My entire teenage life was spent pursuing some mythical normal.Everyone else seemed so effortlessly comfortable in their own skin, while I was riddled with pimples and insecurity. While the pimples faded, the feeling never did. For years I had this idea that ‘normal’ existed and that if I just made the right money or wore the right clothes or thought the right things I could be it. And it was constantly receding.
There remains this idea of ‘normal’ and that other people have it. We talk about ‘average’ incomes, ‘ideal’ weights, ‘healthy’ relationships. If we just get all these settings right we’ll be set for life. The media speaks in the voice of an omniscient narrator, a monotone through the cacophony of experience.There is a correct way to understand the modern world, and correct products for modern living.
Indian ads still resurface my original adolescent trauma. They show dark, pimply women struggling with life in general, then applying a facial cream which makes them white and glowing (Fair & Lovely, now rebranded to Glow & Lovely after complaints). Once they apply this cream they can walk out in public and twirl their shopping bags and go to meetings smiling. I would have killed for such a magic cream as a teenager, and Unilever is certainly making a killing. But they might as well be magic beans.
The paradox of normalcy is that it somehow means extraordinary. We have the idea that the average person is above average. We are so inculcated with stories of Jack and the Beanstalk and Chotta Bheem that we expect to be heroes. We are so inundated with ads for elite athlete shoes and sports cars that we think this excess is the minimum. We think that middle class means wealthy and that to be a peak athlete is to be healthy. The bell curve is, mentally, yoinked to the right while, in reality, we’re all sliding down the left end into debt peonage and poverty. As Paul Simon sang,
We work our jobs
Collect our pay
Believe we’re gliding down the highway
When in fact we’re slip slidin’ away
As a teenager, I thought ‘normal’ should mean being the quarterback of the (American) football team (I was 100 pounds lol) and getting the girl, but this was of course impossible. There’s only one quarterback and one girl, by definition this would not be an average outcome. And yet the idea of normal is that it is normal to exceed, and you’re somehow failing by not doing it. So buy something.
We hold this contradiction in our heads and it’s tormenting or, more accurately, tantalizing. Tantalizing means ‘tormenting or teasing with the sight or promise of something unobtainable’ and this is openly used in advertising. Tantalizing deals, hot wings, Coca-Cola.
The perfect shoe, the iciest drink, the optimal skin cream, they’re the unobtainable domain of the stars, but then those stars appear on TV to tell you that it can be yours. It can’t, of course, at the point that elite goods become mainstream they are, by definition, not elite anymore. This is of course the opposite of Andy Warhol’s observation about Coke: