Identities—What Are They Good For?   /   Summer 2018   /    Notes And Comments

The Relatability Paradox

Phoebe Maltz Bovy

Woman with a trick reflection (1923). Via Wikimedia Commons.

“She’s just like me, if I were a thousand times more together.”

The post—“How to Save $500 (or More) in 2 Weeks”—like the others on Cupcakes and Cashmere, gets a chipper, first-name-only byline: Leslie. It opens with a photo of a smiling young woman (Leslie herself, in fact) as she shops for lettuce at a farmers’ market. She wears low-key athleisure—a long-sleeved gray top and navy yoga pants—and carries a nondescript canvas tote. From the absence of logos to the fluffiness of the lettuce, the picture suggests wholesomeness and good decisions. So does the title.

Leslie, however, isn’t saving money for a big purchase or simply trying to trim fat from her budget. The topic at hand is an impending operation. Of all the life events that could be mined for lifestyle content, few seem as unlikely a candidate as periodontal surgery. The post is not, to be clear, about the glamor of having a medically necessary procedure done on one’s mouth. Rather, it is editor Leslie Stephens’s account of how she budgeted to save up for a pricey dental copay.

Cupcakes and Cashmere, Emily Schuman’s blog-turned-book-and-brand, bears the motto “Elevate everyday life.” It’s a millennial-pink universe, centered on Emily and her (upscale, tasteful, enviably Southern Californian) personal style. Recent topics include statement flats and boosting one’s self-esteem. Its brand is one of affluent, unchallenging serenity.

I visit the site daily, but can’t entirely say why. Do I identify with Emily? I suppose so, as much as an American French instructor in Toronto can identify with a Southern California lifestyle blogger. We’re the same age, ethnicity, and build, all factors that can make personal-style posts more compelling than fashion magazines. She’s just like me, if I were a thousand times more together.

Which is to say she’s more aspirational than relatable, yet somehow a bit of both. Cupcakes is not an intellectualized take on the meaning of fashion. It accepts as an unexamined given that eating pretty food and wearing pretty dresses are enjoyable activities, even if experienced vicariously. Which meant that the cost of health care, when it became a topic of conversation, seemed a little strange.

“Even with insurance,” Leslie tells us, “the price tag was by far the most I’d ever spent on any single purchase, but it was important to me that I pay for it without putting any of it on my credit card or receiving help from family.” There’s quite a bit packed into that sentence: There’s the presentation of periodontal surgery as a consumer item, a “purchase” with a “price tag.” Then there’s the discreet mention that family help is available—this budgeting quest is more an adventure than something born of necessity. But most of all, there’s the implied role of her employer—the source of her insurance—in all of this. The same entity that’s hired her to write an upbeat story about saving up for gum surgery is the one that could, in theory, make the problem go away.

This angle was not missed by the site’s readers. “Obviously in any company the ‘boss’ makes more than the associates, but when your actual job is writing about finances, it just seems weird,” wrote one commenter, adding that she found the post “exploitative.” Another wrote:

I can’t help but mention it feels slightly awkward to read this in the context of C&C, where other employees are able to drop $700 on a coat at leisure, for instance, and you were scrounging around your apartment the first night after a trip having to settle on an English muffin. I don’t know why that just made me sad :/.

My own reaction to the post was similarly :/. Isn’t there something…off about an organization paying an employee to write about how it’s not paying her enough? While I’ve never been precisely in Leslie’s situation, I too have provided misery content for entities whose carefulness with money wasn’t, shall we say, helping matters.

In the comments, Leslie spells out that her bosses offered to help her with costs that weren’t covered by insurance, but that she turned them down. It doesn’t seem that Leslie’s particularly exploited. But given the context, would she even be able to say if she were? These two things—Leslie’s financial insecurity and Leslie’s employer—have to exist as if they are entirely independent facts for the post to work. For Leslie to fulfill her role as the site’s more relatable side, she can’t be a second Emily, living it up in a similarly magnificent Los Angeles home.

In her 2012 book Pound Foolish, Helaine Olen writes that Condé Nast considered adding a personal finance publication to its line, “only to be foiled by a problem only the publisher of Vogue could have: there appeared to be no way to make the subject of personal finance lushly photogenic.” Even with the lettuce and the athleisure, a post about saving up for periodontal surgery just isn’t lifestyle.

For Cupcakes and Cashmere, Leslie’s overall role on the site is to serve as a voice of a somewhat younger, more relatable, and posh but not rich version of Emily. Emily’s the aspiration; Leslie, the (still aspirational) reality. Both are avatars for the reader, but Leslie functions as more of a go-between. It makes sense that she’d be the choice for writing about budgets, even if the result was less of a success than planned.

But the moment any lifestyle purveyor promises relatability, that becomes the standard by which its content is judged. But if for some, the strangeness of the post stemmed from its contrast with the site’s usual sheen, for at least one commenter, the issue was that Leslie’s budgeting tips would be pointless for anyone facing more of a struggle.

Leslie’s budget guide indeed reads as more of a spending journal, albeit one with a compelling self-deprivation twist. We learn about dinners out not enjoyed, about a professional manicure not purchased. “A few avocados here, plus a latte there,” she writes, “may be cheap on their own, but even items as little as $4 end up costing!”

Giving up the latte is such a personal finance cliché that Olen dedicates some time to debunking it. She persuasively demonstrates that the little things don’t add up to the deciding factor in anyone’s financial security. The bleak reality is that we can do everything right and still be one illness or layoff away from disaster.

