I tried hacking my life with Instagram gadgets. Did it work? | Life and style

If, like me, you’ve been involuntarily participating in this wild ride people are calling “the pandemic”, you may have experienced the same embarrassing urge as I have. Which is to fill the wide, empty void in your life with things: gadgets, gizmos, subscriptions, speakers, a little brush for your facial hair. Buying stuff online is, simply put, something to do.

Thanks to mass online data harvesting, this new pandemic habit has already been widely monetized. It’s most noticeable on Instagram, where with every few scrolls we are hit with ads for products promising to change our lives, taking advantage of the fact that wherever you may be on the sliding scale of privilege, “life” is undeniably shit right now.

As lockdown continues, I’ve been targeted with ads for “face yoga”, a vibrating posture corrector, an app to improve my relationship, an app for intermittent fasting, and facial scrubs for my arse. Their promises are nothing but bold. But do they actually work?

To find out, I put a selection of products to the test.

The Jawzrsize – $25

Who doesn’t want a chiseled jawline? The Jawzrsize promises just that. All you have to do is pop it in your mouth and start masticating, doing three sets of 25 to 30 “reps” a day for 30 days. The beginners’ version will set you back $25, while the full transformation kit costs $100, and gives you four different chew balls.

The Jawzrsize has an unintentionally comic, and frankly sordid, air about it. In adverts, Jawzrsizers stand around with it stuffed in their mouths like gags, munching up and down, often while stretching or lifting weights. Watching someone do it can feel like you’ve accidentally walked into the wrong room at a Berlin sex club.

The way the Jawzrsize is marketed is often very masculine and intense, and fits into a growing trend among young men, especially incels, to resemble a “Chad” – a hyper-masculine man with pronounced, chiseled features and muscular build.

The author tries out the Jawzrsize, turning his bedroom into a makeshift jaw gym
The author tries out the Jawzrsize, turning his bedroom into a makeshift jaw gym. Photograph: Max Benwell/The Guardian

After using the Jawzrsize on a regular basis,my jaw started to ache. I would also occasionally gag. But as someone whose jaw is often tense and stiff due to clenching, it did offer some stress relief. So while I may not have a jaw as chiseled as someone with disturbing body image issues, I still occasionally pop it in when life gets a bit too much. And maybe after a while this stress-chewing of the Jawzrsize will make me resemble a real man; only time will tell.

Somnifix – $20

I was tapping through my Instagram stories one day when a woman suddenly appeared on my screen, her eyes shut and mouth covered with a sticky strip.

Had she fallen asleep while being kidnapped? Should I call the police? No – she was actually just reaping the benefits of Somnifix, a strip which goes over your mouth before you go to bed and stops you breathing out of your mouth to give you a better night’s sleep.

At first I didn’t want to try the strips, as I generally like to be able to breathe out of my mouth, whether I’m asleep or awake. But it turns out they have little breathing holes so you don’t suffocate if your nose becomes blocked.

The Somnifix promises a better night’s sleep
The Somnifix, which promises a better night’s sleep. Photograph: Somnifix

I was excited to see if they worked, but almost every time I woke up in the morning my mouth was wide open, the strip lost somewhere between my sheets. It just couldn’t stay on. I tried shaving and had some success, but never managed to get it to stick, beard or not.

This isn’t to say such strips can’t be useful when they stay on. James Nestor, who wrote a book called Breath: A New Science of a Lost Art, says it can be hugely beneficial to beating snoring, sleep apnea and hypopnea.

But Nestor also recommends a cheaper solution to Somnifix. In August, he told CNN: “I’m a big fan of American entrepreneurialism, but I don’t think you need a special tape to tape your mouth with.” Instead, he advises people to use the hypoallergenic micropore tape sold at drug stores, taking a small strip and using just enough over your lips to keep your jaw closed.

Back stretcher ($34) and neck hammock ($50)

Marketing contraptions that promise to make your neck and back feel better would have been a simple enough sell before the pandemic. But now that everyone is hunched over their makeshift desks at home, it’s no surprise to see ads for these products all over your feed.

The back stretcher device is great if you like to crack it now and again. But it’s probably best to talk to an expert if you experience serious back problems.
The back stretcher device is great if you like to crack it now and again. But it’s probably best to talk to an expert if you experience serious back problems. Photograph: Max Benwell

The neck hammock and the spine-stretching arch both promise to do two similar things. One alleviates tension in your neck, the other in your back. Both feel good – the spine stretcher is great for anyone who regularly relies on someone to crack their back for them.

