Crafting an American Consumer

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As an opening assignment for my Consumer History course this semester, we were asked to explore our own personal experiences with consumption throughout our lifetimes. In other words, we were asked to describe “How I learned to shop.”

Because consumerism is undeniably linked to American Identity, I wanted to share the memories I channeled for this draft. As I look back across my years of consumption, I am fascinated by the connections. Parenting, puberty, peers, politics, pop culture, education, history, technology, and social norms–all shaped me.

From Playing House to Bargain Hunting: Crafting an American Identity Through Consumption

            Blue frosting clung to the edges of tiny teeth as ten kindergarten party guests sprawled across the floor giggling and ready to tear away at a tower of skillfully parent-wrapped presents.  A hush fell over the crowd of 4-year-olds.  My mother reached for her camera. Bobbed haircut brushing my triumphant cheeks, new dress splayed across my knees, I was the center of attention. This was my 5th birthday party—horse themed and anxiously awaited—and I was loving every minute of it.

After the first Barbie doll and Breyer horse were revealed to a chorus of  “ooooo” and “ahhhh,” the unwrapping became a communal experience. Before chiding grown-ups could step in, metallic wrapping paper heaped, and sugar-laden kids began to think about the unfairness of one person getting all of those great toys at once. They began to make their own birthday lists inside hyperactive minds.

The cake and candy consumed, party games played, and trivial arguments resolved, sleepy-eyed children joined their parents for the journey back to their own suburban homes and growing collections of “stuff.” Of course, before the guests passed through the front door, they eagerly snatched at goodie bags of sparkling pencils and horsey figurines—smiling at the consolation prize.

When I imagine my consumer history and how I “learned to shop,” I think first of the repeating scene of birthday parties. Riddled with symbols of American consumer culture, they are a staple of childhood memory. Like Christmas and the awe of “back to school” shopping, they are associated with wish lists and excitement and an opportunity to show off. With each passing year, your birthday (and its accompanying obligatory presents) show who you are and how you’ve changed (or would like to.) As soon as we can speak, we are asked what we want for our birthdays—never what we need. A two year old does not thank his parents for the hundreds of dollars spent on diapers and baby food, but points at the whirling gadgets perched in fluorescent-lit aisles and yells, “Want!”

For me, awareness of consumption likely began with birthday requests and lists for Santa. It began at check out counters in grocery stores—pleading a case for brightly packaged gum (sugarfree—a compromise) and curly-cued shoelaces. It began with a doll I wished for in Italy with a coin tossed in a fountain at age two as I traveled with my leather-jacketed parents and ate food my toddler palate was too stupid to appreciate. It began with “star charts” for daily chores that ended with the prizes, and the day I went to the American Girl Place in Chicago and realized that my own Felicity, Josefina, Kirsten, and Kit were missing more “essential” items than I ever could have imagined.

At first, my consciousness for shopping and things was a way for me to fit in. Over time, it became a way for me to stand out—carefully pushing the mold without breaking it. I sought to master the art of being just daring enough. This was the message of America—be unique, but fit the puzzle.

At 6, I relished my bright yellow Lands-End winter jacket with periwinkle fleece lining. It matched the blue, red, and purple versions of my neighbors Nora, Lily and Sadie—three little girls I worshipped as queens. I stood at the gate separating our yards for hours at a time, waiting for them to notice me in order to avoid the terrifying act of ringing their doorbell.  We sledded down their tiny hill, cozy in our catalog coats. We traded hand-me-downs of distant cousins, played house in our mothers’ 1980s purple high heels, and accessorized more inventively than any self-conscious 20-year old fashionista. We were happy. We played with dolls and consolidated our beanie babies, did chores for Barbies and enjoyed an elaborate outdoor playhouse. We didn’t demand much. We were good with our minds—imagining entire worlds and using only our bikes to enter them. We shared and we hardly glanced in mirrors except when our playful scripts demanded it. Sure, we were greedy around Christmas and birthdays—excessive around Halloween. We counted down to back to school shopping day and arranged pencils gold stamped with our names in painstakingly organized desks. There was a palpable freedom in the soft texture of a 5 dollar bill—our minds reeling with the possibilities of penny candy, beanie babies, and swirling super balls. These tiny items were our child consumer currency. We learned our own form of entrepreneurship through lemonade stands on busy streets—offering “free ice” with our drinks and a 2 for 1 deal on accompanying popsicles. We had seen it work on TV.

