Throughout 2019, there have been fairly consistent reportings of what economists call a “bull market,” meaning that consumer spending habits, especially within the umbrella of Fortune 500 companies, are indicative of a “healthy” economy. It goes without saying, of course, that there are questions to be raised about who benefits from such conditions, off of whose labor, what direction the money is going and to what extent those assessments are based off of mega-corporate valuations that ultimately have little to no effect on the average consumer. I’m not here to talk about the goings on of the DOW with any shred of authority on the matter — my idea of money is more or less rooted in how many pairs of indigo-dyed pants I can buy and random Twitter GoFundMe pages I can donate to without being restricted to a diet of fried bread and Trader Joe’s instant oatmeal. I can, however, reflect on my own experiences and relate them to things I’ve been told to believe and ways I’ve been taught to think. In a system that heralds money as its god and grants access to it through proximity to accepted ways of being, it pays to stop for a minute and make sure you’re being kind to yourself.
Despite what those aforementioned reports have to say, it certainly feels as though retail is in peril. At the very least, it’s reached a saturation point: there are multiple covetable sneaker releases every week now, and pairs that were once nearly impossible to get without a $50 bot service or a “connect” are now sitting on shelves multiple days later. Sell-through at huge online retailers for very well-known labels appears to be slowing while size runs and brand indexes are growing rapidly in depth, and it seems as though everyone and their mother is running a cosmetics company backed by the deepest of pockets. It doesn’t take an MBA to take note of a number of markets that are self-multiplying right now, and that both means that financial success in those sectors will become more difficult over time and that major corporations will fail to adapt to their market and end up going by the wasteside. The latter can be seen most recently with Barneys New York, which could very well be hosting an online fire sale by the time this column hits print.
The same thing can be seen with beauty bloggers, podcasters, models, influencers and other people who engage with their audience directly as an online media entity. Some of them are the physical manifestation of an eye-roll, making millions of dollars a year in ad revenue for reasons unbeknownst to anyone. Some of them are incredibly toxic outposts that amplify their audience’s worst qualities. Some of them are doing actual work, too, but the vehicles that allowed all of them to exist in the capacities that they do are the same ones that have eroded the barrier between how we conceive ourselves and the market we operate within. As time goes on, identity is becoming radicalized with respect to its financial viability, and every personal expression can feel like a bid for tangible worth.
This phenomenon can take on a special weight for those of us that already don’t have the easiest go of it. Queerness is often treated as an umbrella term for the LGBTQIA+ community, and it certainly can function that way in some contexts. But it also refers more generally to those who, to put it plainly, are denied access to capital gain. To be a person of color, to be a woman, to lie anywhere outside of the cis-heteronormative ideal, to live with mental illness, to not be “able-bodied,” to be born into poverty or to be born in an area without the resources necessary to live a healthy and fulfilling life, is to be queer in some way or another. But it is also to enter a forced and constant set of negotiations between self and exterior. There’s a simultaneous back and forth between authenticity and safety, between different ideas of what success means, what happiness means, what it means to represent a community, not to mention the never ending barrage of internalized feelings of never being able to have done enough. To have worked enough.
As someone who feels most concerned about fashion and “personal style,” simply getting out the door can feel like a matter of life and death. As a child, I would melt into a small pool of cortisol at the news that the T-shirt I had planned for the day was not dry enough to wear. To this day, my answer to any version of that ridiculous ice breaker question “What couple items would you take to be deserted on an island?” is a mobile outlet and a hand-held steamer. I often spend more money than I make because I feel that pressure to be the absolute best representation of myself at all times. I feel that need to treat the advantages I do have as some kind of zero-sum investment in what queerness can look like. That philosophy carries over into my writing, into my schoolwork, and that mindset is frankly untenable.
The other day, my therapist told me that I need to “strive for mediocrity,” and that idea really stuck with me. Not because I’ve now decided to assimilate and coast on my privilege, but because the idea that everything needs to be perfectly executed is a truly cruel one. It’s one that we inflict on ourselves, and it’s one that we’re taught. For those of us that can feel the threat of subjugation, of violence and ostracization, that idea is only amplified. It can be easy to start feeling the weight of a community, but it’s important to remember that its entirety isn’t squarely on anyone’s back. Real, tangible value lies in taking a second to breathe, in reminding yourself that all anyone can do is go through their day doing the best that they can. We’re told that the best thing we can be is kind, but person that needs it the most is often yourself.