The (Un)fulfillment Of A Makeover
What does your stuff say about you? Plus, a must-watch Zoomer-Boomer show.
A few months ago I renovated my apartment. It was a long-time coming. As I’ve written here before, my relationship to the space is complicated. It’s the home of my adolescence, the apartment I shared with my late mom for almost 18 years.
I never planned to call it home as an adult. But then the pandemic happened, I lost my job at Buzzfeed and visa to get me back to NYC. I found myself trapped in a treasure box (or a grave, depending on the day) of memories. Even worse, the family I rented to during the years I spent in NYC trashed the place, tinging everything with a sense of violation—from the splintering hardwood floor, to the baby food-filled couch, to the mysterious brown stains on the baseboards. I dealt with it by dissociating. But after almost a year in lockdown, I’d had enough and bit the bullet.
The stripped down hardwood was overlaid with a light birch, the turquoise walls of my teen bedroom were painted over in a bright yellow, the cracked kitchen tile replaced with vintage black and white hexagons. Cliché millennial, mid-century modern light fixtures went in. 1800-Got-Junk shuttled away my mom’s and my furniture. The remnants of the tenant’s abuse were finally dealt with, like the gaping hole in the bathroom wall and missing door knobs.
As much as I resent the idea that an inanimate object could hold enough power to affect my mental state, or even inform my sense of self, I’m surrendering to the idea that our spaces and possessions do shape us.
“I am what I have,” Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in Being and Nothingness in 1949. Similarly, famous psychiatrist Carl Jung theorized that our homes are powerful, psychologically and symbolically. An entire field of environmental psychology has grown in the century since, highlighting how our spaces affect us.
Studies have shown nagging issues—as minor as piles of clutter to as major as a sinking roof—heighten our stress hormones. From the quality of light to the paint color on your walls to the textures of your furniture—our home space inevitably shapes our mental health.
But how much does our stuff fulfill us really? When we see ourselves in our belongings, how much of the joy we feel is derived from envisioning an aspirational self?
For two months, I dove deep into home design. With every choice, I was picturing both the functional needs and aesthetic preferences of future me. Do I want a bigger couch for having people over? The gold brass and marble accents, pastel-spring color palette, light woods—I was building a space to feel light and airy and carefree; inspired by nature; a visual manifestation of how I want to project myself, to others, but mainly to myself.
As someone who doesn’t usually derive much pleasure from shopping, my home decorating spree surprisingly had me on a high. But months later, I find the excitement of a refresh has worn off. I’m realizing that my taste of freedom, and dare I say happiness, came not from the objects themselves, but from the act of curating this ideal, future self, and the temporary sense of control this gave me. Is this not capitalism’s end game?
“‘Freedom’ and ‘choice’ present themselves as the ‘freedom’ to choose between various products; those choices then fill the void where personality or community might have been. It’s very difficult, in other words, to push back on capitalist imperatives (of family, of career, of existence) when your browser keeps freezing from too many West Elm tabs,” writes Anne Helen Peterson.
Shopping is like the cocaine of materialist self-care solutions, the high is short-lived. The feeling of control, stability, security is temporary, because relying on what we own to inform who we are requires maintenance. I’ve adorned my surroundings with my ‘unique’ taste, shouldn’t that fill my cup?
Now that my apartment aligns with the kind of person I want to be, shouldn’t my appearance match it? At midnight one recent Friday, I spontaneously attempted to turn my hair blonde with shitty $6 drugstore box dye. I’ve been cleaning out my wardrobe. Like a 13-year-old watching Laney Boggs’ slow-mo makeover reveal in She’s All That, I fantasize with the idea of making myself over. In our culture of self-improvement, it’s never enough, I can always look, be, feel better.
“Running, cooking, ‘getting really into wine,’ yoga, gardening — these activities accelerate, invite more investment, both literal and figurative. They transform from sites of actual pleasure and diversion to means of self-betterment, performance, and constant improvement, even if that ‘leveling up’ is manifested solely through the constant acquisition of gear,” writes Anne Helen Peterson.
I regret to say, that after all the effort and money blown, I feel back to square one. The only difference is that now, when I dissociate to avoid my feelings, I’m dissociating in a pretty space instead of a depressing one (I know, I know, this makes me sound like an ungrateful bougie brat). I may have shortened the distance between the aspirational person reflected through my stuff and how I actually feel, but I don’t think the two versions of me will ever be totally aligned. Perhaps that gaping hole is what keeps us moving forward.
Ending this Best, with more wise words from Anne Helen Peterson —
“What happens when you realize that the animating theme of the rest of your life, without intervention, is dying your hair and breaking down a continuous stream of cardboard boxes? We used to call this a midlife crisis. But I think it’s always been more of a capitalist reckoning. All of this shit — and for what? The problem isn’t buying shit, at least not exactly. It’s misidentifying, again and again, the source and character of our sadness.”
With so much time spent at home over the past year and a half, people have become more acquainted with their kitchens. They’ve also seen their bodies change, either gaining or losing weight—suddenly, what and how we eat is top of mind.
