Every morning after I finish my super-green smoothie, I turn around in my brightkitchen to a blender streaked with drying brown sludge. It irks me, the crusty impostor. It doesn't fit intomy mental collage of Healthy Living: that is a spread filled withimages of neatly chopped pineapple and white-teethed women laughing as they eat salad. Certainly these scenes don't have a crusty blender on the counter.
We’ve long mourned the unreasonable expectations social media has placed on our lives. There has been plenty of research into how our happiness is undermined by comparing ourselves to how we perceive others on Facebook and social networking sites. I'm aware of the perils of comparing myself to the stream of engagement, baby, and job announcements on Facebook—accordingly, I’ve somewhat trained myself to not be phased by news feed FOMO (fear of missing out). But there is an additional hazard of the plugged-in world we live in: the fallout of obsessive image collection,otherwise known as the hazardous side effects of Pinterest addiction.
What may have started as a creative bulletin board for visually beautiful things has grown to inhabit our daily lives, and we have embraced it as expert consumers. We consume new images hungrily each day. Each photo of a city skyline or Kinfolk dinner that I like and re-post gets stored not only online but in my head.
But also as I collect, I compare. I compare the image value of my life to the images I’m inundated with daily via Instagram, Pinterest, and Tumblr.
Consider something that happened to me other day. On Pinterest, I scrolled past a pin for 50 Crock-Pot recipes. I have a Crock-Pot and these recipes will very likely come in handy.The photo featured a plastic sack filled with sauce and chicken. Frankly, it was ugly. So ugly that I didn’t want people to see it on my aesthetically pleasing Pinterest boards, manifests of my good taste and equally well-groomed life.
Before I knew it, I was doing mental gymnastics. Clearly these 50 Crock-Pot recipes belong with the “Eats,” but maybe I should I set up a secret board?
That’s when it hit me. Deep down, rather than finding inspiration and joy in their beauty, my image collection is breeding a kind of dissatisfaction with real life. I’m actually unhappy that my life doesn’t look like a lifestyle blog.
I live in a big, white house in a green, sunny neighborhood. I spend my afternoons with mugs of coffee and tea, go running with my hair pulled into a jaunty ponytail, and scribble into a leather journal each night before I go to sleep. I dress well, I go hiking, and I’ve driven cross-country twice.
And yet, most days there are also dishes in the sink of that house, and my neighborhood is a little suburban. My mugs are coffee-stained, and I wonder if I should throw them out, even though they’re perfectly useable. When I exercise, I have to wear a knee brace, and it’s not cute; my leg fat bulges out over it. I don’t have the patience for cat eyeliner or keeping my nails painted every week so that they look pretty against my iPhone. My handwriting in that leather journal is so illegible, even to me, that I feel like I’m defacing the pages I write on. I drove cross-country with my sedan packed to the ceiling with books and clothes; there was no room in the back of my imaginary CRV for a mattress and the fading sunset. On my last hike in the Rockies, I didn’t manage to get a photo of myself standing on a cliff overlooking the vast wilderness.
In our digital utopia, even messiness is now obliged to be beautiful. What’s more real than the unmade bed? We have mastered the art of making even this look artistic in photos: like I just left those soft sheets with my lover, not alone with my drool on the pillow.
A picture may tell a thousand words, but even that is not the whole story. We can caption; we can record our lives. But a photo of me with my knee brace isn't really the story of my knee brace. It cannot capture for onlookers the treasured story of how I broke that knee slipping on marble stairs at the National Theater in Prague. An image of the bread I baked won’t tell the story of how the first two loaves fell, how I spent the whole day trying again, again, again. My pictures of the Rockies cannot encapsulate how the 12 miles exhausted me or how the higher I got, the more my heart lifted.
This isn’t to say that the Internet and social media are evil. There are many positives that accompany our favorite websites and apps, after all. I stay connected with my friends teaching in Asia; I can find the best pumpkin scone recipe within moments, and I have access to the wise insight of great minds delivered daily to my screen. The upside to our obsession with image is its accompanying appreciation of beauty. I have simpler, more attainable aspirations in this image-driven era: to take a moment in the morning to drink a cup of tea and watch the light stretch across my sheets; to look around on my evening run and appreciate the aesthetics of the sun setting above a dry river bed. I believe that the fulfillment of these contributes to my happiness. While I’m standing on a cliff overlooking Rocky Mountain Lake, I feel like a girl in a magazine, a girl I envied once scrolling through a blog—only to become her myself. I have better, earthlier role models to aspire towards: not celebrities, or photoshopped models, but women who put a mattress in the back of their CRVs and travel cross-country with their dogs. The image-era has brought me back to live in the present in many unforeseen ways.
But our souls deserve an occasional reminder: Our lives are more than images. Our experience is not limited to the proof we possess of that experience. We have nothing to prove to the world about the beauty of our lives. So drink that green smoothie. Wash out the brown sludge. Remember that everyone must wash their own version of that crusty blender, somewhere in their lives. So I’ll drink the green smoothie. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll snap a photo of me in my running gear, knee brace and all.