came into her life. We can’t escape it, but I want to show her that the things we own should be born of necessity, their constitution that of quality and utility – that an emblazoned emblem or trademark pattern means nothing in the grand scheme of things.
I don’t give a flying fuck about Kim Kardashian’s secret to weight loss or what “scientists and doctors” say is the new quick fix in terms of paring inches off my waistline.
I am trying very hard to be conscious of how I take care of myself and how I feel, and the type of role model I am for my daughter. So I keep on, shout it out in defiance of a consumer system that wants to own me. I work toward owning myself – so that she has a chance.