Chasing lifestyles in Swanage

Wild Thing and I just got back from a few days of bumping around Swanage, a beach town in Dorset, where we were playing tourist. Or holidaymakers, if you want to get all British about it. I’m not sure why one’s a singular and the other’s a plural. Let’s pretend it’s one of those American/British things instead of a rule I just invented.

But forget the grammar. The important thing is that I came home with a burning question: What’s a lifestyle?

The question landed in my head because two shops there seem to sell lifestyles. One advertises lifestyle clothing, the other homeware (singular) and lifestyle.

Marginally relevant photo: a couple by the beach in Swanage. I don't know if this qualifies as a lifestyle.

Marginally relevant photo: a couple by the beach in Swanage. I don’t know if this qualifies as a lifestyle. Probably not, and I like them for it.

Now homeware demands its own moment of thought before we move on to lifestyle, because they’re related. Really they are. I’m guessing homeware is an upscale version of housewares (plural)—the boring stuff I vaguely remember my mother stopping to look at while I pulled on her arm and whined. (I was a charming kid.)

Now that I’m 203, I stop to look at housewares myself, and they’re more interesting than they were in my mother’s day. It’s amazing how the world’s gotten better, in at least this one not particularly useful way.

But homeware? Holy shit. Homeware isn’t just stuff you shove in a cupboard and take out when you need it. It’s made up of lifestyle items.

What am I talking about? I haven’t a clue, and I’m guessing that whoever paid to get that sign painted, if pushed, wouldn’t be able to tell me either. What it implies, though, is that if I own (and therefore, crucially, have bought) enough of this stuff, it will change my life. Or its style.

Are my life and its style the same thing? The slogan implies it. It also implies that if I change the style—the thin outer shell—my life will also change.

From the context, I can guess that if a cereal bowl is a lifestyle item, it costs more than if it were just, you know, a cereal bowl. How much more? Ten percent? Fifty percent? More than that? How much is a lifestyle change worth?

The higher price is essential. If you could get your hands on lifestyle cereal bowls for the cost of ordinary ones, would you believe in their power to change your life? Doesn’t all this depend on the lifestyle object being out of other people’s reach, so that owning it puts you in a special category?

Since we’d been talking about all this, Wild Thing stopped outside the lifestyle clothing store’s window and called my attention to a yellow, semi-see-through blouse. It wasn’t a fully transparent kind of see-through, but if you looked closely enough it you could see the stitching on the seams.

“If I wore that, it would change my lifestyle,” she said.

You need to understand that Wild Thing’s as likely to wear a see-through blouse as she is to wear a suit of armor, but if she did, it would still be Wild Thing in there, and wildly out of place.

None of which exactly addresses the question, which has now expanded from What’s a lifestyle? to include Whatever it is, can you sell it?

Let’s start with the first, What’s a lifestyle?

Years ago, when having a partner of the same sex shocked more people than it does today, someone told me she didn’t approve of my lifestyle. I can’t remember who she was, where we were, or how that came up, but I do remember thinking (and, unfortunately, not being fast enough to say), It’s not a lifestyle. It’s a life.

That wouldn’t have gotten into why she thought I should care what she approved of in my life or my style. We’ll set that aside, though, because our topic today is lifestyle, not silly, self-important people from the past who’d been programmed with a phrase or two that let her think she had the world figured out.

In the context of same-sex relationships, lifestyle was a word tossed around by people who—how am I going to characterize them? People who spent a lot more time than was good for them thinking about what other people did (or might do, since I doubt I could live up to their imaginings) in bed. And their choice of the word made my life sound like something I’d chosen from a delicatessen counter. I’ll have a slice of the blue cheese, please, some Kalamata olives, and, gee, what else do I want today? Maybe a partner of the same sex who the world at large disapproves of? Oh, fun.

So I’ve never been impressed with the word’s accuracy. And now (touching briefly on our second question) I find out lifestyles are for sale. In stores that sell cereal bowls and less-than-opaque blouses.

How times have changed.

