Monday, 3 April 2017

4x4 Lives

There's a radio commercial airing in my town right now that says, "You don't have to spend a lot to look like you're worth a lot." 

I throw-up a little every time I hear it.

One of the biggest things that has been bothering me for awhile is that we are a bunch of ordinary people living in an Instagram world. Polished smiles, Italian leather clad pigeon toes, and sparsely furnished, vintage, Scandi-inspired, hipster homes reign supreme, but how are we to keep up?

When I first joined Instagram, I loved it for its photo editing capabilities. I was tickled to death when I could print a 4x4 picture to put on my fridge, and I was even more amazed when I realised my friends also had Instagram pages. Sharing snapshots of our day was a really cool way to keep in touch. Then Instagram became...too much. As soon as I started to notice people staging their breakfast, their homes, and their kids, I felt weary. Instagram has become another vehicle driving people towards bleak ennui as they realise their normal lives are not bright enough, stylish enough, or 'original' enough.

Make no mistake, I'm still an Instagram user, but I have become the worst sort of user: the acerbic character who scrolls strange Instagram pages to roll my eyes, pass judgment, and wonder how society is turning into such an affected and twee bunch of narcissists who want to be both on the stage and in the audience of their lives. 

I have judged the worst offenders to be the 20-something gym rats, the lifestyle 'influencers' (oh yes, my friends, there is a whole subculture of Instagram/YouTube users whose only job is to influence you to buy product, and they have actually given themselves the job description of "professional influencer") and the 'stage moms'.

The stage moms bother me the most, because Instagram has become the beauty pageant stage of the new millennium. But the kids aren't caked in make-up, wearing tulle, and performing like circus animals, it's not that bad, right? Yeah, you're right. The little girl wearing leather pants, pristine Adidas kicks, a leopard print jacket, and eating a drip-free ice cream cone, on display for her 230,000 followers, is living a way more authentic childhood. 

My bad.

What is really bothering me, and I mean really bothering me, is that this Instagram movement is now in my town, and parents in my community are also turning their kids into lifestyle chattel. 

We've always had the hockey parents, here in Canada, who give birth to their sacred son and immediately know their offspring is so talented he's destined for the NHL. So their 8 year old is at hockey practice before school, at tournaments all weekend long, and knocking door to door on their free nights to try and sell you boxes of steak (I'm not even kidding about that one. What happened to chocolate bars?!) to fund raise for...something. These parents have always been insufferable, but they were a small bubble that didn't burst over too many lives.

But the Instagram mom? And her Instagram kids? 

They are, increasingly, everywhere. 

Now, I'm going to pause to address the cries of 'hypocrite' that will likely be thrown at me. If you've read the blog for awhile, you will know that I have very firm ideas on how my kids dress. Essentially, that the clothes are a decent enough quality to wash well and be passed down, and that they aren't a walking placard for Disney, macho masculinity, or submissive femaleness. One might assume that because I care about the clothes my kids wear, by default aren't I the very parent I'm enraged about?

I can see the confusion, but my answer is no. And for one simple reason: I do not style my children. I do not want other people to notice and decide that my kids are "cute" or "stylish". I do not pick out Lillian's clothes and dress her in the morning. She has a closet of dresses and a drawer of pants and shirts that I have bought with my above concerns in mind, and whatever she puts on is up to her. My children are their own people, they are not highlight reels of my life I want others to watch.

Here's my other disclaimer: I don't live in a low-income part of town. We live in a part of town where the majority of people appear to have average to above-average income levels. This is important, because the desire to have kids look a certain way seems to me to be the preoccupation of a group of people who want to reputationally seem 'above average'.

I first noticed this alarming trend of "Instagram in real life" when Lillian decided she wanted to take ballet class. Two Christmases ago I was trying to bore her to bed, so I turned on the Nutcracker. I assumed she'd lose interest and trail off to bed on her own so that I wouldn't have to haul my pregnant ass off the couch and deal with her. 

I was wrong. 

She watched the entire ballet, transfixed. She was hooked. 

We waited it out to see if it was a fad, but she persistently danced and pranced and twirled and whirled her way through the months until Dan and I decided to put her in a class. Every Saturday morning I go to the studio with her, and sit in the waiting room while she and her fellow dancers stomp and crash and rattle the ceiling above my head. They are so graceful. It was about a month into dance when Lil asked me, as we were driving home, why she wasn't allowed to also wear a tutu to dance. 

"Because the newsletter said your costume is pink tights, pink shoes, a body suit, and no tutu."

"But [x] and [x] and [x] and [x] all wear tutus."

What?

So I paid attention the next week, and yes these kids were all in enormous tutus despite the uniform requirements. "Doesn't anyone read anymore?!" I wondered. But then I really started to pay attention. One mom styles her daughter's hair into a 'messy' bun at least five times every Saturday morning until it is 'perfectly' messy. Then she puts some new hair piece in, and takes her kid's pictures and immediately uploads it to Instagram. Quite a few of the kids have multiple ballet outfits complete with leg warmers, little cardis, hair ribbons, and tutus. They all get their pictures taken multiple times before every class. That's when it struck me: these people don't care if their daughter *is* a ballerina, they just want her to *look* like a ballerina.

Then I started seeing it everywhere.

Toddlers wearing leather harem pants, slouchy beanies, and Ray Bans. Kids eating only organic snacks out of their tiny bento boxes. Moms referring to themselves, amongst their peers, as "mommies" who love having special "mommy moments" with their kids. Who climb into their 'family car' the Lexus or Audi or, if they must drive a mini-van, the Honda Odyssey. They are living curated 4x4 lives out in the panorama of ordinary life, and their kids have become their major lifestyle token. 

Don't get dirty! No juice boxes, we don't eat sugar! Organic!These are the buzzwords (hashtags) humming around my local playgrounds. 

But what does it mean to the kid when their parent is in such tight control of their image? Their parents are the controlling image? How do they build a narrative for their own life if their parents will only allow what will aesthetically fit into a 4x4 frame? How do they grow into their own people, within such a box?

And to the parents, why does it matter so much? Why is it important for your kid to be styled to match the house and the car and manicure and the golf-course you need in your life? Children cannot be the new status symbol. It's too much pressure. 

Our lives already are worth a lot. We don't need them to look like they're worth a lot.

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