Selling Image, Selling Belonging

There’s a store nearby that sells all things home related; bedding, mugs, kitchen wares and furniture. And, as part of my evening routine I’ve been in the habit of burning candles. I find they set a relaxing tone with their ambient light and they help to ease some of the stress from the day. So off I went, to said local store, in search of some candles.

As I was looking through the candles on the shelf, opening them up to see if their scent was something I’d enjoy, I came to one that had “Namaste” written in playful cursive across the front. I enjoyed the scent so I picked it up and walked to the check-out line. I was feeling a little off buying the candle for some reason but couldn’t place why. The message seemed to be in line with my meditation practice and my yoga practice, so it wasn’t the phrase. If anything the word should have brought me some peace of mind.

I bought the candle, brought it home, unwrapped it, and left it on my shelf next to some plants. I looked at it again and still found I had some aversion to the lettering and the word. It vaguely reminded me of something my sister would purchase. It was white, floral scented, then I understood what was bothering me about it.

The candle itself was fine, it was what it was trying to sell me that bothered me so much. The image of what it feels like to have the divine in me, recognize the divine in you, that had me feeling a bit off. I was being sold a gender specific version of how the world should be viewed according to the ethos of the company that made the candle. I was buying into the image the store that was selling the candle, and the group of people by supporting that message with my purchase.

If you’ve read my post on toxic masculinity, you’ll also know that buying into gender specific roles, like self care as being a woman’s job, were the teachings I received from my early caregivers, something I’ve been reparenting myself around. Knowing that feelings and emotions are not gender specific, but part of being human, and self care is just part of the human experience, has not been easy.

And the feeling that this candle’s branding seemed to embody is that emotional peace and well-being are only available for a specific demographic. Most likely active, young and fresh smelling women who were probably successful. Tan, wear a lot of white, and burned the types of candles I just purchased. Probably in an immaculate house, next to a freshly washed and folded stack of white linens. This all seemed absurd to me. Or at very least I needed someone who filled that description to provide for me the care I could not give myself. Which seemed equally as absurd.

I recognize that I have a biased view considering my upbringing. And if someone finds peace of mind by burning that candle, I’m happy for them. But I feel there is a large gap in the yoga community where men aren’t represented. This too can be a loaded topic. I’m sure women have found yoga, as I have, to be a healing outlet to get intouch with their bodies in a healthy way. Especially after experiencing trauma or abuse. Most likely at the hands of men. But this still leaves men in my situation of not knowing whether or not they belong.

If we believe the gender specific ideas we are being sold by companies like the one who made the candle I bought, then yoga and that form of stress reduction belongs squarely in the realm of the feminine.

And I don’t mean to argue that the yoga community is gender bias. I’ve always felt welcome at every class I’ve attended and have had excellent instructors both male and female. But the idea that I somehow got a gender specific correlation with the candle, in the way that I did was unsettling. That I was sold a gender specific sense of belonging to a community where, according to the candle company’s sales team, I don’t belong, .

I could be reading into this a bit. I have a minor in communications so the critical side of me comes to the forefront whenever I see advertising involving something I’m interested in. But I feel like this candle is part of a larger problem. If we hear time and again that something we’re interested in is exclusive to a certain demographic, we may begin to feel like an outsider.

The term “yoga pants” comes to mind as I’ve never heard them in reference to men, always how a woman looks in them. And if some of the joy we derive from our interests involves being a part of a community, then we could be missing out on the quality of our experiencing what brings us joy.

And having a constant reminder on display is a good way to let a message settle in and get comfortable. Not to mention the advertising that we are inundated with day in and day out while companies vy for our resources at the expense of excluding large groups. Which is usually at the core of their message. The message being that you don’t belong, you’re not welcome here unless you fit our standards.

I could have just left the candle on the shelf. I could just chalk it up to not being in line with my personal taste. But it doesn’t feel right just to let it stand. The way I’m sure it doesn’t feel right the way some women may feel uncomfortable when they decide to put on a pair of yoga pants for fear of being ogled on there way to a yoga class or a coffee shop. The coercion of being corralled into thinking that you don’t belong to what you find enjoyable, feelings manipulated to unease around what usually sparks joy.

And I did like the candle, it was simple, white and had black lettering, just not the implied image it was selling. So what’s the solution? How do we undo what advertisers and large corporations have successfully accomplished, using an impressive amount of resources to brand their products to a target demographic? How do we shed our targets and live a little truer to our authenticity? Let’s look at some of the ways we may be taken advantage of to understand better how to recognize and sidestep the trappings we often find ourselves in.

Trends can be fun. It can feel nice to be part of something that is just for enjoyment. For instance, liking a new band for their hit song can be a pleasant way to remember a time and place. And the people you connected with at the time without going to deep. But there are a lot of ways that our wanting to belong can be taken advantage of, for someone else’s profit.

When I was in my mid-twenties, I was kind of obsessed with Pottery Barn. I liked the clean lines and muted tones they used while still feeling rustic. It was how I pictured my future home to look, filled with a clean, conservative aesthetic. At the time I was planning to go to school for journalism, so I imagined I’d have a serious and important role to fill. Informing the masses of misdeeds and lapses in morality from those who held positions of power. And of course I needed a desk that would look as important as how I felt my duty would be.

So naturally I spent a large sum of money on a desk that held little more than a decanter of whiskey or scotch, and a matching chess table which sat next to it. As though my desk was so important that it needed an assistant. I was just barely scraping by working as a social worker of sorts, and had probably just enough money for groceries. Let alone buying an expensive desk from Pottery Barn that I barely used. But there I was, with an expensive desk in an empty room. How did this happen? How was I so manipulated into feeling that this desk would not only help me to achieve my goals, but help conjure them into fruition? It starts with what we find value in.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that the desk I purchased, played to my perceived values. I thought that buying something that embodied those values would then thrust me into the mindset/mentality of the value that I wished to embody. Along with underlying currents of confusing taste, style and tendencies with what I valued.