It’s worth asking if the objects we own and use change us. They do. If you’ve never spent a day in high heels, try it and you’ll understand. Or an hour. Or, hell, walk from one end of the house to the other and you’ll catch a glimpse of how this works. Now apply that to the more serious changes like fire, or electricity, or central heating. Or clean water and sewage pipes.

Trust me to dive right into the most romantic objects, right?

If our lives demand that we live in and use objects that don’t suit us, we’ll be out of place in our own lives. All I have to do is imagine myself in a corset to know that objects matter. Getting rid of the wrong ones matters. Getting enough of the right ones matters. Having more stuff, though? Or more expensive stuff? What matters there is knowing that it doesn’t, in any deep way, matter. This is about knowing the difference between need and want, and between our own genuine wants and the ones foisted on us by the good folk selling us lifestyles.

I’m not immune to the lure of a beautiful object. Heels aren’t my thing—give me running shoes any day—but I often find myself looking through our mismatched mugs for the one I most want to drink out of. It’s silly—they all hold liquid—but I do it and take some small pleasure from it. It’s not a lifestyle, though, it’s a mug. To be a lifestyle, I suspect, you have to back away from your stuff and your choices and see your life as a creation, an art form. A kind of make-up applied to the face of your existence. Which, to me, seems to create something brittle.

Some bloggers call themselves lifestyle bloggers, meaning (I think) that they write about their own lives. Or maybe they write about the make-up on the face of their lives. Maybe for some of them all it means that they don’t fit any of the other prefabricated niches the blogosphere offers so they pour themselves into this one, whether or not they’d use the word if they weren’t pushed to it.

I’ve struggled with the niche issue myself. I don’t seem to fit any of them and haven’t claimed one. Notes isn’t (as far as I can figure out) an expat blog, isn’t a humor blog, and isn’t, may all the gods anyone ever believed in preserve us, a lifestyle blog. Because I’m not going to blog about something I suspect of being blue smoke and mirrors.

If a lifestyle can be marketed and then constructed out of things we buy, it’s no more than a veneer, a shell, an image we present first to ourselves and then to the world to say, Look how beautifully I’m living. Aren’t I just happy?

And behind that? That’s where the person lives, as happy or unhappy, as wise or foolish, as before the lifestyle goods arrived.

69 thoughts on “Chasing lifestyles in Swanage

  1. I think lifestyle is what people have when they insist on pigeon-holing themselves. most recently I have come across people living an “alternative lifestyle” it seems that alternative to “adults” is what “goth” is to teenagers…a claim to be different while being exactly the same as your group of friends! I think it is better to be who you are and do what you do rather than worry about how you are perceived. Even the “alternative” lifestyle is about finding somewhere to fit in. Maybe that is what lifestyle is, a way to buy the sense of fitting in. I don’t think lifestlyes have places for cynics…

    unless that is the cynical lifestlye…is that a thing?

    homeware is fluffy cushions and tablecolths and vases and such like that all match and can be bought en masse to create the appearance of a lifestyle…like ikea room settings in their catalogues.. like in Fight Club! the chap in fight club was buying a lifestlye at the start…

    mind you i don’t advocate a split personality or a fight based cult type commune arrangement just to avoid fluffy cushions.

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  2. ok, I’m going to hazard a definition of lifestyle bloggers that differs from the one you offered here (“Some bloggers call themselves lifestyle bloggers, meaning (I think) that they write about their own lives.”) I think lifestyle bloggers occupy a very specific niche: they’re blogging about trends, oftentimes in fashion, but also in home keeping (I’d classify all the cooking blogs as lifestyle), dating, parenting. They’re written by bloggers who are blogging about how we live as opposed to how we think.

    Maybe my definition is not that far off from yours, now that I think about the entirety of this post. But I think that all bloggers blog about their own lives, so defining lifestyle bloggers as folks who write about their own lives seems overly broad to me.

