A few weeks ago, as the darkest of the winter was creeping in, I decided to start indoor group training in my gym (one of the ways to survive winter depression). I would rather run outside in the forest, where no silly music invades my personal space, alongside people looking at themselves in the mirror while tensing their muscles. Pytt, pytt.
I signed up for a basic “step” class. In my training gear from 5 years ago which I have not changed because the pants don’t have holes in them yet, I looked around. There were only girls, between 20 and 35 years old. They were all thin, perfectly dolled up with make up on their faces and new flashy sports gear with colours that give me a headache. I never really understood why one would wear make up to the gym.
I sweat for an hour in there, in front of another blond and perfectly manicured instructor with a happy tone to everything she says “The most important thing is to move and sweat, it does not matter if you cannot follow me”.
One hour of sweating and being late on every move all the other girls seem to have learned at birth, I go to the garderobe and meet the same girls, naked this time. Perfect body lines and shaved private parts. Perfect tan despite the dark November month. I don’t know what is more tiring: one hour of training, or having to look at these perfect girls, fighting myself not to conform to whichever norms of perfection they are trying to reach. Because I know that the time and energy I will have to use to reach it will not be worth the satisfaction of getting there. I’d rather use that time to read comic books and cook dinner for my friends.
Why does everyone want to be perfect in Norway?
Since I moved to Norway some mysteries about Norwegians have remained: why does everybody want to be perfect? And why is everyone’s definition of perfect the same? There are of course norms of perfection everywhere in the world, also in France. But they are just different than the Norwegian norms, and more diverse. France is a big country, and some communities have certain norms, clothing and expected attitudes, while others have other codes. If you are in Neuilly your choice of jewelery will be grey pearls and head band while in the Vercors in a hippy farmer community it might be dreadlocks and hand made clay necklace. In Norway there seems to be one norm only, promoted by television and media but also regular people through peer pressure.
It does not stop at bodies, the search for perfection and conformity is everywhere in Norway: in peoples’ homes, where Stockholm carpets, white walls, and the same vase and candle holders can usually be seen. I have heard many comments, mostly negative, from Norwegians entering my home: You do realise you’re going to have to sell this flat someday?
Facebook and Instagram threads, where everybody’s goal seems to be to find a partner, make babies, recover a flat stomach, enjoy one’s parental leave until the last day, buy a house and spend one’s holidays in some cabin or in Syden. Children need to be healthy (obviously) but also sporty, clever, humble, managing everything at once and being cool about it. Exactly what adults try to do in this country.
God forbid one paints a living room wall with pink and yellow stripes, takes a cycling holiday with one’s kids in Mongolia, does not want to have children at all, thinks that a few extra kilos can also be beautiful and sexy, or complains about one kids who are just a pain in the ass. Don’t even get me started on skiing in the winter, which is an activity one must be interested in in this country.
Call me cynical, I believe that if your life was so perfect you would not feel the need to scream it to the world. I understood after many years in Norwegian society that many people don’t like skiing, don’t care if their kids are dirty or don’t become the best at everything. They just move to a neighbourhood where the bar for perfection is lower and don’t say what they really think too loud. Some people do not conform with the norm, and keep it to themselves.
But conforming to the norm of perfection is hard work. And what I find problematic is when social pressure makes those who work hard to conform to the norm of perfection look down on those who don’t care. Or don’t manage.
Janteloven: a bad excuse
“Yes but it is because of Janteloven, we all have to be the same” is what Norwegians repeat like a mantra. It is not true, that is not what Janteloven is, at least not how Sandemose described it in his book A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks. In this book, Janteloven is a tool for oppression, not a means to liberate people and ensure equality. This is quite obvious when he for example describes the story when his father’s boss gives his family 10 kroner of “gift card” in his shop. Sandemose’s mother buys for 8 kroners (a lot of money at that time) to show they are not greedy, and the boss eventually tells them “You now owe me this money, it will be taken from your salary every month”. The family has to almost starve themselves during months to pay the money back.
“Don’t think you are better than me” says the upper class to the lower class. “Don’t think you can become part of my world” is what the boss of the factory is saying. “Don’t believe you make the rules, I do”. Where is equality here? Somehow the Norwegian lower class was gullible enough not only to accept this without revolting themselves, but also to continue imposing this norm to each other long after worker rights were earned in Norwegian society.
With the discovery of the oil, the Norwegian society entirely got richer, and now the search for perfection and conformity has reached new highs of absurdity. Not only people in Norwegian society continues to oppress their peers in case they don’t do exactly as they are supposed to, but the threshold for “the norm” has also changed. Everybody needs to be rich and happy. You live in the richest and most equal country in the world, so achieve something! Those who don’t manage, either because they get stressed on the way (sometimes since childhood), or like me refuse to use the time to reach these goals, can be judged by others. “Who cares about what others think?” you may ask. In Norway what other people think is extremely important. They are afraid of being ostracised. For us foreigners it’s less of a problem, as we are outside society anyway. As a Swedish radio journalist (Yes, Madeleine, you!) once told me “I was ostracised for 5 years in the village where I lived in Toten without even noticing it”.
Many Norwegians are so proud that there is less class division in Norway than in other European countries such as Great Britain and France. But I think Norwegians traded class oppression for an other form of oppression : a collective norm for perfection that they pressure each other to reach. And considering the rise of depression and pressure-related mental disorders among youth in Norway, I think Norwegians should start thinking of breaking the pattern of what they call Janteloven. Imagine how free you could feel. All you have to lose is your chains (and that stripy vase on your kitchen table).
This article was featured in VG on the 11th of December 2016 under the title Lei av perfeksjonsjaget!
Also: This is the vase I am talking about (I would say half the houses in Norway have it in their home), alongside Stockholm carpets and Kähler candle houses…