Living Life with an Audience

In the past year, I’ve been lucky enough to work with a really talented photographer a handful of times. All those fun pictures floating around of me doing yoga in pink yoga pants on the streets of San Francisco, or standing on top of  a mountain, or practicing in my beloved Just Be studio were done by Eric, and his work blows me away every time. His eye for creative lighting, angling, and juxtaposition between the subject and the setting is unparalleled, but outside of his technical work, Eric is an incredibly insightful and interesting human being.

A few days ago we were bouncing around ideas for a new shoot, and we got to talking about popular Instagram photography accounts. He made the point that some accounts, while being technically sound in terms of lighting and landscapes, kind of feel like a “cool kids club,” and I had to agree. Some pages appear to be just seas of flawless women peering coyly at a camera, almost challenging the viewer to question their beauty. At some point, all the photos and various photographers start to blur together, all producing similar content that exudes a vibe of privilege, adventure, and luxury.

And yet, there’s still an attraction to it. It’s beautiful, whether or not it represents a lifestyle or message that can be upheld in our modern world. Just like I don’t spend every day wandering around San Francisco in a sports bra doing the splits on the concrete, these women can’t spend their entire lives looking pretty in a field of grass. Is it this exact whimsy that draws us in? And where is the line drawn in the sand for authentically expressing our lives and passions in a creative and artistic way while also not carefully manufacturing a life we can “sell” to an audience?

“I’ve caught myself trying to play their game,” Eric said, “Which isn’t why I do this, but social media is a hell of a drug.”

When he said that, I knew exactly what he meant. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot, something that I’ve written about and struggled with time and time again as I share my life and messages through the social outlets that get demonized day in and day out, while being simultaneously used to admonish it. But what it brought me to most immediately was a stand-up comedy show I’d watched with my boyfriend and his roommates this past weekend.

In Bo Burnham’s most recent stand-up special, Make Happy, is what he calls “a show about performing.” As someone who grew up as a performer and surrounded by performers, Burnham originally feared that making a show and writing material about performing wouldn’t be relatable to those outside of the arts and theater realm, but he quickly realized that everyone is a performer. In his show, he calls the Millennial Generation “a cult of self-expression,” an entire generation raised to believe they need to be fantastically unique in order to gain an audience that would justify their life and life’s decisions.

“Social media…it’s just the market’s answer to a generation that demanded to perform.” Burnham said, crouched low on the stage he had illuminated with harsh lighting in an attempt to remove the theatrical facade of intense, colorful spotlights and fog machines, “So the market said, ‘Here, perform everything to each other, all the time, for no reason.’ It’s prison.”

“I know very little about anything, but what I do know is that if you can live your life without an audience, you should do it.” 

As Burnham delivered this bit, a far cry away from the parodied songs and crude jokes he’d been telling for the past hour, I was completely enthralled. It was a message I’d always felt somewhat subconsciously as my peers and I grew up becoming more and more involved with social media and it’s art of performance, but had never been able to quite articulate. And yet, as the young comedian desperately delivered his message through the TV screen, I felt like the only captive audience he had. I scanned the dimly lit room, where college-aged boys lounged around on couches and chairs leaned back against the dented walls,  and saw a sea of illuminated faces bent over their phones, scrolling through what I could only assume was some outlet of the exact social media Burnham was talking about.

When Burnham was no longer performing in a way that specially catered to his audience, he lost it.

And I realized that this is a sick irony I deal with every day. 

I consider my life’s work to be spreading and sharing the lessons I’ve learned throughout my life in the most accessible and authentic way I can. I believe in speaking your truth, helping other’s achieve their greatest and best, and, perhaps most importantly, leading by example. By writing about accepting my flaws, sharing pictures of me doing the things that make me the most happy, and becoming a teacher of the practice that has healed and empowered me, I’m hoping to inspire others to do the same. And while I choose to utilize social media and the internet to accomplish this, it feeds- directly or indirectly- into the phenomenon Eric and Burnham speak about.

Because I do certain things that cater to an audience. I share high-quality images. My blog looks pretty. I compile a newsletter weekly to share with what can only be described as an audience. It’s what Eric and marketing experts call “social proof”- it’s the bestseller list, the restaurant with the long line out front, the yoga studio with the prettiest decor and biggest community. It’s the things that send a message to the world that says, “I’m worthy of your respect and attention. Come listen to what I have to say.”

And when you’re someone who is dedicated to being authentic and being transparent, it begins a delicate game of finding the sweet spot between gaining public respect and not diluting your message with bells and whistles. 