Like most pre-teens, I wanted what my parents intentionally denied me. I distinctly remember our arguments over that first addictive computer game—responsible for hours spent indoors on sunny summer afternoons huddled around the new and exciting teal plastic of my neighbors’ Mac. The Sims became our grown-up version of playing house. We managed budgets, bought furniture, painted walls, landscaped backyard pools, and mastered the art of avatar life. There was only one problem: the game was rated “Teen.” My parents wouldn’t budge. The commercials on living room screens seemed to multiply. I wanted it more than ever—experimenting with every argument in the book. I learned to be a consumer as I crafted my multi million-dollar fantasy home from the bedrooms of my best friends, and practiced my own real world consumer passion as I dragged my unhappy mother into Best Buy every time we were near the mall “just to look.” She held her ground. By the time I turned 13 and I finally held the disc between my fingers, the allure had worn off. I lost the game within two weeks. And yet, I’m sure those few months spent immersed in simulated life and equipped with adult buying power changed the way I’d see the world.

Following the summer of Sims, Middle School hit. Those angst-ridden hallways of navy blue lockers and braces and perfectly preppy scunchie-wearing girls on TV screens. The “in-crowd” was all straight hair and Abercrombie and Fitch. I couldn’t resist. In 6th grade my childhood best friend became my boyfriend, I experienced my first Valentine’s Day equipped with a heart shaped pendant and pink teddy bear, and dragged my Mom into Abercrombie. I lusted after corduroys with pink seams and t-shirts covered in velour scrawl. My Mother was appalled by the prices. I wanted a new wardrobe—she allowed me 3 things. She was counting down the minutes until she could leave the blaring music, teenage employees in too tight jeans, and overwhelming stench of cologne. Looking back, I don’t blame her at all. At the time, I was thrilled to have that miniature moose embroidered at the bottom of my paper-thin long sleeves. In that year, I shopped to seem older than I was. I wanted the effortless confidence of 23-year olds playing high schoolers on sit-coms. I admired the wardrobes and “maturity” portrayed in my favorite Canadian  soap opera drama Degrassi. I dreamed of chick flick worthy dates equipped with glossed lips and boys who would write my name into songs.  I wanted to walk on worn tiles and open a locker filled with decorations that portrayed me the way I wanted to be seen (equipped with mirror, pen holder, pictures, funky magnets… studious but fun.)  I hand decorated my notebooks, wore my Mom’s old college sweatshirt, and raced cross country in neon yellow shorts, but I still owned those recognizable brand names.  I was trying to find balance.

In 7th grade I was still working consciously on the way I was perceived. From 7th grade on, it seems to me like that construction never stopped. In middle school I  was especially vulnerable—looking for any style or category that could catch on. I  experimented—looking for concrete persona though internally I was insecure and quaking. As the commercials screamed, “new year, new you!” I took the time to reinvent. Back then we didn’t have Facebook pages. We ruled the world of instant messaging—creating screen names to reflect our wanted identities. I was doublesalty90—named for a racehorse I bet on once with 100-1 odds. She lost, but it was still a good story. I felt different, but not out of the loop. After all, “salty” was also a slang term in our middle school. My screen name doubled as word play.

Middle school is often the beginning of the female “community shopping” trend. It is the age of “mall rats” and competitive size comparison and purchasing pressure. For the most part, I avoided this until high school. While most of my peers were shopping on the weekends, I was spending time with my very steady boyfriend. He was the bassist in our jazz quartet (I played drums) and incredibly “artsy.” He listened to classic rock and jazz on a record player I gave him, wore flannel, and sang Bob Dylan. In the almost three years we dated, he completely shaped my consumer identity. I wanted to be the girl to fit his cliché. I bought halter tops from Greenfields, stopped brushing my hair, and quizzed myself on all of the music he knew. I was seen as a “hippie,” and when I hit high school everyone assumed I’d smoked pot and rounded the bases (though neither were true.) Looking back, my relationships with boys shaped my purchases and identity more than I’d like to admit.

In high school, following my break-up with my stereotype of a musician boyfriend, I kept working hard at finding myself and my style. I continued to experiment. I mixed hippie with prep—athletic with elegant. I thrived on compliments. I started to think of shopping as an art. I imagined ensembles and got creative in thrift stores, boutiques, and Goodwill. I wanted things no one else had. I learned the thrill of the bargain hunt. Shopping with my Mom became a valuable part of our relationship. We loved deals, treasures, and finds. With three sisters on her side of the family, I learned to shop from the best.

We call my Aunt Martha a power shopper. She can go into a store and in ten minutes come out with the best deal—making cheap clothes look expensive by combining them expertly. I realize now that I admired and learned this skill from an early age. Every spring break, surrounded by the Maney women of my Mother’s family, we shopped at an outlet called Bealle’s in Sun Lakes, Arizona. We learned to sift through racks with eager biceps, and to give constructive criticism. As I watch my young cousins help their mother pick out her outfits each morning, I see that these skills are now honed at an earlier and earlier age. They learn not only from my Aunt, but from Hannah Montana, Victorious, and Camp Rock. When I was their age, the majority of my influence came from the worship of my older neighbors and family members.

