Women and Consumerist Culture

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cardboard mascara I made in a workshop with artist Bill Barminski to comment on consumerist culture

As I transitioned from girlhood into womanhood, society barraged me with messages that shopping (read: consumerism) should become a major aspect of my life. This phenomenon is grounded in America’s history and capitalist economy. At the start of the 20th century in the U.S., consumerism was booming and department stores were developing. Department stores were sometimes referred to as ‘Adamless Edens,’ [1] suggesting that they were spaces for women to spend money that their husbands had made and the idea of shopping as a pastime was emerging. This ideology of man as doer and maker and women as spender and consumer unfortunately persists to some degree today. Shopping is a stereotypical favorite activity of teenage girls and women and it becomes an important aspect of many women’s lives, but I think it is important that we continue to push back against this notion and continue to prove that women can make and do just as well as men and we will not be tricked by the notion that our talents lie in shopping and consuming.

During high school, as much as I hate to admit it, I became a ‘product junkie,’ a horrible phrase likening consumerism to a drug addiction. But there is some truth to the comparison. Like drugs take control of one’s mind and body, our consumerist society can take control of us. In a capitalist economy, the functioning of daily society relies on consumerism. As women have been designated to the main role of consumer, this expectation of consumption falls on women. However, we are encouraged to consume far more than is necessary for our daily lives and for the functioning of our economy. This culture of encouraged consumption primarily preys on the insecurities of the female half of the population, first creating the insecurities (making us think our appearances are of utmost importance and that they’re not good enough as they are) and then offering a remedy to these insecurities. But of course, these products we consume don’t really fix the problems. The insecurities are like a wound that society (largely marketing industries) inflict and the products they offer for our consumption are only a band-aid that temporarily mask the problem rather than healing it.

Teenage girls and young women are especially prone to these inflictions of insecurities as they go through rapid changes both physically, emotionally, and socially as they discover who they are. In high school, I became obsessed with makeup and clothing. I felt that consuming these products (and the right ones) would help make more people like me and would make me happier. I knew that if I could become a more confident person and loved myself more that would be even better, but making myself happier with my appearance was an easier and faster remedy. Of course, these are the messages that society and ad agencies had brainwashed me with. I felt better about how I looked when I started wearing makeup in my freshman year of high school, but I still had insecurities and makeup quickly became more than just a small step in my morning routine. I became seduced by buying new products and growing my makeup collection. I loved going to the store with my friends and picking out new products that I had spent time researching in YouTube reviews and blog posts. I felt like I was spending my money wisely because I had done my research, but I didn’t think about the fact that I was buying far more products than I needed and only because watching these YouTube videos and reading these blogs was telling me I should consume more and more.

Of course, not only can this avid consumerism have detrimental effects to us personally, but the consumption also contributes to problems concerning the environment. To continually consume the earth’s resources puts strains on our environment. Our economy often does not seem concerned with the consequences it has on our environment, but this a very pressing problem.

When I started college, my dad gave me a wise piece of advice. He told me to spend my money on experiences, not things. No matter the cost, experiences will enrich your life so much more than buying products can. This is a philosophy that I fully embraced during my semester of study abroad. I hardly did any shopping except to get a few souvenirs from the places I visited. I spent my money instead on the experiences of traveling around Europe, visiting museums and other sites, and eating delicious meals with friends. Spending on these experiences instead of things helped me get the most out of my time abroad, have more adventures that helped shape who I am, and more stories to share with others. Now that I’m back in the U.S., I try to continue some of these habits I has abroad, of consuming less and doing more.

Our consumerist society assaults us with messages telling us our life will be better if we purchase more products, it can take first the awareness of the manipulative nature of these messages, and then some will power  to turn away from them and instead work to find happiness and self-love from more intangible sources. I can still enjoy buying new things from time to time, but the enjoyment will be much greater and feel like more of a treat than a necessity if I purchase new things less often and don’t purchase things because of an insecurity I want to remedy.

[1] Pohl, Framing America, 331

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