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  3. I think the best message is contained in or referenced by the line “why she thought I should care what she approved…” I’ve written before about people who consider themselves thought leaders, etc. Most of them couldn’t lead Lemmings off a cliff (and I understand that they, lemmings, might not actually do that) in any case, who cares what they think? I’ve never been guided too much by what other people think, unless I have come to rely on those people for their thoughts. I fully understand looking for the right mug, that makes absolute sense to me. Judging by the number of mugs in our cabinets, it seems to make sense to my family. As for your blog, hmm, mine officially refers to “random thoughts” – that’s the best I can promise.

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    • Lead lemmings off a cliff. I like that.

      In an odd way, I find myself fascinated by the woman who disapproved of my lifestyle. Not because I care what she thinks but because–. Hmm. I just stalled out trying to finish that sentence. Because she seems to typify some strand of the culture, I guess, and I’d like to understand how her mind works. Although if I did, I doubt I’d enjoy it.

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      • I know a man who’s mind works like that, and I’m convinced his mind doesn’t work at all. He doesn’t think about things, it’s like everything falls unto a set of rails and reaches a predetermined destination in his mind.

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      • I think there’s a level at which we do care what people think. Clearly her disapproval rankled, or you’d have forgotten all about it. But the thing is, do we care enough to change to accommodate their opinions? In her case, in that situation, you didn’t – you considered what she said and it made no sense to you and added no value, so you kept right on doing what you believed was right. I think people who say “I don’t care what anyone thinks” are often living in denial – and I’ve seen some people make pretty poor choices almost as an act of defiance against popular opinion.

        I try – I believe usually with reasonable success – to pay attention to what people say about their opinions. Sometimes (too often) it bites. Sometimes there’s a huge temptation to lash out, or at least justify my choices. As I grow older, however, I find it easier to listen, nod, extract whatever might be of value … and move on with what I believe to be right.

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        • I expect you’re right, at least to an extent. We’re social creatures. We’re more or less built to care what other people think, although we can choose not to be controlled by it. For me, though, part of the reason I remember the incident is that it chimes with a section of the culture, and expresses it in such a concise way. I’ve been an outsider to the mainstream culture all my life–usually in multiple ways–so there’s no shock in hearing about it every so often. (I’m more shocked to find myself included.) Sometimes disapproval rankles, but often if fascinates me. It’s a glimpse into a world I live beside but in some very real ways don’t understand.

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  4. Every time I walk in to The White Company store I buy in to the ‘lifestyle’ they are selling – for me that’s clean, calm, minimalist and living on the coast. I know it and participate with enthusiasm and if I do take home a product it will give me a flavour of the lifestyle each time I use it. I know we should all be living authentic lives but sometimes life’s a bit too authentic, we need something to transport us to that beach or xxx (fill in your own gap) and if it’s in the form of a candle or your favourite mug then it’s cheaper (unless you shop at The White Company then it costs an arm and a leg!) and healthier than alcohol or drugs …

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    • You make a good point about life sometimes being too damn authentic. (Sorry, I’m importing the damn.) I have, at times, bought stuff that I thought would do that transportation trick for me, but it never really does. By the time I get it home, it’s just a thing. The exception that comes to mind is some odd bits of smoothed stone and sea glass that I carry in my pocket.

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      • Some take it to extremes and try and ‘import’ the whole lifestyle thing. I knew a couple who loved going to Spain for their holidays and their home reflected this with copious Spanish elements which looked totally out of place in a typical English semi-detached. I like the idea of something small and personal – like your stone and sea glass. Having goods can’t replace having a life (well not for long), but having a bit of style in your life can be a pleasure – just as long as it’s your own style.

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  5. I’ve lived with the secret fear that somebody somewhere would label me a “lifestyle blogger”–and then I’d have to figure out what that is…

    But I think I’ll get this put on a T-shirt and call it my lifestyle–“It’s not a lifestyle. It’s a life.” Maybe on a cereal bowl too.

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        • Print ’em and sell ’em. I predict they’ll be a moneymaker.