For example, I was a hippy in my late teenage years. Something I haven’t really shed. Mostly because of the feelings of when I was first introduced to the culture and aesthetic were so positive. Along with many of the values that most modern day hippies embody are still in line with my current values. I.e. recycling, organic farming and living sustainably, fostering open and caring community. All aspects of the culture I value and wish to embody in my day to day life, including the clothing and style.

There is also a serious side to me that very much likes order and to bring structure to chaos. So the rustic feel of the desk, looking as though it were made from reclaimed barn wood, blended with the clean polished lines of the industrial, flat black, minimalist metal frame and its mirror finish, appealed to both sides of me simultaneously. My enjoyment of a caring, natural community, represented by the look of reclaimed barn wood, mixed with the clean metal and highly glossed wood finish that filled my need for order, both lead me to believe that this desk represented my values.

But it was not substitute for them. This is the trap that most people fall into when purchasing things they feel are in line with their values. The same ways I did with the desk. The wood was not reclaimed. In fact it was most likely harvested in a way that was environmentally unsound and not in line with my values. Reclaimed barnwood being a form of recycling where as unsustainable wood harvesting for the benefit of a furniture company has grave environmental ramifications.

So it was no surprise that after buying the piece of furniture, I was left with my manipulated values sitting at my desk wondering why I felt a bit restless. Like something just didn’t add up. This was the other message that was being sold. That you could buy your values. Values from my experience are something that you work to embody, something practiced. Not something bought. In order to feel fulfilled from your values, you must first put the hours in.

But that takes work. Something I was not inclined to do. And if I could buy a desk that looked the part while allowing me to avoid the work I should have been putting in, then that’s what my younger self would do. Of course at the time I was unaware of this dynamic at play. I was just trying to fill a part. The one that looked most appealing at the time. Lucky for me there were plenty of stores that were willing to aid me in my effort to avoid work.

So therein lies the danger. Being told that buying something that seems to embody your desired values, is just as good as putting the work in to practice your values. And companies spend a lot of resources in order to sell you an image of what it feels like and looks like to embody that value by using their product.

I’m not stating anything new here. And I hope I’m not blowing any minds. But I’m often surprised at how it feels like every generation finds another way of buying into this system of buying values by purchasing goods. I feel a large part of this cycle is perpetuated by the feeling of a lack of belonging. If we’re trying to fill our sense of self worth with the values we hold closest but only have a desk or pair of shoes or whatever we choose to represent our values, without the embodied presence of the practiced value we’re left, as I was, behind my desk feeling confused and a little lonely.

Lonely for me, because I was perched behind a desk that I thought would lend me the street cred I was looking for. Not feeling the part left me confused and a little like a fraud. I felt slightly guarded. Not wanting people to see that I wasn’t confident in myself and the values I was trying to represent. The vulnerability of knowing that the things I buy, don’t guaranty my belonging but also of not knowing what would if I couldn’t buy it.

These lessons are deeply entrenched in our society. I know I’ve learned this not only from companies looking to sell me something with assistance from large advertising firms, but also from my family. I mentioned this in my Search for a Blog page. When you question your own belonging to the people who are supposed to accept and love you no matter what, that’s when the fear sets in.

Who will or could love me now, may take the place of the love and belonging we once felt. And it will dominate our thoughts and actions in relationship with those closest to us. This is where I believe Brene Brown’s frase, “hustling for worthiness” may take up residency in our mind and heart. If we feel we’ve been rejected by the people we love most, than the most important goal becomes, how do I get back what I lost.

That’s when we turn to whatever feels good at the time. Or what Tara Brach refers to as the false refuges. This could be anything from alcohol to shopping (as were the cases with me and my family). Drugs or even using other people are also false refuges. But they aren’t sustainable. Or they cause great harm to ourselves and others which is why they’re false refuges.

So how do we find our way out of these trappings of the false refuges or hustling for worthiness? One way is through acts of self-care. If you’ve read my post on why self-care is so important, you’ll know that it’s a way of dialoguing with our emotions and getting to know who we are. As my dad likes to say, “be yourself, everyone else is already taken” -Oscar Wilde. Showing yourself that you care, you’re a priority, gives you the courage to find what your values are. The you without the “hustle”, or the false refuges.

Other ways to avoid the hustle, is after you know what your true values are and embody those feelings by dialoguing with yourself, check in with how something makes you feel. Is it the excitement of something new supporting your values, or is it just novelty?

More often than not, the things that you do to bring joy to you practicing your value, won’t cost much money. For instance, if you value spending time with friends, cooking a meal together can be more intimate and enjoyable than eating out. But going to see a concert together can be a joyful experience as well. So it’s important to take a deeper look as to why you’re doing something, and ultimately it’s you that will know the answer. AKA, trust yourself.

And sometimes we’ll make mistakes. After all, advertising is a large industry designed to make you spend your money. So be forgiving when you do stumble. Just because you’ve been fleeced, doesn’t mean that you’re doomed to feel unwanted or unloved. Stay true to and trust your values, they’ll guide the way.

I hope you’ve found this helpful in some way. It isn’t always easy, but don’t worry, the work becomes easier the more you do it :] Good luck and Peace.

Image Credits: “1960s Advertising – Magazine Ad – Campbell’s Soup (USA)” by ChowKaiDeng is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

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