November 15, 2012

Are You What You Buy?

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What is the issue?

What is it about consumerism that transcends culture and class, and what aspects are exclusive to our own experiences?

Although I didn’t grow up in a wealthy family, my parents worked hard and chose to live beyond their means. They provided their only daughter with luxuries unheard of in former USSR: the best private schools, vacations twice a year and countless extra-curricular activities. We often watched Fashion Television together, and I quickly learned how to distinguish Versace from Valentino. We couldn’t actually afford couture, but we had a taste for it. Shopping was a highly anticipated part of every vacation. I was taught to look past brand names and pay attention to design. Rarely wasting time in high-end department stores, we headed straight for discount designer shops like Loehmann’s or Century 21. I loved getting deals on coveted designer names; it was empowering.

Despite my interest in fashion, I never devoted time to understanding why I felt drawn to it. Did I just want to be socially accepted or admired? Was I trying to mask feelings of insecurity? As human beings we want to feel connected with others. Interestingly, we rarely discuss how effective consumerism is in achieving this goal. Andy Warhol’s pop art placed a spotlight on American consumerism, illuminating the obsession with labels, brands and fame. Brand marketing sells a lifestyle; we buy the illusion. Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans, for example, are the iconic image of mass production. Campbell’s doesn’t just produce soup, they sell the security of an American family tradition. Advertisements for virtually any high-end brand sell sex, power, security and happiness. Ultimately, I believe the indirect goal is always happiness. Yet, I am skeptical anyone really feels secure as a result of eating tomato soup. However, the idea of security is sufficient to solidify the brand in American tradition. In a similar vein, I doubt anyone feels happiness by accumulating shoes, even if they are Louboutins. I would argue people experience pleasure when they shop, and pleasure when they buy. Unfortunately, pleasure doesn’t last. We feel compelled to buy more because we are perpetually unsatisfied. This is also an integral component of addiction: chasing feelings of pleasure that can never be harnessed.

Lynne Layton, a Harvard professor who specializes in understanding social class and politics wrote an article titled, “That place gives me the heebee jeebies.” It highlights various experiences of class and consumerism through a psychoanalytic lens. Each of us are thought to have an internal representation of the class level we grew up with. Throughout our lives we replay this internalized experience in ways that are beyond conscious awareness. This theory may explain why people experience anxiety in certain shopping environments. For example, an individual who grew up with wealth may walk into a thrift shop and get the “heebie jeebies.” Their internalization of class is reflected in their anxiety, as they have an unconscious wish to distance themselves from the lower classes. Alternatively, someone from the middle class who became rich in adulthood may feel guilt shopping in high-end stores because they surpassed their parents’ success. Alternatively, individuals who came from lower class homes may feel out of place in a store like Nordstrom because their perception of themselves is firmly held in their socio-economic status.

When I reflect on my own development, I recognize how my upbringing plays out in my shopping preferences. Although I love high-end designers, I tend to avoid wandering around Saks or Neiman Marcus, even though I admire the styles and designs found there. From a practical standpoint, I don’t go there because I can’t afford anything. Yet, there is something underlying that choice. I admit there is a frustration that goes along with seeing, touching or trying on things that you can’t possess. When I am persuaded into these stores I feel compelled to dress up in trendy outfits and pretend to deliberate between the Marc Jacobs bag or the Tory Burch. In my experience, the admiration for the upper-class lifestyle had to be mediated by middle class means, resulting in my dual perception of consumerism. It is both rejected and admired. The fact that I can intellectualize the trivial nature of consumerism, while pining over an Alexander McQueen dress, demonstrates the power of this phenomenon. There is an internal struggle that goes along with being a consumer in North American society: We all have to concede who we are with who we want to be. TC Mark

Elizabeth Aram

Elizabeth Aram is a clinical psychology doctoral student living in Chicago. When she isn’t working as a therapist in …

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