          Back in Minneapolis, I was at the supermarket checkout one winter day, with my winter jacket unzipped and my–what’s that fuzzy cloth they make scarves and hats out of? And hoodies and everything short of cars and trucks. Whatever it’s called, it collects dog and cat fur and my scarf was made of it and was dangling around my neck. The woman running my groceries past the scanner looked up from the scanner to take in the picture I presented and say, “I know those animals love you.”

          I don’t know if I was meant to be in on the joke or insulted, but I went to pieces. I still laugh about it.

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          • Chuckling here… :) Reminds me of the time we were checked out to determine whether we were worthy to foster a dog for the American Belgian Malinois Association. The representative who visited us had to complete a form about seven pages long. One question was: “What is your impression of the house?” Her response? “Looks like dogs live in it.” We got the dog…

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            • When I ran a dog rescue people routinely complained that “it’s easier to adopt a child than get a dog from you”. My response would be, “And … your problem with that is what, exactly?”

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            • Just before we brought our cats over from the US, Wild Thing was in a discussion with someone who runs a cat rescue, who wanted to know where we lived, how we lived, how the cats would live, whether we routinely read to them at night. Just a reflex, I guess, from someone who asks those questions all day long. Wild Thing was convinced that if she gave the wrong answers the woman would show up at the door and try to snatch our cats.

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            • Rescues typically fall near the end of a spectrum. Either they’re all about numbers – just shove the animal in a home and hope for the best, before moving on to the next one … or they’re nuts about trying to ensure that it’s perfect. I tried to avoid actually being nuts, but I saw (and took in) enough unhappy failures among the other kind of adoptions to be pretty insistent that the home and the dog be as good a match as I could realistically achieve. That said, Himself and I often laugh at the fact that we would probably not be able to pass our own adoption requirements… (We have way too many, and most of them are at least a little whackadoo.)

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            • A former neighbor who fostered greyhounds swore that the dog picked the person. I’m not sure how much say she had in the adoptions, but if she trusted the dog’s judgment. (I also don’t know if she ever heard about failures, so I’m not sure her observation would hold up..)

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            • Yep, that happens – and it’s magic… :) I had one dog – a BIG German Shepherd mix – that I thought would be with us forever. He just didn’t like or trust people. One day a family came to meet him; their 12-year-old boy was looking to get his first dog, and he wanted Ponzi. I warned them that Ponzi would probably not be a fit, and that I wanted him to meet a gorgeous black GSD we had as well, who was a much mellower, friendlier dog. Well, the black boy wanted nothing to do with the kid – but Ponzi? He took one look at him and sort of LAUNCHED himself and buried his big old head between that boys knees, and said, “What took you so long?” At that time Ponzi weighed 95 lbs and the boy weighed 90 lbs – but there was nothing they wouldn’t do for each other. It was truly beautiful.

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  6. You’ve successfully managed to articulate a niggle I’ve had for a while about this whole “lifestyle” thing. I don’t get it. I certainly have my own lifestyle but that’s related to me as an individual. I don’t think I could even convey to someone else precisely what my lifestyle is let alone label it for marketing purposes.

    I also get annoyed by it because it as if businesses are telling us what we ought to aspire to whereas we each individually ought to determine for ourselves what we aspire to and those are hopefully not all covetousness for material possessions. We are being told what to think, what to want, how to be just to line someone’s pockets. We are being sold tribalism and the branding of stereotypes. I generally don’t like homogeneity and it seems part and parcel of that too: acceptance comes through lack of individuality. And I write this as someone who has several items of Ikea furniture.

    As for your point about lifestyles implying some sort of moral or political coding, that hacks me off too. People are individuals and we are as diverse as we are numerous. To say someone is subscribing to a particular lifestyle implies that they live an identical life to others who happen to share a mere single characteristic. It also implies that to be something is to have undertaken a choice and I think that’s dangerous territory. What’s odd is that people buy into this way of thinking too. I remembering chatting with a gay man who felt the need to inform me “but I’m not a lifestyle gay”. What does that even mean? When I asked he explained he didn’t do the whole club scene or dress like he was gay. But he did dress like he was gay because he was gay and wearing clothes! What does that even mean for pity’s sake? It’s this perpetuation of stereotypes that adds to divisiveness in society, like there’s some Them and Us chasm that we want to be able to identify and determine from first glance.