One side effect of self-help’s inherent bootstraps, individualistic approach is that it encourages its adherents to be judgmental. This comes through particularly well in Carrie Battan’s 2017 New Yorker article about “Money Diaries,” a feature on Refinery29, a lifestyle website for twenty-something women. Battan homes in on the comments these posts inspire: “In the comments section, Refinery29 readers quickly established themselves as financial, and moral, adjudicators.” To read a “Money Diary” is to compare the diarist’s income, grocery bill, primping expenditures, and threshold for deciding to take a cab with your own.

In Pound Foolish, Olen points out that men do (more than) their share of shopping, but aren’t taken to task for their indulgences. Instead, the gender wealth gap—a result of the pay gap and caretaking responsibilities—gets attributed to women’s insatiable love of shopping. Discussing the stop-your-shopping-ladies self-help genre, Olen writes, “Women, it seems, want to hear their problems are a result of overspending. Perhaps it gives them hope that their problems are not insurmountable, that they are actually in control of their financial fates.” For all the snark it elicited, Leslie’s gum surgery post appealed because it offered precisely that illusion of control.

A strange sort of feminist critique has emerged in recent months, one that takes ostensibly feminist anticonsumerism to a not-so-enlightened place. In a viral piece in the online news-and-commentary magazine The Outline earlier this year, Krithika Varagur denounced the skin care industry and, with it, the women who partake. Some of the argument was straightforwardly feminist: “Real, flawed women have real, flawed skin—it’s fine.” But the more judgmental bit involved the cost: “It’s normal today for people in certain circles to brag about spending most of their paycheck on serums.” In this universe, ordinary women are the ones rolling their eyes at the weirdoes who earnestly enjoy these endeavors.

There’s a framework for understanding the marginalization experienced by girls and young women who feel alienated by materialism, or by stereotypical femininity. In the conventional, high school–centric narrative, it’s the girls who don’t go in for girly silliness who suffer. And yet a quirk of misogyny is that girls and women who do adhere to conventionally feminine roles are also penalized. Certain tastes and spending habits (leggings, lattes) get despised as if from below—that is, as if what’s being hated is materialism or unthinking gender conformity—when in fact it’s from above. (Lululemon’s the worst, but an $800 dress from an obscure boutique in Brooklyn is admirable.) It’s snobbery posing as social justice.

While it’s a pattern that, for personal and professional reasons, I’m hyperattuned to, I have yet to find an example more clear-cut than Jay Rayner’s Guardian review of London’s Farm Girl Café. To be fair, the food—Instagram-oriented wellness cuisine with an Australian twist—sounds atrocious, as conveyed by Rayner’s vivid descriptions. (For instance, he encounters “a violent, acidic sludge of guacamole.”) But Rayner’s issue is at least as much with the clientele. Or, rather, the women among them, “blonde-tressed Chelsea women just bubbling with intolerances,” accompanied by “pink-cheeked, anxious-looking boyfriends.” Terrible food is girl food, so the girls must have picked it.

If the blonde ladies in question did indeed choose the restaurant, it can’t possibly have been because society asks that women remain thin while appearing not to diet. It’s because they are, in Rayner’s presentation, vapid and fragile, lacking in taste. The real victims are any men who must last an entire meal ingesting what he presumes these women subsist on.

The women patrons are fair game because insulting their preferences reads as a punch-up. These are not just women, but seemingly wealthy ones. After all, it’s a pricey restaurant in a posh neighborhood. While the review supported my decision not to try my own city’s numerous answers to the restaurant in question, I came away from the piece feeling adamantly that these women should have been left to enjoy (or just Instagram) their meals in peace. The more pains Rayner took to insist upon his own everyman qualities (after the meal, he notes, he gets a hamburger), the more I wound up identifying with the restaurant’s enthusiastic patrons.

Spending and not spending—once made public—both attract accusations of privilege, particularly when it’s a woman doing the sharing. Where spending is concerned, women are in a bind. Be feminine! But also, don’t spend any money doing so. Be frugal, and make sure others know you are, so they don’t think you overspend! But don’t dare suggest that others follow your budget tips; you don’t know their lives. And this is also part of the appeal of Cupcakes and Cashmere: It is a place for retreating into uncomplicated femininity. A recent post, “Pretty in Pastels,” is literally about how it’s OK to wear a whole bunch of pink. Then you bring budgeting and health care into it, and then things get complicated again.

The line between critiquing unfair social expectations and mocking the fools who fall for whichever brand of nonsense happens to be on offer is a tricky one. So, too, between condemning the nefariousness of budgeting tips as a genre and dwelling on the personal obliviousness of the individuals giving advice. It helps—whether one is calling out questionable spending decisions or clueless budgeting advice—to think in terms of systems, not individuals. The problem is a society where you need to save up to pay for needed surgery—gum-related and the still more dire sorts that no amount of avocado nonconsumption could ever fund.

But the more manageable problem is the standard to which Leslie—and all others offering their own lives as models (at the behest of their employers, especially)—gets held. A readership that’s perfectly content to watch Emily dish about the contents of her Chanel handbag couldn’t handle Leslie’s broke-not-poor post. Readers felt owed relatability from Leslie. But were they? (Were we?)

Except the thing is, Leslie did offer up relatability, in droves: What could be more relatable than for your work life and private life to have merged into one?