Man, I felt like an idiot. It was the summer after my first year of college, and I was at home, gazing upon all the things that hadn’t made it with me to school: remnants of hours spent shopping and scavenging during high school. Clothes I was never going to wear, or at least never going to wear again; shelves packed with books I would never read; drawers bursting with makeup I never used; half-finished and never-started art projects languishing in boxes on the floor. Man. I really thought these things were going to work. They were going to make me happy. Popular. Smart. Cool. Better.
Conversations with my sister and friends taught me I wasn’t alone in the pastime of collecting and curating new selves month by month. My sister lamented the hours and money she spent trying to become worthy of a sustainable group of friends through trips to Marc Jacobs and Urban Outfitters. We needed to look the part, we were convinced.
As a teenager, when I became aware of the world of marketing — of the magic and fantasy projected onto things— I read that advertisers must create artificial needs. In our developed world, with all of our immediate material needs already met, we must keep the wheels of economy and progress spinning. Never mind turning inwards, refining, growing, or becoming sustainable. We must always produce. Buy. Grow outwards, not in. And to do this, we have to create new needs. I need twenty shades of lipstick. A handbag for each day of the week. A new phone every year. I need these things. Don’t I? Don’t you?
But that made me feel like a total dope. Swindled. There’s a constant mind game going on, and I’m sorry, but you fell for it! If you had just been a little smarter, a little stronger, had a little more faith, you might have been able to keep your head above the rising tide of all of the newly created needs. All that time and money you spent? Evidence of your spiritual and intellectual weakness. Did you really think it would work? Well, yes, I did!
This feeling of moral inferiority is familiar. I felt the same way about spending time on my appearance, not through shopping, but through learning to diet: to eat, or not to eat. When I wrote my post “A Means to an End,” I tried to describe how there was something more at stake beyond just “looking good.” It was about being safe. Being important. Worthy. Complete. The same is true, I think, when it comes to stuff. It’s not that we’ve been swindled or duped. There is something real that we’re striving for.
Think about our food supply. We are surrounded by food, cheap food, everywhere! But none of it is all that nourishing: just sugar, chemicals, flavoring, some cow secretions. Someone glares at an overweight person and sneers, “how can you be hungry?” The person knows they are hungry. “I’m always hungry,” they realize. But there’s nothing to satisfy them. All this waste, this excess, but no nourishment. It’s the food that’s artificial, but the hunger, the need, is real.
This is what I suspect is happening with our consumer culture. It’s not so much that the needs are artificial, but that all the time we’re being sold artificial solutions to real needs.
What was it that I was hungry for as a teenager that I’m still hungry for now? If I could see what it was that I really needed, could I learn how to actually meet that need? I’m sure that psychologists and anthropologists have made all kinds of eloquent descriptions of these things. But each time I clean out my apartment, I get a sharper sense that:
We need to establish our belonging to a group. We need to show, using our clothing and belongings, our membership within a certain community. Likewise, we need to differentiate ourselves from the groups we don’t want to be associated with. If I look like you, then maybe you’ll accept me. Look, I have money! Look, I’m an adult! A professional! A student, a local, one of you. As a child, I needed a Sanrio lunchbox; in middle school, wallaby shoes; in high school anything Abercrombie (and that is some flimsy, shitty clothing); now, I don’t even know: a handbag that costs more than my rent? I have wondered, for instance, whether the black students at my high school and college felt the need to “look white” or look obviously like students to avoid being treated badly.
We need to stand out as individuals within our communities and groups. We’re trying to express not just community identity, but individual identity. So we seek out variations on the same aesthetic. I’m the goth kid with the cat ears, she’s the one with the spiked collar, he’s the one with the fox tail and fingerless gloves. Or, my oversized glasses have white frames. I have the green iPod. My hoop earrings say “princess,” not “diva.” My shorts are seersucker, not white linen. We are provided with endless choices through which to establish and express ourselves. We get to focus more on what we buy and less on what we do, to figure out who we are.
We need to perform our genders. We need to feel like men, or like women, or like both, or neither, or some alternate identity. We need to express whatever gender is ingenuous to us. I buy makeup to feel like more of a woman. I buy collared shirts and heavy boots to feel like less of one. Our shampoos and soaps declare our gender to whoever smells us, or meanders drunkenly into our bathrooms during a party. Let it be known that this shaving cream is FOR MEN. Let it be known that this shampoo is for HER, not for him! Eat the salad to feel feminine, the meat to feel masculine. The gendered symbolism of so many products lets us conform or deviate in whichever ways grant us the most security within our communities.
We need to maintain a standard of appearance that will secure our safety and respect. Don’t look old. Don’t look fat. Don’t look ugly. Don’t look out of style. Keep up.
We need to feel capable, successful, that we have made it. We need to feel accomplished. And this car, this bag, this outfit, this watch, this bottle of fancy-ass booze is just the thing. If I buy this brand, I get all the status and social capital that comes with it. I take on its fantasy characteristics, absorb its qualities. I move into its carefully crafted aesthetic.
We need beauty, wonder, excitement, and entertainment. We need meaning and adventure outside the daily grind, the act of subsisting. So we seek out novelty, the stimulation of new things all the time. We seek out distraction and fantasy worlds, temporary escapes, vicarious lives.
We need a feeling of progress and growth, direction and life. So we buy more, newer, better, constantly trading up.
If you, like me, have ever felt frustrated about buying something that didn’t make good on its promise, didn’t bring you the feeling it was supposed to embody, just remember that you are one person, and you and your entire community are surrounded by the products of a trillion dollar industry. The need to belong, to be secure, and to feel good about ourselves is natural and also extremely powerful. And the salt of advertising gets rubbed in the wound of our insecurities every day, so ubiquitous and pervasive that we don’t even consciously perceive it, much less challenge it. It says everything by implication and subtle symbols. It thrives on our belief in its harmlessness and frivolity.
We don’t have to regret our desires and impulses, especially not after a lifetime of conditioning. The needs are real, even if the “solutions” are ephemeral. It’s not that stuff is never the solution, or that it can’t ever make us happy, or bring meaning and well-being into our lives. Plenty of things do. The challenge is finding those things, and letting go of the ones that don’t matter. Everything is pretending to be ‘it’: the thing you need. All of us are trying to survive physically and emotionally: we have egos and identities to nourish, not just bodies.
So what does it actually take to meet those needs? What makes us complete, what makes us belong? I’m sure that the answers to those questions are somewhat different for everyone, and that the time, space, and quiet needed to honestly look at them are the last things our culture wants to give us.