Meanwhile, the neck hammock hangs on your door and, once you’ve popped your head inside of it, it straightens out your spine, literally taking a weight off your shoulders (yes, that would be your head), and relieving tension.

These two products are the ones that give me the most immediate enjoyment. But as I was lying on my apartment floor, stretching my spine and hammocking my neck, I began to wonder: is this actually safe ?

I call David Casper, a spine specialist in Philadelphia. Part of me assumes that buying random orthopedic products off the internet and entrusting them with my spine may be risky, but David paints a more nuanced, reassuring picture.

The author tries using the Neck Hammock, Back Stretcher, Jawzrsize and Upright Go 2 all at once.
The author tries using the Neck Hammock, Back Stretcher, Jawzrsize and Upright Go 2 all at once. Photograph: Max Benwell/The Guardian

“My first thing with addressing systematic back pain is always physical therapy, core strengthening, spinal muscle strengthening and kinetic chain exercises,” he says. “But when it comes to different types of products, I recommend to patients that if they know someone who tried it and had good success, so long as it’s not too expensive, it’s very reasonable to try.”

So can they work? “In terms of its actual efficacy it’s hard to say,” David says. “Really, the staples of resolving neck and back pain is building up your surrounding musculature.” However, if it makes you feel better, he says that it’s “worth a shot”.

Upright Go 2 – $100

If you ever find yourself hunching over your laptop like I do, you’ve probably felt the same spike in blood pressure when a straight-backed friend or colleague tells you how you should be sitting. They’re right, of course, but it’s also one of the most annoying pieces of advice you can receive.

The Upright Go device buzzes when you slouch
The Upright Go device buzzes when you slouch. Photograph: Upright Trainer

The Upright Go 2 cuts out the need for any of this irritating human interaction, and automates the experience by correcting your posture. Once you’ve stuck the little plastic bluetooth device to your back and calibrate it on your phone, it buzzes every time you slouch for a certain amount of time. I set it to vibrate after 15s, but you can also do 30s or a minute.

You can’t roll your eyes at a robot, so throughout the day you find yourself straightening your back as it gently buzzes once your spine hits a certain angle. It helped me while I sat at my desk, and out of all the devices I tested I’d recommend it the most.

Manly app – $2.99 a month for full version

This may be the weirdest, stupidest, and most appropriate thing a man can get for himself eight months into the pandemic – especially if you’re single, insecure and thinking about sexting despite the last eight months enacting grievous bodily harm on your self-esteem.

It’s simple: you upload your topless photo. Then, using Manly’s suite of editing tools, you make yourself absolutely ripped, pinching, trimming and distorting your body to make it more toned, while adding fake muscles to make it look like it’s been stuffed full of sausages.

Screenshots of Manly app adverts from Instagram
Some screenshots of Manly app adverts from Instagram. Photograph: Manly, Photable

One of the funniest things about Manly is its adverts. In most of them, they’ve so clearly hired very muscular models, then done the completely opposite of what the app does, and edited out their muscles . What this does is make the effects they add looks “real” because they are. Meanwhile the “before” photo, which purports to be real, is clearly fake.

Personally, I’m quite enjoying my extra body fat as we approach the cold depths of winter. But if you were happier with the body you had before, you can use the app to pretend like you’re one of those intolerable people who ended up working out more after finding themselves stuck indoors.

With the Manly app everything is fake, but also possible. You can give yourself big biceps, abs, pecs. You can even make yourself taller or add tattoos.

The only hitch is that, like me, you may end up looking absolutely bizarre – like a mix between Twitter chief Jack Dorsey and a man who will fight you if you come within a two-mile radius of his girlfriend.

The author tries using the Manly app to hide the effect of lockdown on his body
The author tries using the Manly app to hide the effect of lockdown on his body. Photograph: Max Benwell/The Guardian

My verdict on Manly is that we could probably do with fewer apps that try to exploit people’s body insecurities, especially given the trying circumstances we’re all facing at the moment. But at the same time, my mantra throughout the pandemic has always been the same. Whether it’s editing a fake six-pack on to my dad bod, staring into space for three hours, or making a needlessly elaborate meal for six people and eating it alone: it’s something to do.

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