The Swap Shop
A short, weird piece from a couple of years ago, whose concept I still like but whose execution was perhaps a little heavy handed.
It was that time of year again. Everyone was getting their wares ready, deciding what they were and weren’t willing to trade. For some, it would be minor things, such as the shape of their eyebrows or the arch of their foot, that they were hoping someone would trade them. Others had nothing in particular they wanted, but had things they would give up if something good turned up. They might give up the particular lilt of their laugh if it meant they could acquire stronger self-control.
The Swap Shop always brought up people’s strongest insecurities and doubts, but of course, that was its purpose. It gave people a chance to start over, redo a certain aspect about themselves that they weren’t quite happy with. “If I only had clear skin,” someone would think. “Then I could be happy.” So when June rolled by again, they would trade their perfectly shaped fingernails for the perfect olive complexion. And sure, they’d be happy for a while, but by the same time next year they would have thought of something else that was in the way of complete contentment with themselves and their lives.
This cycle, this endless ennui of human existence, is exactly what companies like the one I work for prey on. “We’re not happy until you’re Happy,” is Happiness Incorporated’s tagline. It’s utter bullshit, but people really buy it.
The Swap Shop has been going on for decades now. I believe it started out with good intentions. Some people had traits that others wanted, and they decided to get together and trade them, so everyone could get what they wanted. And why not? People helping people, looking out for each other. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. But, as the tradition grew, companies began to spring up around it, companies whose commodities were perfect lips and smooth hair and not-too-big noses and self-esteem.
As much as I see through the capitalism of all of it, I work for Happiness Inc., and I continue to do so because, hey, it’s not my fault if you fall for the corporation’s traps. It’s not my fault if you’re daft and desensitized to what’s really going on around you. If you think that trading your perfect teeth for bright blue eyes is going to make you happy, then you go right ahead.
The thing that really gets to me sometimes though, is just how deceptive Happiness Inc. really is. Some smaller companies seem a little more honest to me — they might specialize in noses, or eyes. We, though, we specialize in self-esteem, see. Laboratory developed, factory grown stuff; completely artificial. Nobody who inherently has self-esteem is going to want to trade it for anything, after all. So Happiness Inc.’s special brand of self-esteem is the best on the market — none of that off-brand self-esteem for me, thanks, I only use the good stuff.
So every year at the Swap Shop, my job is to collect people’s traits that they’re willing to give up in return for a dose of self-esteem. We don’t market it as “doses,” of course. We just say, “Get your self-esteem here!” And people line up, trading in what they think is their trait worth the most that they can live without, and I collect their genuine smiles, the laughter lines around their eyes, their long lashes, the certain way they hold themselves when they’re content. In return, I hand each of them a patch of self-esteem. Most people put it on their lower back or upper arms. In a couple of days, it will sink into the skin and for the next year, you will genuinely love yourself. Your eyebrows are no longer too fuzzy — they are perfect the way they are. The scars on your knees from when you were a kid and fell off your bike — they are right and ordinary and perfect. The way you snort sometimes when you laugh — no longer an oddity, but an adorable quirk that you’ve always loved about yourself.
From this, it might seem like Happiness Inc. is doing everyone a favor. “What’s so bad about loving yourself?” people say when I criticize the corporations. “I feel so much better about myself, where’s the problem there?” Nobody seems to get suspicious about the fact that around the end of May, beginning of June, their self-esteem starts to wear off again. Throughout the year, people always talk about how this year, it’s for good. After the last Swap Shop, I’ll never have to go back — I feel so good about myself, why would I want to trade anything? But then mid-June rolls around, and suddenly people are unhappy with themselves again. If only I had stronger eyebrows. If only this gap between my teeth would go away.
So once again, everyone lines up for their next dosage of self-esteem, never realizing that it’s all manufactured to be this way. That the patches are designed to wear off just in time for next year’s Swap. That the exact traits that everyone is trading are what go into the formula.
I can never tell anyone this. I would lose my job, but I would lose much more than that. I’d be facing jail time, fines, threats, I’ve no doubt. I would be jeopardizing the entire system. Happiness Inc. would not be the only company at risk if I blew the whistle. Other companies would fall in its wake, and with the loss of trading companies, what’s to stop the media and ad companies from falling as well? The entire economy would suffer. And we can’t have that.