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I’d like to say I have a garden like this, but I do not.
To say that the blogging community (however you define, confine and quantify that) is in shock in Australia is an understatement. Belle Gibson, a hero of the natural therapies for cancer movement, single mother, foodie blogger and successful business women has had her cancer diagnoses bought under suspicion with the admission that she may have been misdiagnosed. Belle Gibson created a successful spot in the saturated wellness industry claiming that she cured herself of multiple cancers including terminal brain cancer through the use of natural therapies and a healthy diet, creating a successful social media presence, phone app and recipe books. This revelation was compounded by claims a few days earlier that the financial donations she had stated had been donated to various charities in Australia had never been received, despite public statements on social media to the contrary.
Being a curious kind of person who had never actually heard of Belle Gibson, I headed over to the Facebook page (of over 35,000 likes) of her Whole Pantry App. In response to a public statement regarding the donations, the views oscillate between people rubbing their hands with glee as witnesses to a public fall from grace to feelings of betrayal from those with personal or familial experiences of cancer. There’s also a smattering of sympathisers who see the merit in a wellness story (fictional or otherwise) which motivated them towards healthier lifestyles.
I think the thing that has grabbed me most about the whole story (bearing in mind I am reading from a foreign country in a different time zone) is that people are starting to write about the issue of honesty and integrity when it comes to lifestyle blogs. For clarity, I am talking about blogs where people present a personal acount of their lives which might include talking about their weekends, their likes and dislikes, relationships, photos of their homes, whatever. I particularly found value in reading this words of Pip Lincolne, Lila Wolff and Grace Bonney. None of the blog pieces are a direct focus on the case I mention in my opening paragraphs, but rather are talking more large scale (and yet intimately) about the beast that is blogging. In my opinion, blogging sits in a space that is somewhere in between paper media (like newspapers and lifestyle magazines, more of which are becoming defunct-goodbye to SBS’s Feast) and a chat with a friend in a bar or around a kitchen table. Imagine if your diary was published online? What if you decided to include photos of your life (whether kids and partners, holidays, your home)? What if people started offering you money for your thoughts and you were offered book deals or public speaking or engagements?
I guess I can relate to this on a very small scale. In 2009 my husband and I started a blog for people living in rental accommodation who wanted to be more environmentally sustainable. We received a lot of interest and from it grew a successful international recognised charity which provided hundreds of workshops, won awards and grants and in all intents was a success. This is despite the reality that the funds we raised for our own wages (whether through grants or fee for service work) were less than a below the poverty line wage when you factor in all the unpaid work over 7 years and that I incurred considerable debts from underemployment of the paid kind). Or the fact that I found myself spectacularly unemployable as the co-founder of an environmental charity who was seeking a second job to be able to occasionally buy clothes and a new pair of glasses. (I naively thought that my entrepreneurial spirit would be seen as a positive attribute but at least in Australia, it was regarded as a red flag for employers who preferred someone with different experiences to mine). Yet people kept telling me for 7 years that what we were doing was such a good idea and so necessary and valued. Seriously if I had a dollar every time people said ‘but it’s such a good idea!’….
Ironically it was in the last couple of years of our public operation that we got to a successful point of being financially viable but by then we were so burnt out we decided to move to Germany. Today we are slowly writing about our experiences and making all our resources available online (from grant applications to workshop materials) through open source channels to help other people start their own not for profit ventures. It’s taking me some time as i’m still working on what I want people to know and what might be helpful.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I can see that it’s easy to look at pictures and giveaways and think that other people have it easy sitting in front of a computer for a few hours a day in between cooking or flower arranging or visiting design trade shows whatever their niche is. It’s easy to compare ourselves to others, especially when the same voices are seen as the most important or popular and liked and retweeted ad finitum. Why are we giving others so much power? Why do people get paid over a thousand dollars to mention a product on their blog as something they like? Or to write about Dettol (a medicinal antiseptic) in a post they write about Anzac day? Why do I see so many blogs with the same brands name checked -Gorman, Anthropologie, et al? ( I cannot name check the former as they’ll never do a plus size range and I love the latter but upon visiting their stores several times have been appalled at the quality of the clothing). Why do some people have thousands of likes, fans, pins, retweets and other reclamations of their work while others I adore have very few. (You can see some of those I admire, some more famous than others here).
My reality is that I’ve always been a rather earnest but uncool kind of person. I don’t mind admitting that the first vegan recipe ebook (published in January) has sold less copies than I hoped. I went to Melbourne Uni with friends majoring in English literature who have sold even less of their own self published worksLiving in a country where I only speak the language at a basic level despite 4 months of 5 mornings a week lessons I find myself in a weird position in blogland. I don’t really fit any niches. I’m not strictly a travel blogger in that I far prefer a suitcase to a backpack and I live as an expat not a nomad traveller (can’t afford it). I blog vegan recipes because I see vegan cooking as wonderfully inclusive in that everyone (bar allergies) can enjoy it. Yet I only had my first green smoothie a few weeks ago in Berlin and I live with a wee kitchen and no blender or oven. I don’t fit the Deutsch blog scene as I don’t yet blog in Deutsch. I don’t have (or intend to have) kids so i’m not a mummy blogger. My photos aren’t brilliant yet I love to cook and I love to share food with other people. I started Leipzig’s first apartment supperclub of vegan menus. I started a group for female expats here and have made some wonderful friends. I have survived two rare health conditions that are extremely debilitating (Chronic compartment syndrome -this is a great chronicle of the condition by Dawn who had the same surgery as me) and Chronic idiopathic angioedema). These are not poster child conditions which people raise money for but rather conditions which a painful, very expensive to treat and hard to diagnose. I’m writing a novel that I want to finish sooner and later, even if no one buys it. I work hard to be happy and I haven’t yet decided what I want to do when I grow up. But gosh, I’m honest! I’m nearly 40, fat and I have nothing to lose (except the weight obviously).
I don’t think it’s much to expect a little integrity from those we admire and respect. Even more so if they are making a living from our admiration and readership and claiming authentic representation of their lives in their blogs and books. I have no problems whatsoever with people making a living from blogging-I am nowhere near such a reality myself. But I do have a problem if they represent themselves to be someone they are not and make a career of creating a false idol or fairytale. But that said, I would like blog readers to be a little more wary of worshipping false idols themselves. Gosh this is hard to do! We who are earnest and honest want to believe. But we need to look as much at what we get from liking these bloggers (or at least keeping them as some kind of goal post of success). People do not become success through their own efforts alone, we who read their blogs or name check or attend events where people talk about them have some kind of role to play. Maybe thing will change, I’m not so sure.