I’m a very aesthetically driven person, and part of my journey through adulthood has been coming to grips with just how deep my love for aesthetics goes—particularly as it relates to interior design. I have a small blog dedicated to home DIY projects, and as a contributor for Houzz I take photos of beautiful homes professionally. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the artistry, creativity, and intentionality required in putting these homes together.
My daughter is also aesthetically driven. She is a naturally organized person—definitely the oldest child—and is instinctively creative and artistic. Since she was a little girl, she’s found ways to make even the simplest moments pretty—everyday breakfast plated beautifully, bedside glass of water with an umbrella, snack time with her siblings arranged with color. She’s also budding photographer at age twelve and is growing up in the age of YouTube and Instagram, when we are all photographers and every moment is a potential subject.
As she’s gotten older, she has loved finding online tips and tutorials on braiding her hair, organizing her desk, designing her room, and setting out a week’s worth of clothes Sunday night. These things have been great tools for her, and for the most part she’s put them to great use.
There have also been terrible failures—recipe flops inspired by virtual pilates instructors whose expertise isn’t cooking, “healthy” lunch ideas that are full of processed foods, and several ideas that appeared simple but that were actually expensive, labor-intensive, and complicated. Recently during the early-morning school rush, her complicated smoothie recipe took too much time to make and then ended up all over the kitchen floor right as she’d prepped a fresh-fruit garnish to go with it. In that moment, it was all I could do—with just a quarter-cup of coffee in me—not to bully her impulse to add flourish right out of her.
When I was twelve and learning how to cook, if there was a picture of the recipe I was making, it was usually the result, the finished cake. I was less aware of the photogenic qualities of the kitchen I was in, the cookware I was using, the process that produced it, or the ingredients I was using. My daughter sees images of every ingredient photographed in cute, tiny bowls, fresh herbs on rustically wonderful cutting boards in stylish kitchens, and the cute, thin girls with perfectly applied makeup who are doing the cooking. (“So You Want to Write a Food Blog” pokes fun at this trend.)
I want her to look for and love the simple, everyday beauty all around her. To feel invited to contribute to that beauty and find ways of expressing her creative self in everyday moments. But I don’t want her to feel pressure to make every moment beautiful, and for it to adequately appear so.
I’m still learning to accept that beauty makes demands. Making a room or a party beautiful always costs more money than I want to pay, more time than I wanted it to. As a cheapskate by nature, this is a continual struggle. And if I find a way to make something beautiful for less, then it requires more hustle, DIY-ing, or I’ve sourced it in a way where someone else’s effort might not have been fairly compensated—who made all that decor at the big-box craft store that I can purchase with a 50% off coupon?
The temptation is to side against beauty, to dismiss extras as being “just pretty” or privileging functionality above all. Let’s just get as simple, minimal, and decluttered as possible with our homes, wardrobes, and makeup and stick to what’s necessary and efficient!
And there’s a place for this—perhaps in small doses if you’re artistically oriented. But this kind of thinking can produce churches that look more like warehouses than cathedrals, cheap apartment complexes that become urban blight, and homes that no one wants to spend any time, much less live and love in together, and that the next generation will have no interest re-investing in for themselves. So our impulses toward efficiency and functionality also need to be tempered.
I could also side against Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube, or the whole home and lifestyle community for applying too much pressure and setting unrealistic standards. But I am drawn to that community—they’re my people, and it’s a privilege to have found work in this space. Many of the makers and the doers behind the work are entrepreneurs, risk-takers, self-starters, and female. And they are working around the clock to build businesses that combine what they’re passionate about with earning money. The young women my daughter follows on YouTube and Instagram are very successful and smart about the start-up companies they’re building, and I want to encourage all people in these pursuits, especially women of all ages.
So I don’t want to judge the work being done or whatever social media platform the makers are trying to use to their advantage. But there’s still something in the way these two things interact, plus the way I interact with what they produce, that doesn’t sit right, and I don’t know what to do about that.
When It’s Not Pretty
Our real-life moments produce mess and waste, and if we don’t see that, it’s because we’ve worked hard to remove it or contain it, even temporarily. We will have recipes that flop, organic smoothies that spill all over the floor. In every shoot I do, not only are thoughtfully designed homes cleaned and staged like they’ve almost never been before—which takes work, sweat, money, paint, or sawdust—but there’s also piles of stuff that are pulled just beyond the scope of the camera.
Any version of beauty that doesn’t acknowledge all that happens behind-the-scenes is unfair to the ones who’ve labored to make something beautiful. I’m nearly forty, and I’ve never, not once been able to pull off “#effortless” anything: a messy bun, a summer dress, smudgy eye makeup. These things take skill and attention to detail that I lack. And so do most of the beautiful photos we see. Most things that pretend to be effortless really take thought, planning, time, and money. Plus sweat, work, budgeting, prepping, and patience. In other words, loads of effort. (Read “The #LuckyGirl’s Lie” and the rant “The Minimalist Pixie Dream Girl: Who She Is and Why I Hate Her” for more.)
My life is mostly ordinary, busy routine with flashes of inspiration or beauty sprinkled throughout. But my social media feeds tend to only show the inspiration, and I can begin to feel like everyone is living inspired all the time. I still haven’t tweaked my Instagram feed right or figured out how I want to use it to avoid this. Too often I go to Instagram wanting to be inspired and come away intimidated: user error? I wonder if it’s easier or harder for my daughter and her generation to acknowledge this and not be intimidated when they only see brilliant ones.
When I see so many images of everyday moments becoming special, and special moments looking like they’re styled for a magazine shoot, I begin to feel like all of life should be amazing, inspiring, and beautiful. But in real life, I get tired, lazy, messy, or just distracted by all the good living to be done outside this narrow sliver of life, and I need to retreat to the ordinary routine to be inspired again, focus on something else for a while, or work behind the scenes. And I think my daughter does too.