    The whole thing about being sold lifestyle makes me think of Dr Seuss’ star-bellied sneetches.

    Rant over and out.

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  7. Doctors have a different view of lifestyle. We give lifestyle advice to people living unhealthy lives. We tell them to stop smoking, take more exercise, drink less alcohol, lose weight, alter their diet, not to add extra salt to their food. Most people just ignore us, of course.

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    • Of course. We value your knowledge and advice as long as it doesn’t inconvenience us. You know the old saying, I’ll do anything but change.

      Oddly enough, in a medical context, the word lifestyle doesn’t make me foam at the mouth. Is that symptomatic of anything deadly?

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  8. Ah well… Creating a “lifestyle” keeps a good many of the 60 million inhabitants of This Sceptred Isle from going on the streets and making a nuisance. We should all change our “lifestyle” on a regular basis as a social duty.

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  9. So… you’re telling me that if I shop at Winner’s/Ikea/Bed Bath and Beyond or whatever and totally decorate my house with the stuff on display I will then be able to have a certain lifestyle? Sounds like a lot of spending to pretend.

    You have a most intelligent group of readers, Ellen and I found myself nodding at pretty much everything they commented and you responded to.

    Damn, you come up with great posts!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Why thank you very much. Every time I think I’ve run out of ideas, something happens–like passing those silly windows. The world is full of writing prompts. Why do we turn to other people to provide them?

      Anyway, I couldn’t agree more about my readers. They’re (with you in the they category, since it all gets grammatically weird there) the joy of this whole project.

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  10. Such a thoughtful, intelligent post, Ellen. I’ve never been able to buy into anyone’s definition of lifestyle.That’s just one of the many advantages of growing up poor. Our values were based on things other than “things” and we were raised to be respectful of other lives and styles. When you struggle just to survive, your perspective is forever altered, and I am grateful for that. ☺

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  11. My head is throbbing. I’m so confused. Am I supposed to care about lifestyle? I don’t think I have enough money. This feels more like something my ex would concoct, being in advertising—a made-up term for a made-up need that no one has.

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  12. I’ve always resented having ‘fashion’ dictated to me, even at a very young age. My leg is throbbing, so I’ll leave it at that for now! Charming post, as usual. It seems to fit your ‘lifestyle’. O_o

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  13. Pingback: Guest blogger: ex-pat Ellen Hawley on UK Beach Holiday. Plus #Bookreview THE DIVORCE DIET | Barb Taub

    • Define my lifestyle? What a terrifying thought.

      Isn’t it odd, though, how once we create a few categories in a blog (which most of us, no matter how well we’ve defined our blog, do before we have a clue where this is really going to lead us) we then have to fill it with something.

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  14. Ha ha – lifestyle – that old chestnut companies use to sell you stuff you don’t need! I love wandering round trendy UK boutiquey type places looking at crap that people buy to illustrate their ‘lifestyle’. I have seen some serious shite that some poor relative will have to throw in a skip one day when the owner pops their clogs. If I have a lifestyle it’s probably obselete now. Actually, I probably do have an alternative lifestyle in that it is an alternative to spending lots of money on trendy tat to impress people I wouldn’t like anyway. I am still using round plates by the way. Square ‘lifestyle’ plates freak me out. Plates should be round dammit! Great post!

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    • The square plates are lifestyle plates? How did I manage not to know that?? What about those massive damn things that would take up half my table and tip me right off my chair if I first filled them with food and then ate it all? Are they about big lifestyles?

      Thanks for giving me a good laugh this morning. I think I’ll just muddle on with my styleless life…

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  15. I’m thinking that on a regular basis, they send a list of what people buy to the Peerage. If you make the cut, you get invited to great parties and are expected to live up to the new lifestyle. (btw – I don’t think there’s a niche for talking animal blogs either)

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