Last year, when First Offspring was doing swimming lessons, I would take him once a week after school and sit on the benches near the pool with Fourth Offspring. First Offspring would spend twenty minutes splashing about in the water and Fourth Offspring and I would watch the swimmers come and go. A couple of times, we were joined as a woman brought her two young sons to swim. She dressed them quickly in their bathers and then once they were in the water, stripped off to a bikini and followed them into the pool.
She was very trim and looked as though she swam often. Next to her neat figure, I felt embarrassingly aware of my own rather… messy one.
Well, I thought to myself, she only has two children. It’s easier to exercise with fewer people to look after. Plus it’s harder for the body to get back into shape after more children.
And at that, I felt content that I had justified my own appearance in terms of what she and I were (and weren’t).
Then the next week, she brought her two other children.
And at that point, I laughed a little at myself (on the inside – I didn’t want her to think I was laughing at her) and realised how silly I’d been. Why was I trying to compare myself with her? I knew nothing about her life, just like she knew nothing about mine! I saw one aspect of her – her figure – and made all kinds of assumptions about her, some of which were completely incorrect. And what was the point? So I could feel better about my own body, or my own choices? Neither of those were good reason to compare myself with her.
This came back to me when I read this article. You may have seen it; it’s doing the rounds at the moment, and although I don’t think the sentiment is exclusive to ‘millennials’ (I can’t be the only person who hates that label, am I?), it’s likely exacerbated by the fact that we have such easy access to so many different people’s lives now. Before, we saw celebrities on television, or read about them in magazines. Now, we can follow them on any number of social media websites, and then there are the countless blogs and news sites dedicated to the latest Big Thing that one celebrity or another is into.
It’s not just fads that we follow, however. It’s the minutiae of these people’s existences. Whether they had toast or crumpets for breakfast. How much they liked the glass of water they had after lunch. What a sunny day it is where they’re living.
And to make things even more complex, it’s no longer just celebrities we can follow, but other people whose relative fame is a direct result of the internet. Youtubers, bloggers, freelance journalists. I’m not saying that some of those people have nothing worthwhile to say, but without the internet as mouthpiece, their voices would be much quieter.
It’s easier nowadays to be overwhelmed with all that other people are doing, and juxtapose that in terms of what you are not doing. Before, we’d see someone in the movies and wish we could have that hair/figure/accent. Or we’d admire an athlete or an entrepreneur for what they achieved. But there was a sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’. The internet, the great equaliser, means that there are more ‘us’ with fame and fortune, and suddenly, that seems achievable for everyone. If that person, who is so much like me, can do it, why can’t I?
As the reply to the letter in The Awl points out, though, what someone puts online is a tiny part of their lives. It’s the edited version. And it belies the hard, hard work that goes on behind the scenes. To be fair, that person you’ve been following for months. who got a book deal or a job with a reputable company might have got there through contacts. Very often, it’s who you know. But her flippant tweets about chocolate sundaes bely the fact that she works very hard.
Of course, hard work doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll succeed – there are plenty of people who do and don’t get to the top. There are those who’ll do better and those who won’t do as well, and effort is only one factor. However, it’s almost guaranteed not to happen if you don’t work for it (I say almost – there’s always the odd case of falling into it, but given the odds, you’re better off working).
If I’ve learnt one thing about idolising people and placing them on a pedestal, it’s that if all you’re doing is watching other people live their lives, you’re missing out on living your own. Internet fame is fickle, and the chances are, you’re better off fostering real relationships in your real life. Not that you can’t have real friendships on the internet, but ‘followers’ do not equate to friends. Being able to reach out and touch someone is really healthy for us humans.
Occasionally, at times like this when I’m reminded of her, I think back to the woman at the pool. From what I could see of her in the pool, she was a good swimmer – far better than I am. She looked like worked damned hard at keeping fit. She had four children and a great figure. And that’s all I know about her. Her life might be awesome, it might be terrible. Was I a little jealous that she was in such good shape? Sure. But instead of focussing on why I hadn’t done it and she had, I shrugged it off. I want to be fit, but I don’t need to look like her. We’re different people, after all. I just need to be fit and healthy for myself, not to prove that I can be someone else. That’s really what it’s all about – nobody knows your life except for you, and if you’re only ever worrying about what others think about it, then you’re not living it.