What Do We Mean By “Messy?”

Thanks, everyone who left thoughtful comments on yesterday’s post!

from Flickr user JugglerPM, used under CC license
from Flickr user JugglerPM, used under CC license

I wanted to clarify a few points:

#1 Some of you pointed out that “messy” can be a useful term and shouldn’t be lumped in with the careles use of “manic,” “bipolar,” “psychotic,” etc.

You’re probably right. ‘Messy’ is in a different category, and we all have messes in our lives.

I’m not objecting to the use of ‘messy’ per se. I’m objecting to the way “messy” is thrown out there on the Internet as a “just folks” line when every other marker indicates the absolute opposite. (See the example under point #3)

It’s like when people who were clearly cool and popular in high school try to backtrack and say they were actually nerdy outsiders once being a nerdy outsider became its own kind of cool.

#2 I do realize that wealth and privilege are no barrier against mental illness, alcoholism, and abusive, horrific family situations.

And I’m sorry if that wasn’t clear.

Those who’ve read The Glass Castle know that (spoiler!) Jeannette Walls’ mother was in fact sitting on real estate valued at over a million dollars while her children scrounged in the garbage cans for food.

{There’s also this horrific story of the “Poorest Rich Kids in the World” in Rolling Stone}

However, I wanted to make clear my appreciation for Jeannette Walls’ refusal to romanticize her upbringing, especially in a cultural moment that occasionally indulges in nostalgie de la boue–this sense that poverty is somehow ennobling and simple and even desirable. I’m

#3 I do (tentatively of course) stand by my hunch that middle- and upper-middle class folks curate a certain image and then protesteth that image much.

Example? Jen Hatmaker’s post on her family’s new reality show on HGTV, where she talks about how chaotic and crazy they all are (“we are doomed, cause we can lay us down some crazy”) and how horrible and wrecked their fixer-upper of a house is and yet, somehow, every person and every room in every photo is nothing less than adorable.

Edith Schaeffer kept quiet about the ‘messiness’ of her life with the well-known teacher and author Francis Schaeffer and presented a highly polished and competent picture of herself to the world. That’s what was acceptable and desirable in her day.

In our day, it seems, we want people to admit to ‘messiness’ but only if can still be picturesque, somehow.

That’s weird to me, and, not to belabor the point, may trivialize real suffering. I’m not calling people’s ‘first-world problems’ unimportant or non-existent. I’m just saying we shouldn’t give credit for being ‘confessional’ and ‘raw’ if what’s being confessed isn’t all that raw, and just allows one to seem quirky and adorable instead of actually messed up.

Otherwise, we’re no better off than we were when we were just keeping up appearances. Only now, we have the pressure to keep up an “honest” and “raw” appearance that’s still cute. (See also: Manic Pixie Dream Girl or, better, Mindy Kaling’s New Yorker piece, “Flick Chicks.”)

#4 The point about the Trader Joe’s frozen dinners and Annie’s Organic boxed mac & cheese was not meant to imply that people who can provide such things have no problems.

Rather, as Emily Matchar pointed out in her very intelligent book Homeward Bound, the pressure on mothers to DIY it all perfectly and picturesquely has meant that for some people, Trader Joe’s frozen food represents failure. My point is that it clearly does not.

#5 Thanks for bearing with me.

Often my blog is a place to work out ideas in draft form. Thanks for helping me think through things a little more carefully!

8 thoughts on “What Do We Mean By “Messy?”

  1. I thought your points yesterday were crystal clear, Rachel. Then again, what do I know?

    On thinking myself a nerd when younger, I do. I thought myself outside the cool crowd all the way through, even in law school. Imagine my surprise when in my third year one of my classmates told me that he considered me part of the in-crowd. Perceptions are weird aren’t they, with self-perceptions perhaps weirder than any.

    1. I had a similar experience, too. I always thought I was really horrible looking in junior high school (don’t most teen girls?!) and once shared this on Facebook. A friend’s older sister, who I’d known during my “horrible” junior high days, replied that she’d always thought I was pretty back then!

  2. Thanks for this. My headshot is not too bad, I shop at Trader Joe’s regularly, and I’ve done a ton of work on many of my issues. I am still a mess, on occasion. Just sayin’. Appreciate your clarification.

  3. Regarding point #2: I just read part of the Rolling Stones’ article. That is truly heartbreaking. I read Walls’ book as well, and found the way she describes her childhood more unnerving than if she’d sobbed and gushed and whined about it.

  4. I was the ultimate lonely depressed outsider in high school.

    When I went to my 30th reunion no one knew who I was.

    Now that in and of itself might not seem remarkable, as appearances can change a lot in 30 years. What was strange in this case was the fact that I was one of only two guys from my class who, all those years later, still looked essentially the same. We still had all our hair, it was still (for the most part) the same color it had been, and we were still within 15 or 20 pounds of what we’d weighed back then. I was even dressed in a similar, albeit updated, style.

    No one who had known us even casually could have failed to recognize us in the street, much less at a reunion.

    After about the 4th or 5th “I’m sorry..?” I had to laugh, as it was somewhat surreal. Everyone thought I was some classmate’s significant other, dragged there against my will! Even when I identified myself no one could recall me. It was the strangest sensation. I had always thought that I had been somewhat invisible way back then, but I’d no idea how true that really was!

    One thing is certain, though, in keeping with the theme of the post: There was– and is– nothing romantic about being the lonely outsider. It was terrible. Poverty is nothing to romanticize either. Hard times are hard times, and there’s nothing cool about it.

    People who feel a bit uneasy about their relatively easy and comfortable lives might want to consider going all out to help the less fortunate. That’s a much better response than faking a harder life.

  5. I really appreciate you taking the time to clarify, and to be honest, relieved that my thoughts on “messy” weren’t totally out there. Thanks for these added thoughts and pespective.🙂

  6. Thanks for this reminder! As a new blogger I feel the pressure to be “real” and “raw” as that seems to be the trendy style of writing, but you’ve helped remind me to be sensible about it all.

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