This story does not try to solve anything, certainly not American indulgence, sustainability or fair trade issues, or the world’s hunger problems….
But it does honestly, and with raw obtuseness, demonstrate one girl’s quest to balance world responsibility with living in commercialized, consumerist America. And sometimes it proves to be a very difficult balancing act indeed.
I catch myself standing in the aisle of (fill in the blank of whatever Super Store you shop) standing in front of the eyelash brushes, pricing them and contemplating (seriously) which one to buy; reading the back of the packages for instructions, awaiting some tidbit of information on how to properly separate and declump my mascara. This speaks to me on so many levels. First, it tells me that my natural eyelashes (unclumped without mascara) are not alluring enough. Second, it tells me that even if I were to wear mascara, clearly there is a specific method to follow, which undoubtedly I am NOT doing correctly – hence the need for an eyelash separator distinctly different from the one already provided to me inside the mascara bottle.
Before I continue you should probably know this…I was there on purpose, specifically for this reason, to buy an eyelash brush. You see, I wanted to look nice, no scratch that, I wanted to look attractive, striking, sensual, and SEXY! All for my boyfriend of course. I wanted him to look deeply into my perfectly separated eyelashes and say to himself ‘this woman is beautiful; in fact, she is the most beautiful woman that I have ever dated’ (I really wanted to say ‘world’ but clearly we need some reality here). You see as a woman, I understand that on some archaic and basic level, I am only truly worthy and valuable if I am desirable and sexual.
So I am standing in the aisle of My Superstore looking for an eyelash separator – are you with me yet?! An eyelash separator! And finally I realize how utterly absurd this is. First, I have taken time out my day, spent money on gas, put mileage on my car, and stood in front of this product contemplating the array of choices before me (because there are believe it or not, an array of choices of eyelash brushes). Second, I was willing to spend money on this item. And third, I honestly believed (if only for a moment) that I could transform myself with this product.
The dilemma surfaces again: how do I live simply, in a culture where there is such excess beyond what is necessary…
…where there is immeasurable quantity of materials which actually create more wants and desires rather than appeases those wants and desires; where I will NEVER be good enough, as good enough does not sell products. How do I override all these messages? How can I still feel good about myself at the end of the day? How is it possible to live as a confident woman in a culture where women’s bodies are continually objectified, criticized, dissected, berated, judged, disconnected from our souls, hypersexualized, denigrated, discarded, trivialized, exploited, demonized, traumatized, commercialized, chastised, duped, corrupted, abused, violated, brainwashed and despoiled. Are you still with me? And yes I realize that I was on a bit of a rant there. And yes I have issues with what our culture tells us about being a woman? But that is not the point of my story and an entirely different story altogether. So, I will save that for another day and get back to the original direction of this story.
And that is…I find it really hard to poise being content with what I already possess amidst the plenty and promise of new, better and more. I try to turn the other direction and pass up all the insatiable greediness which floods us as Americans on a daily basis, multiple times throughout a day.
In fact, the average person in America is exposed to anywhere from 3,000 – 5,000 advertisements a day.
And all of these advertisements – ALL of them – promise us a better life through their products. ALL are designed to create desires in us, many we don’t even know we have.
Eventually, thoughts from my rational mind began to break through and I catch myself thinking (as I do periodically), “but there are starving people in Africa! How is it that I can stand here in this aisle contemplating such frivolity!” But why only Africa? I mean there are starving people everywhere. In fact, I am sure there are hungry people in my own neighborhood. But for some reason I continually imagine starving people in Africa. Maybe it’s from all the media, which picture starving victims from countries in Africa; or maybe it is from the sheer numbers of starving peoples throughout that particular part of the world, but in any case, I continually go back to the continent of Africa.
As I wake up from my fog of self-absorbed delusion, and belief that somehow my eyelashes are paramount to my being content with myself, this wave of guilt washes over me. How can I be worried about something as trivial as declumping my eyelashes when 25,000 people die every day from hunger?
What is wrong with me?
But then I remember what I have grown up with, have been saturated with, and brainwashed to believe through a very calculated and deliberately produced consumer generated nation.
Products are usually researched by psychologists who understand human cravings. They know exactly how to activate our reptilian/primitive parts of our brains, in order to create illusions of needs and designer desires. And you cannot sell a product without first creating a problem or a desire. And of course I buy into some of these messages, because my reptilian brain does not decipher the difference between a real need and a created one. And I begin to generate just the tiniest bit of compassion for my unintentional self-indulgence.
It is at this point however that I vow to donate some money to hungry people, as some measure (albeit a pitiful way to justify this purchase with my responsibility to all of humanity). But this I do frequently, bargain with myself in this very same manner before each unnecessary purchase. In fact, I have an entire closet full of good intentions, along with shoes, sweaters, scarves, and purses. And with each sale I tell myself the same thing, that I will donate (later) to some organization who serves the hungry.
Don’t get me wrong, I do donate money, and time, and probably much more than the average person. My job as a social worker, allows me the opportunity to help others on a daily basis. I also spend my days practicing being thankful and spending time in appreciation for my abundance. I do not own a lot of things and I am generally not a materialistic person.
I believe in simplicity. I believe in intentionality. I believe in giving to community. I believe in right action. I trust in equanimity. I try very hard not to be superfluous.
Yet, I still catch myself falling prey to believing that my life can be enhanced by things; and that as a woman I can transform my outer self with products or clothing.
Most of the time I know better than this. And sometimes I revert to a childlike romantic version of being able to rearrange myself on the outside. And sometimes I slip into a materialistic loss of consciousness. Most of the time I am able to be more mindful. And most of the time I know that what I am doing is still not enough – not even close.
So I strike a deal with myself. How about just for today, I will vow to live without needing anything other than what I already possess – inside! And I will work on, one bit at a time, on all the rest…and try to separate my wants from my needs, try to separate my wants from my actions, and just sit still with all those desires and cravings. Just observing and not judging.
Julie Williams is interested in deconstructing the rules and messages received from our culture in regards to women’s issues, spiritual concepts, and cultural ideals. Her hope is to assist others, as well as herself, in living a more authentic life. Julie believes that “we teach best what we most need to learn,” as quoted by Richard Bach. Julie aspires to teach, and learn, “best” through the way of Tonglen, along with other Buddhist and Taoist practices, including mindfulness, daily gratitude, and being present and still with the daily gifts and lessons life throws her way. Julie obtained a Master of Social Work and her professional specialty areas include: American Studies, Social Theory and Human Behavior. She is most interested in the history of beauty and how we internalize beauty standards and how this forms our body image; how society creates cultural norms for health, nutrition, and exercise; and quality of life and end of life issues.
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