Are you what you buy?

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.

83 thoughts on “Are you what you buy?

  1. Great post, Elizabeth. I also feel you would enjoy reading America, by Baudrillard. It’s all about consumerism in the height of the 80s and I greatly enjoy his outside, if not cynical, view. Just throwing that out there as an interesting read. Whether you agree or not with him is irrelevant. It’s just an interesting look at the country. Keep up the good work!

  2. As a Vogue collecting, FT watching, shopper in withdrawal, Art History graduate daughter to parents from the former USSR currently living in Toronto I’ve identified with you while reading your post. Very interesting, thank you!

  3. I enjoyed reading this article. As a firmly middle middle-class (j.c. penny.sears catalog childhood) person, I’ve overcome my heebie-jeebies about Goodwill and consignment, but I can imagine I’d be intimidated at Saks. Even Macy’s can seem a little too-too for me. But I love reading Vogue and other fashion magazines, reading chick-lit novels, watching Gossip Girl and Sex and the City reruns, and playing on Polyvore.com. Fashion is art. We can look and enjoy without touching. Plus I’m really into shopping locally lately–and that has its own dynamic.

    • Hi Shelley,
      Firstly, thanks for sharing a bit about your own experience. I absolutely agree with you, fashion IS art. It allows your to express yourself and gain insight into who you are, if you think deeply enough about it. I think the more awareness we have about our interests and habits, the more we can develop our identities. What discoveries have you made by shopping locally? I really enjoy hunting in consignment shops…I think that may be my grad student budget trying to relive the glory days of shopping with my parents.

      • I guess you could say my shopping is a reflection of my philosophy and my politics, and so, yes, identity. It’s not about the label or the “look” completely, though I have fun playing with that. I want to be someone who strengthens community (and the country) by supporting local businesses.A greater percentage of money spent at a locally-owned business stays in the community, compared to the percentage of money spent at a global corporation. Local business owners take personal pride and responsibility in their businesses practices, where CEO’s of large corporations really are mandated to care primarily about profit. Shopping at Goodwill strengthens community by helping people less fortunate. That being said…who doesn’t love a really great pair of shoes?!

  4. Excellent insight! I would like to fancy myself as someone that outright rejects the beautiful items that are equally beautifully displayed in the stores, but my collection of fashion magazines gives me away. I grew up in a lower middle class family (we shopped at Kmart and Shopko). Even then, it wasn’t until about five years ago that I was comfortable in a Goodwill or other thrift shop. Now I love shopping at thrift and consignment shops…the possibilities are endless for unique clothing that no one else in my city will have :-)

  5. That’s a really great point! Shopping in thrift stores or consignment allows you to get creative, explore different styles and express your individuality. I think it’s interesting that not having all the money in the world can actually motivate you to develop your fashion sense since you can’t always buy the latest trend from the high-end stores. I wonder if there are any really wealthy people out there who choose to shop in consignment. If there are, I bet they have really interesting perspectives.

  6. “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.” I love this point. Really interesting article.

  7. Thought provoking post. I grew up middle class, and one of the most interesting things about shopping for me, is how customers treat the clerks. With a middle class background, I always try to figure things out for myself, I don’t want to “bother” the clerks too much with my questions or needs. On the other hand, my friends who grew up wealthy expect a high level of service, and have no problems asking the clerks to do things for them. I think it underscores the fact that those of us who grow up with access to Saks and Nordstrom, feel like they belong, and they feel comfortable making requests.

    • Hi James, thanks for adding to the discussion! I definitely know people who are very uncomfortable being assertive in high-end stores. Do you think there is a culture bias in that as well? I think there are so many factors that play into individual differences when it comes to consumer culture. Gender, race, ethnicity, and of course social class, contribute to the formation of our behavior patterns.

    • Great quote. It reminds me of some of the mindfulness-based therapeutic approaches I’m learning about. Awareness of who we are in context can help us feel strong even if we can’t obtain the external things we are told we need.

  8. I’ve gone full circle…from blue jeans to high fashion and back to jeans. I must say, there’s nothing like a good fitting pair of faded jeans to really feel like yourself.

    • I wonder if everyone has a “comfort” item of clothes. I think mine would be cardigans. I have old vintage ones I could never throw out. It’s always fun to mix and match tradition and high-fashion, right?