As I grew older, working my way through adolescence and the confusion of Emerging Adulthood, the management of my identity through consumerism “complexified.” I began to understand the skill that comes with creating an identity dependant on location and audience. I spent weekends poring over the glossy pink pages of magazines that always seem to say the same thing. I learned that women really dress for other women—gaining confidence in high pitched comments and prolonged glances. I have found myself smiling across countless Friday evenings—loving the community of trading clothes, listening to catchy top-40 tunes with horrible lyrics, and getting ready for the promise of a night with a gaggle of girls unwinding after a week of very consciously keeping it together. I’ve realized the conflicting identities we create for ourselves with our clothes and things—the outfits laid out the night before academic first impressions and the glittering spandex fabric hanging in wait for the weekend. We live by the magazine spreads that tutor us in varied “looks” for every day of the week. We are conscious of the number of times we’ve appeared on Facebook in the same shirt. There are days I rifle through filled drawers only to growl; “I have nothing to wear.”

Though I admit my own shallow consumer practices, I’ve become far more conscious of their meaning throughout my first two years in college. I remember first the “packing” that went on for weeks in the summer before my freshman year. I loved the process—drawing it out in post-it note lists and multiple department store trips. The basement stacks labeled “college” multiplied over time. There was the cleanly packaged white lap top of graduation day, the trusty leather backpack, the piles of picture frames and books picked to portray the life I wanted seen, the Target furniture that had been shot with the lens of my camera phone and used as an ice breaker with my future roommate, and a backseat filled with clothes for every season. Two weeks in advance, I already knew what I would wear on the first day.

Through Facebook groups and pre-screened friends, I made  and developed first impressions with people I had yet to physically meet. We judged one another through interest lists, expertly chosen profile pics, and pages of comments.When it came to consciously making friends in that awkward camp-like atmosphere of Week One, the first contact was generally a compliment about attire. The Stir-Crazy Popcorn Popper purchased in the days before we hit the highway toward Northfield ended up making me my core group of freshman friends—the smell of salt and oil attracting them to my open door. These were my first palpable experiences of community through consumption in college. Once I’d settled in to campus life, my Facebook profile of first impressions became a way to prove to friends back home that I was doing well. I put images of my new life into cyberspace to be consumed.

On some level I was aware prior to my college experience of what I wanted to achieve with my possessions and appearance, but my time spent in American Conversations brought this awareness to a new level. Performing two separate inventories of all of my “stuff,” discussing corporate America, and thinking constantly about the way I’ve constructed my own identity, I became conscious of the meaning behind my every move. By the time Campus Ecology rolled around, I began to adjust my behavior to fit blossoming beliefs. I donated stretched black garbage bags bulging with memory-filled fabric to Goodwill, turned off the lights in every room, and thought more about where I placed my crumpled dollars. I think now about the stories I tell with my things—about the sort of citizen I want to be. I’ve learned to connect the mundane actions of my morning ritual to the greater systems of American culture. After a summer spent researching the impact of technology and overwhelming social media and expectations on my generation of “Emerging Adults,” I know how the information and news I read is filtered to what my computer screen thinks I “want” to see. I make an effort to adjust these filters to show me what I “need.”

I’ve read Wendell Berry’s “At a Country Funeral” three times now—thinking each time my eyes glide over those lines about how my possessions will tell my story after my body leaves. For Berry, the seed of memory is planted in the soil—the legacy of deceased living on through cyclical growth and harvest. Like his, I want my memories to be “hard earned” and built to last. I want to understand where I come from and where I’m going. I don’t want to leave behind a hoard of labeled plastic and generic possessions waiting to be sold. I want to teach something with whatever I leave behind—to tell a story about the America I lived and built. I want my things to paint pictures of experience.

Last February I watched my Grandfather leave the fragile shell of his body behind in tear-filled hospital room. The blinds were half closed—obscuring the shimmer of late afternoon in Phoenix, Arizona. As I held his swollen hand, I gasped at the indentation where his wedding ring used to be. Full of tubes and missing that strip of gold, this was not the man I knew.

In the days that followed the deafening beeping flatline of that ICU machine, we spent hours sifting through the possessions of my Pop. This is where I uncovered the pieces of the man I remembered and discovered the parts I never got the chance to know. In journal entries, sock drawer lists, and photographs, I constructed a timeline of events. Pop’s brightly colored shirts, Italian leather shoes, and pressed khakis were given to a family in need, but his file cabinet filled with letters and recorded memories were lovingly preserved.

In an age of instant information and gratification, holiday sales and often meaningless gift exchange, I worry about what my generation will leave behind. Will we leave identity in pieces of land or letters or heirlooms? Or will our lives be lost with our Facebook pages and computer histories? Has the construction of memory become too competitive and commercial in its modern ease?  My hope is that I will not die that second death—that my understanding of history and the complexities of our human lives will allow me to consume with a sense of legacy.

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