Tuesday, September 26, 2006

That which we consume defines us

Hulk has been working on a project for his 3D design class and it got me thinking about the issues of consumerism and self-image. The story behind his project boils down to how we as Americans often define ourselves by the kind of car we drive, and how car companies take advantage of that by pushing image rather than the actual features of the vehicle. While I was in San Diego this weekend, Oldest Friend's car broke down and she is in the market for a new one. She borrowed the car of a friend and we ran necessary errands for starting her new job, and as we drove around she looked at cars and thought about what kind of car she wanted.

"I should have the kind of car I like, that I want," she said at one point. Granted, up until this point she's been driving a 15 year-old Honda with over 200,000 miles on it, so it's not like she's buying a new car every 2 years or something. She needs a wagon or SUV for her job (needs the cargo room) and has been looking on the internets to find a newish used car that will serve her needs at a certain price point. She's going to be spending a lot of time in the car, so it should be both functional and comfortable - but part of her just wants to get something flashy and high-status, hang the expense of gas, since her company will pay her for it.

I've never owned a car, and I've thought a lot over the last year about the kind of car *I* want. Mostly my criteria will be balancing my desire for high gas mileage and efficiency and environmental impact with the practicality of needing all wheel drive to live in this state and drive into the mountains in the snow and drive on the unmaintained rutty dirt road of the cabin. Not once have I thought about the message I would send to other drivers on the road about who I am by what I am driving. Because I see a car as a necessary tool, not a status thing, and the only thing I ask is that it isn't an ugly color.

But the consumerism and image-consciousness of Americans isn't limited to cars.

In San Diego there is a restaurant called Hash House. We went there for breakfast yesterday morning. Apparantly, it's a very popular place, with lines out the door on weekends. It was packed at 10 AM on a Monday, with all kinds of business meetings going on. I sat at the bar to let my friend have her pow-wow with coworkers on her first day of work, and looked at the menu and the lineup of wine bottles behind the bar.

For a breakfast place, it seemed OK in terms of what kind of food was offered - scrambles, "hashes," pancakes. Pretty standard, with a bit of an upscale vibe. And then I saw the prices - probably 2-3 dollars more per menu item than I'd normally pay (My scramble which included veggies and goat cheese, potatoes, fruit and toast was $10). I thought, oh, it's an image thing - this is a hipster type place so they have to charge accordingly. And then I saw the plate plunked down in front of the guy sitting two seats away. Did I say plate? I meant TROUGH.

Seriously - the guy had ordered a thing that had at least 10 eggs scrambled with stuff in them, two gigantic buttermilk biscuits, a gooey mound of mashed red potatoes, all covered in sausage gravy. A giant sprig of rosemary adorned one of the biscuits. It could have easily fed 5 people to stuffed and 8 to normal fullness. I am not lying when I say that the "plate" was a good 18 inches in diameter. "That almost makes me lose my appetite," said the woman sitting between us. She ordered just scrambled eggs and a biscuit, and the kitchen decided to feed her a mound of pasty red mashed as well. It was twice as many potatoes than the Hulk and I cook for the two of us - and was probably more than 3 or 4 people could eat comfortably.

When my food came, I was prepared for the worst. It was enough food for two solid meals for me, and I thought what I'd ordered was pretty basic. I'm glad I ordered my potatoes "crispy" and not "mashed," though, because the crispy ones were mostly just new red potatoes done up in a little more oil than I'd like. The scramble was good, the toast was good, my 1/4 of a personal-sized watermelon was good, and the potatoes were OK - I had them box up half of it and took it home to have for lunch. (I didn't keep the rosemary sprig).

You know the scene in Pleasantville where the mom has a table piled high with food and tries to convince the kids to sit down and eat it? Yeah, every table at this place was like that. Seeing trough after trough of food piled high coming out of the kitchen, plunked down on people's tables, enough calories for entire days, started to skeeve me out a little. Obviously, at Hash House, you get what you pay for - my breakfast cost $10 but I got two meals out of it. And mine was small compared to some. But knowing how much waste comes out of a normal restaurant kitchen, I can't even imagine the excess left on peoples' plates at this place. Ugh. I guess the new thing in "concept" restaurants is excess, rather than the restraint of 10 years ago. And people in the same image-conscious world wring their hands over being just bony, rather than skeletal, because thin is in, baby. I guess it's really bulemia that's in.

My friend needed to buy a printer, so we scooted up to "Fashion Valley," an enormous high-end mall with Coach and Louis Vuitton and Burberry etc. so she could look at the Apple store. I wandered around the main mall area while she compared printers, and saw many Fashion Victims. One in particular stood out to me - she looked like a trophy wife, shopping at 2 PM on a Monday afternoon with her enormous rock on her left hand. She wore a silky black short sleeved blouse under a really ugly corset top, skinny jeans that had no place being on her average frame, and pointy metallic stillettoes that she had trouble walking in. Part of me wanted to point and laugh, but only the part that's like the kid in the emperor's new clothes story. I mean, did she realize that her expensively but obviously processed hair, her ridiculously large Gucci bag, and her attempt to follow every Hollywood fashion trend at the same time (while not being able to balance in those heels) just made her look like a kid playing dress-up? You know you're a Fashion Victim when your clothes wear you and not the other way around, because I can't for the life of me remember what she actually looked like.

She was just the most egregious of the Fashion Victims at Fashion Valley. Everyone was trying so hard to project this image determined by the brands and looks they'd consumed, and nobody seemed to have the confidence to pull it off. I say, if you've got the money to wear all that stuff, have the good taste to know HOW to wear it (hint: not all at once). However, I guess I'm not one to judge, because my outfit all came from discount stores (Ross, TJ Maxx, Payless Shoes), my purse was a Guatemalan gift from Hulk's bro & SIL, and I wouldn't have even considered going into any of those expensive brand stores. You'll never catch me paying $80 for a basic t-shirt even if I'm a millionaire someday.

But I guess that is, in a way, how I define myself - by consciously choosing not to wear brand name stuff, by projecting an image of comfort rather than style, by practicality over excess or expense. I don't think I'm better than anyone else who might choose differently - but sometimes I wonder whether people are conscious of their consumer choices. I'd rather be defined by what I do, not what brand of clothing I wear or what kind of car I drive, but since our culture is so focused on these things, I'm sure I'm judged every day by people who are influenced by branding. I don't mind paying more money for something that I want to last that I know is high-quality, but more money does not always equal better. I wonder whether most people in American society still realize that.


Monkey McWearingChaps said...

Consumerism, like all things, is bad only in excess. I think the little splurges we have available to us make life worth living. For some people that may be fashion-for you it's good food, books & travel (experiences rather than tangible items).

My only problem comes when people 1) Judge others on their choice of splurge and 2) When people go over and above the socially acceptable level of use. For instance, cars are the perfect combination of design, engineering and ingenuity. I must admit to being fascinated by them myself. 1 luxury car per family is not that big a deal, especially if you're smart enough to choose a more eco-conscious car for your other vehicle. Driving a Humvee is completely different.

My biggest problem with SoCal is the obsession with consumerism and I am happy I grew up somewhere more remote and disconnected from all of that.

MLE said...

I guess it was really the excess that bothered me. Because it was truly excessive.

yournamehere said...

The owners of the original Hash House opened a second one in Las Vegas, and I ate there a few times. I have a huge appetite and I got two meals out of my entree.

There are also huge portions at Cheesecake Factory and Claim Jumper. To me it beats paying top dollar for a quarter-sized piece of tuna, but I could be wrong.