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    • Hi Cari, thank you for the comment. I’m always fascinated by how much we aren’t consciously aware of. It will definitely be on my mind next time I’m people watching in a store :)

  10. I love it. There is a sort of cognitive dissonance that comes with spending on material things for me. I know the money I spend should be going into savings, or towards paying off student loans, but we all want to have a stake in the trends of the here and now.

    • That’s a great point Cassandra. It’s incredibly difficult to be practical in a society that glorifies instant gratification. I also feel like the media is so saturated with messages to use trends as a means for identity formation that we forget there are other methods of exploring who we are.

  11. This is a really insightful post! I’ve had an aversion to “shopping recreationally” (socially) for as long as I can remember and I’ve not looked too much in it. I am very uncomfortable in high end stores but usually ok in Kmart… I’ve always attributed it to my anxiety in crowds (which is certainly a factor during sales!) or not being “girly” enough, but on reflection I now realise it has to do with my family becoming single-parent and much poorer when I was 11, and clothes becoming a luxury. It’s definitely food for thought, thank you! Congrats also on being Freshly Pressed :)

  12. The older I get, I think what I buy now is more and more a reflection of the true nature of me. One tends to prioritize what to buy because of mortgage realities, less money.

    • Hi Jean, thanks for commenting! While I do think financial reality plays a large role in spending habits, what I find most interesting is whether an individual has a visceral reaction in a certain type of consumer environment. Also, do you think there are gender differences in this matter?

  13. Interesting article, I find the psychology around consumer choice in shopping fascinating. I think that nowadays class migration is much easier as people become more independent and aspirational. The marketing around premium brands helps to promote this through creating an air of exclusivity and an emotional connection. What I also find interesting, is that this can also have the opposite effec; I know a few people who rebel against the high street in order to follow urban and upcycling trends.

    • I really like your point about people who rebel against the elite culture in favor of more innovative trends. That makes me think of certain “anti-mainstream” trends like the hipster movement. What do you make of trends that base their fashion on being apart from the mainstream when in reality they are actually being mainstreamed?

      • A perfect example is people of the ‘heavy metal’ persuasion (specifically in the uk) – they actively shun anyone who in their mind follows fashion, yet they all dress in the same way – interesting paradox!

  14. Interesting read. There was Tumblr & now Instagram which often makes me wonder about brands / fashion & the women who buy them; socio-economic background, if its a status or style preference. Are people chasing the label so far that luxuries aren’t ever a luxury good too long in developed countries? Commenting from a developing country where I just watch & wonder :) Great post :) Enjoyed reading it.

    • Thank you so much for your comment :) I think we are definitely seeing a decline in quality with the focus being on mass production. People also get bored so easily, and constantly need to buy more to keep up. What kind of observations have you made from your country about consumer habits and trends?

  15. Really interesting perspective on consumerism. It is something we need to start paying more attention to as resources become more scarce and our population continues to increase. Do we really need what we buy, or is it for the love of the purchase itself? Hopefully more people will begin to analyze their shopping habits as you have!

    • Thanks for the comment! I agree we do need pay more attention to our habits, especially awareness for why they exist. I think a great deal of depression and anxiety results from a misperception of what will be fulfilling. The more aware we are of ourselves, the more we can connect to what will truly make us happy -meaningful relationships.

  16. Very interesting. A very clear, well written piece, that encourages understanding and clarity on what makes us tick…. Definitely incites some self analysis!

  17. This brings to mind a quote from Oren Arnold that states, “Christmas gift suggestions: to your enemy, forgiveness. To an opponent, tolerance. To a friend, your heart. To a customer, service. To all, charity. To every child, a good example. To yourself, respect.”

  18. I worked at Nordstrom for about 3 years in women’s shoes. It amazed me at how much someone would pay for an ugly or unfunctional pair of shoes. I think the huge difference in shopping at Nordstrom or Saks vs Kohls is the service. We sales people at Nordstrom are paid on commision of every sale that we make. The sales people at Kohls are not commissioned and therefore dont care if they give good service. I think that if Kohls, Sears, JcPenny and so on was a commissioned based pay they would give alot better service, care about the customer’s wants or needs, because if they didnt it would reflect in their paycheck.

    I was raised in a middle class family, my mother always bargain hunted at thrift stores, consignment stores and out of catalogs. I used to have an issue with yard sales and thrift stores, but not anymore. I can see spending alot of money on some jeans that may or may not fit based on weight.

