Tuesday 5 May 2015

Why do we still say "lifestyle"?

"I don't have a lifestyle. I have a life."

Jane Fonda's line in Neil Simon's brilliant 1978  movie California Suite should have marked the end of that laziest of words, "lifestyle". It didn't. In fact the word has replicated like the most virulent parasite. Through the willing vectors of marketing and media we have all been infected by the idea that we have to aspire to a "lifestyle" and that we should focus our attention on making "lifestyle choices".  It's one of the most ubiquitous of the spray-on words that no marketing puff piece can be written without. As a result it becomes meaningless.

But 1978 is a long time ago and "lifestyle" has had plenty of time to mutate into more dangerous strains. The most sinister is its adoption by fundamentalist hate merchants as a way of condemning people who don't fit their narrow templates. Same sex couples, for example, choose a "gay lifestyle". That means they can be attacked. In the first place it assumes all gay people are the same and have an entirely uniform way of living -  no doubt they sit down with a selection of glossy magazines in order to make their lifestyle choice. But of of course that's not all, "gay lifestyle" is not used by these people in an airbrushed and aspirational way, no cosy connotations of stylish brunches in IKEA kitchens. It is hissed in hate-laden speech complete - as we have seen - with innuendo of perversion and child abuse. Trite and overused "lifestyle" has become a way of delivering modern day versions of the blood libel.

Driving along this morning listening to the radio I was reminded why "lifestyle", with its blend of the evil and the banal, should best be avoided. A BBC commentator on the usually precise Radio 4 was talking on Woman's Hour about the language of Ulster politics. It was a generally critical piece highlighting how different the election discourse is in Northern Ireland. Some of the sexist language and attitudes she referenced seemed a generation out of date and was quite shocking. So far so good. But then she used the phrase "the gay lifestyle" as if it was entirely accepted and carried no other meanings or implications. It is not.

To compound the irony, a couple of minutes later in one of those brilliant Radio 4 "now for something completely different" moments, the presenter talked about something that was "not a diet but a lifestyle choice". We were then given a recipe for sweet potato brownies. Sorry to be hard on you Woman's Hour but here were two lifestyles too many.