Diet companies sell quick fixes that don’t work while doctors often default to old school recommendations like “eat less and exercise more” as if it’s that simple. Amidst growing disillusionment and preference for personalization, diets tailored to each person’s biology are taking off.
I interviewed one of the companies leading the research on personalized nutrition, ZOE. It all started when co-founder and scientist Tim Spector found identical twins had different bodily responses to eating the exact same blueberry muffin. Clearly, all calories are not equal.
According to Spector, it all comes down to the state of your gut. ZOE has even established a link between nutrition and COVID-19 with their most recent study finding a high-quality diet reduces the risk of contracting and severely reacting to the virus. Not only does the gut affect immunity, Spector told me studies find maintaining a balanced gut microbiome can be more effective than anti-depressants in treating mild to moderate depression.
Toilets that produce poop reports, at-home blood tests—it won’t be long before your fridge is telling you what to eat.
🏠 How to be alone.
🛋 Perhaps take a lesson from Sinead O’Connor’s preferred life of solitude.
“Deliberately, I bought uncomfortable chairs, because I don’t like people staying long, I like being on my own.” - Sinead O’Connor.
🥂 Novelist Ann Patchett sorts through all her stuff so someone else doesn’t have to do it when she dies. (Loved this piece!).
“This was the practice: I was starting to get rid of my possessions, at least the useless ones, because possessions stood between me and death. They didn’t protect me from death, but they created a barrier in my understanding, like layers of bubble wrap, so that instead of thinking about what was coming and the beauty that was here now I was thinking about the piles of shiny trinkets I’d accumulated.”
“Everything about the glasses disappointed me: their number, the idea of them sitting up there all these years, waiting for me to throw a party. Who did I think I was going to be next? Jay Gatsby? Would I drink champagne while standing in a fountain?” -Ann Patchett.
📱 Are you the digital hoarding type?
“So much of our digital world feels ephemeral by nature, passing by us at warp speed, but screenshots are like little fossils preserved in amber that allow us to slow down and capture pieces of our online lives.” - Clio Chang.
🍳 Marie Kondo-ing the kitchen takes on a whole new meaning for people with disabilities. Let’s not overlook all the food constraints facing people with disabilities—how high grocery shelves limit food choices, the challenge of opening jars, ableism in social eating, etc.
“When I tidied my kitchen, I had to confront how living with disability includes social and cultural constraints, some unpleasant obligations, and pervasive disempowerment around food and eating choices.” - Theri A. Pickens
🛍 A sociologist on why we buy what we buy.
💰 We need to talk about inheritance because a great wealth transfer is upon us.
💀 Turns out money doesn’t buy compassion.
“Successful people tend to feel deserving of their lot. As a corollary, they tend to view less-fortunate people as having earned their lack of success.” - Michael Mechanic.
🛀 Assembling a tasteful home is a scientific challenge.
“As I approach the master bath, I always remind myself, ‘we don’t call it a master bath anymore, because that word is offensive.’ Now I use the terms ‘main bath,’ or ‘Le Poopatorium',” writes Paul Rudnick.
Hacks! Legendary Jean Smart plays Deborah, a washed up Vegas stand-up comic whose been paired with Ava, a recently cancelled millennial comedy writer (Hannah Einbinder) in an attempt to salvage both of their careers. The clashing generational divide is hilarious.
It’d be easy for the show to favour either the boomer or millennial, but they poke fun at both in equal measure.
“You can imagine it going one of two ways: Either it adopts Ava's point of view, depicting Deborah as an out-of-touch comedy relic with a fossilized understanding of race and gender whose wealth and station have turned her into a pampered diva. Or it takes Deborah's side, and becomes a thin excuse for an endless string of exasperated jokes about Millennials, vaping, sexting and ‘cancel culture’,” writes NPR critic Glen Weldon.
The show shines, not only in its balanced portrayal of both women’s perspective, but in the gradual bond and mutual respect that grows between them. Eventually we see how they’re both just lonely and misunderstood.
Hacks comes from the same creator as Broad City, so I’m not surprised it captures relationships—especially one between two feminists (without coming off too soap-boxy-feminist)—so well.
“Hacks creates a world of characters and dialogue and situations you want to spend as much time with as possible,” writes Weldon. He’s right, 10 episodes is not enough. This show is SO underrated and I’m hooked.
What does our stuff say about us? Do we ever really own anything? This episode of Hidden Brain gets into it, tracing the history of consumerism and ownership all the way back to the colonization of the Indigenous.
I already knew about conspicuous consumption (using our stuff to signal status), but I appreciated learning about inconspicuous consumption. Think—the wealthy dressing down when they’re in a position of power; counter-signalling that they don’t need to show off because they’re so rich. In both cases, we use our stuff to communicate our identities.
“That’s the whole meaning of life isn’t it? Trying to find a place for your stuff. That’s all your house is, a place for your stuff. It’s a pile of stuff with a cover on it.” - Comedian George Carlin.