    I will however spend money on Coach or Dooney purses. Love them, but i will buy my pants at GW or elsewhere

  19. Firstly, thank you for the comment and for joining the discussion!

    I definitely agree you get better service at a high end store. However, I do think there are several factors that contribute to the different experiences people have in different shopping settings. I suggest people experience a reaction to a store simply by being in it, regardless of whether they encounter good service or not.

    What is it about Coach or Dooney purses that you love? It’s interesting how we often choose to spend money on certain items and not others. I think purses are interesting because they are worn daily and can reflect status more easily than items of clothing.

  20. Interesting post … sharing my own shopping experience I tend to look for good bargains on name brands – for instance buying a Coach bag but at an outlet shop, or an Armani top at a charity shop (both of which I’ve done). I get some odd sense of satisfaction in paying very little for things that are actually quite expensive. Living within my means, but beyond the labels my means could afford! Interesting how we play these things out.

    • Exactly! I know that “odd sense of satisfaction” well. Do you think it may be a kind of smug superiority? Like, I can get designer things for less so I am smarter or more savvy that you are? If so, I think it may be a defense against feeling inferior to those who really can afford whatever they want.

      • There’s probably a certain amount of smugness there absolutely. But I don’t agree about the inferiority … there are very few people who can afford “whatever they want” – even the 1 per cent. And why assume I can’t afford whatever I want? Having said that, there’s always something else you could buy – a bigger house, more expensive car, etc. etc. I’d say it’s more about spending wisely – why throw money away?

      • I definetly agree that regardless of how much money you have, there is always something bigger and better out there to make you feel not good enough. I meant inferiority in a more general, collective sense. I think it is perpetuated by the media’s obsession and glorifcation of celebrities and the elite lifestyle. Shopping at discount means you can portray an image for less. Why do we care about this image, if not for feelings of inferiority? Why not buy bags without labels that are unique? (I do not intend to make assumptions about you, only to express a general point of view about consumer culture.)

  21. Great topic, really different from what I’ve read elsewhere. Have you seen ‘Exit through the giftshop’? Man, that movie showed me how I’m a just a consumer in all parts of my life. depressing…

    • I haven’t, but it is on my Netflix queue!

      It definitely can feel depressing when we realize how easily we are influenced by consumer culture. I would argue, however, that with awareness we can at least make educated decisions, gaining insight into ourselves.

  22. this post reminds me of how my dad who imigrated from mexico always feelt like he was being watched even at a middle class like department store like macy’s,. I think there is nothing wrong wiyh liking beautiful things but when we judge if it’s beautiful by a label/price/social status we are falling prey to marketing propaganda, no amount of consumerism can replace living a life of meaning

    • Very well said. The only thing of value we can truly possess are meaningul connections with others. I also agree with your point about falling prey to marketing propaganda. It reminds me of why I hate visible labels on my clothing. You really are providing free advertisement for brands. Even worse, you end up limiting your own creativity and style by relying on a label to express who you are.

  23. Pingback: Are you what you buy? | The Empty Crayon Gathers No Moss

  24. Hi Elizabeth! I really like this post. It is true that the pleasure from purchasing high-end items does not last. It is a momentary high. However, some of these items are wonderful pieces of art.
    Thank you for writing this blog entry. :)

  25. Someone might have already said this,..but what I love to do..is stop in at Salvation Army..and look at their clothes. They actually have brand NEW clothes in their for 2.99 ..it’s crazy!! I bought 2 shirts in there one time BRAND NEW for 3bucks..How they get their clothing is..MAJOR COMPANIES like Macy’s, Dillards,Neiman..etc have to get rid of certain stock, and they give it away to places like Salvation army!..It’s an awesome steal!

  26. This is a great post! What gets interesting is when people buy art. Now, is that consumerism? Does buying art make you truly happy? Some people would say yes. What is different about art than a normal good like campbell’s soup or a luxury good like Louboutin shoes?

    • Thank you! I think the major difference is that you can’t wear fine art. There is no brand you can advertise by owning a Monet. That being said, when you compare buying couture to buying fine art, there isn’t much difference. Both commodities are aesthetically beautiful, rare and expensive. Owning either is a status symbol. Although, I think owning fine art is a class on its own. You have to walk into someone’s home to see their art collection, but an individual can wear Chanel while they do their grocery shopping.

  27. Oh my goodness! Incredible article dude! Thanks, However I am encountering problems with your RSS.
    I don’t understand the reason why I cannot subscribe to it. Is there anybody else getting similar RSS problems? Anybody who knows the answer will you kindly respond? Thanks!!

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