The Aspirational Lifestyle on Instagram

With the rise of social media and the lifestyle industry, so too has risen the term “aspirational,” which  more or less translates to a representation of a way of life that is relatable, but better. Technically what constitutes an aspirational lifestyle is a personal question with as many answers as there are people in the world. (We all aspire to different things, obviously.) However, common usage of the phrase doesn’t really acknowledge that. We mostly use it refer to depictions of semi-mortals living lifestyles of the rich and the famous, and this bothers me.

There is probably no better place to showcase a life of lust-worthy extracurriculars than Instagram because as the adage goes, a picture is worth a whole lot of words. (Plus, filters are fun.) If you around Santorini for the spring break, and post pictures, you’ll drum up some jealousy in a few of your followers. If you follow up your boat pictures with photos of a pristine white kitchen with good light, shiny appliances and marble countertops supporting a big old bowl of citrus fruit, you will be well on your way to implying that your whole life is worth coveting. And if your next step is to take a post-workout selfie in which you flex, glow and wield a technicolor acai bowl while wearing especially white shoes, your followers probably either think you epitomize perfection or find you irritating. Depending on who your followers are, you might induce a lot of envy or a lot of eye rolls.

Some of us roll our eyes in large part because “the aspirational lifestyle” covers such a narrow sliver of ground. It’s offensive to me that indicators of wealth and social status are the default subjects for “good” or “attractive” content. It makes me mad that so many of us are complicit in defining “the aspirational life” as a singular way of being. The term ignores the range of our collective pastimes, strengths and priorities.

Political implications aside, featuring “the aspirational lifestyle” on an Instagram feed isn’t about sharing joy. Authenticity is missing. It’s not a case of, “I’m having so much fun, and want you to be able to join me in my glee” or even “I just got a Vespa and it’s the best thing to happen to me!” It’s more like: “Admire me for the things I have.” Or better yet, “jealous, aren’t you?” There’s a sinister undertone to the story the aspirational character is telling, and it’s is the same one underneath most advertising campaigns: “Just in case you hadn’t realized, you’re not good enough.” In ad campaigns, a product swoops in to solve your problems and make you good enough. On Instagram, there’s usually not always option for immediate relief, but aspirational posts sure do beget copycats (hence the ubiquity of yacht shots and acai bowls).

Clearly, I have mild disdain for the exercise of glorifying luxe living. Personally, I think it’s dangerous. I am particularly conscientious about my posts. My approach is to avoid gratuitous boasts, and err on the side of modesty. Still, I’m sure I’ve posted photos that come across as showing off. I’ve probably been shot down by someone else and their snark, and I’ve probably unwittingly made someone else feel badly. In a way, that’s par for the course. We all use social media showcase the parts of our lives that strike us as interesting, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We’re wired to show our good sides, and that’s part of what helps us look in the figurative mirror each day.

Once, I even managed to put the single worst picture I’ve ever taken to the task of self-promotion. A year ago, I posted a picture of my face (and hysterical tears/snot bubbles in my nose), and at least two of the reasons I did so were self-serving:
1) I thought the picture was funny and thought that other people would agree, and so, find me funny
2) I thought the photo would make me look less vain, which in itself is a type of vanity, no?
That’s all to say that even the unlikeliest photos can be a way of saying “Look at me! Praise me!”

I am often wary of coming across as “shallow” or “haughty,” so when I’m being self-indulgent it’s usually in my efforts to mitigate that impression. That said, which we consider to be our good side says a good deal about our orientation to the world. It’s a direct insight into the lifestyle or way of being that we consider aspirational. I choose modesty as one small way of shifting the definition of aspirational away from conventional markers of privilege. You likely make some choices based on who you aspire to be and how you aspire to shape the world, and I encourage you to keep doing so publicly through your Instagram account: let yourself define the term aspirational.

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