Because, just like Eric, I’ve found myself on the slippery slope of gaining attention, even if it’s not directly related to your ultimate message. I’ve received countless messages and emails asking me to represent this brand, promote this product, or collaborate with this company. More often than not, these are people and products I’ve never used or would use, but with these offers comes the allure of potentially more attention, a greater audience, and part of you wonders, “Isn’t this what I want? More people to see me, to see the work that I do?”

And to a certain extent, I can believe this is true. The more people who get drawn in by a pretty picture of me doing yoga, the more people who might stick around to hear the things I have to say, the important things that come straight from my heart and hopefully help people embrace who they are and the mistakes that they’ve made in the same way I’m dedicated to doing now. That’s why work with people like Eric- to have these photos that physically embody the happiness and joy I feel at this time in my life, that will hopefully show others that living an empowered life is achievable, even if it doesn’t look like perfection.

Because I have never, and never will, try to embody perfection. I’ve never starved myself before a photoshoot, or manipulated my water or sodium intake, or gone or taken diuretics to “dry me out” so that I’ll look good from one specific angle while I’m flexing and posing and squeezing to all hell. I’ve always shown up exactly as I would show up to any day of practice, with the exception of maybe some mascara or my hair not in it’s usual messy bun. I’ve tried very, very hard to share myself at all stages of my continuing journey out of anorexia- something that takes years and ebbs and flows in weight and appearance even after what feels like a lifetime of recovery.

My photos that accompany my blog, social media outlets, or newsletters are all of a body that really and truly exists. Of a body that exercises to feel good instead of looking a certain way. Of a body that eats good food until I’m full, not until I think I’ve met an arbitrary number of macronutrients. Of a body that sometimes doesn’t get enough sleep, misses a workout, or eats something that isn’t the “best” choice.

This is the only reason I feel comfortable sharing them.

So will there be some people who don’t see this part of my message? Will there be people who clump me in with the literally thousands of other people who share pretty pictures of them in yoga pants doing handstand on Instagram, many of whom have no true message or intention other than gaining the audience Burnham warns against? Will there be people who never read a single thing I write, hear a single thing I say, and only send me a sketchy message calling me pretty and asking if I want to “hang out” sometime?

Of course.

But if even one person who clicks on a picture of me because they think it looks interesting  goes on to read something I’ve written, or comes to my class and hears me speak, or uses the online classes I put out for no money or any reason other than wanting to share the practice that I so love in a way that makes it accessible for everyone, and changes a tiny aspect of the way that they think or live: it’s worth it to me.

Someone recently, in what I can only assume was a tongue-in-cheek way, offered me a writing gig “if I’m not too busy being a celebrity.”

But I want to make something clear: I’m not trying to be “a celebrity”. I think the concept of being a celebrity or being famous is inherently flawed and toxic to the self-worth of people everywhere. It’s based on the idea that “normal” people are inherently less than, based on the premise that you are born “nobody” and have to become “somebody.”

I, just like everyone else on the planet, am just a normal human being making mistakes and learning how to grow from them. I have just chosen to be vocal and public about it in the hopes that it encourages others to see the normalcy, and even beauty, in being human. 

So I will always be playing this game of balance- playing by the rules sometimes so that I can capture people’s attention long enough to share what is important to me. Using hashtags that are objectively silly and obtuse in order to maybe reach one more person who needs to hear the things I have to say. Taking pictures some may see as gratuitous or feeding a culture of self-absorption so that I may show that self-love and self-confidence are traits that everyone is worthy of. Using social media that can be used as either a way to feed your empowerment or feed your dependence depending on how you look at it.

Just like everything in life, it requires awareness and intention. As long as my intent is pure and my motive is always to be of service to others, things will work out in the end.

Christine Caine says, “If the light that is on you is brighter than the light that is in you, the light that is on you will destroy you.”

I’ve taken that to heart.

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Naperville Nana says:

    You are a wonderful light in this world Maris. You have much to teach us and I’m looking forward to what you chose to share no matter the medium. At age 62, I am still searching and will continue that for the rest of my life. Positive vibes sure beat negative one every time. So happy I can follow you in your journey. You are not alone on this path.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. marisdegener says:

      Thank you so much, this means the world to me. Sending you love.

      Like

  2. realfoodrenegades says:

    And you have. Your words & writings have deeply resonated with me & influenced me, Maris.
    I first heard of you from Steph’s Strength Summit. I remember that there was one last day to see all the podcasts for free; I scrolled through the list of dozens of inspiring women and decided to click on yours to watch in the hour I had. And I’m so glad I did. I’m now starting yoga, I’m now trying to live more authentically, and most importantly, your posts always come right at the time I need them.
    Thank you for the continued positive influence you’ve had on my life. Much love to you from this 15 year-old Canadian girl!🙂

    Love, Clover

    Liked by 1 person

    1. marisdegener says:

      I love you so much Clover! ❤ You bring me joy.

      Like

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