(I know I said I would give an account of my anthropological observations in Anthropologie. Well, they kind of morphed into whatever you’d call this…)
I am fascinated by malls. Not exactly in the same way that I am by, say, metamorphosis or humpback whale migration or Indian pole gymnastics, but fascinated, nonetheless.
Why? Because although they appear to be real, every time I’m in one (or one of their kind) I hear this nagging voice inside of me that just won’t shut up. I even remember hearing it as a kid, “Hold on now, this can’t be all there is to it. Something just doesn’t add up here. This place doesn’t feel real. Where’s the rest of the story?”
Last time I visited a mall, I felt like I was in a giant game of Candy Land. Harmless enough, right? I mean, gingerbread plumb trees are cool, I guess. And what’s not to love about gumdrop mountains? ‘Tis the season for peppermint stick forests, after all. But where on the game board is the Canyon of Cavities? Or what about the Hollows of Hyperactivity? I hate to be a Debbie Downer, but a land of candy is sure to have a Desert of Diabetes.
Unfortunately, the game extends well beyond the walls of malls. It’s woven into the very ways we’re taught to consume. The entire retail “reality” is displayed to seem so perfect. So limitless. So unaffecting to anything beyond the parking lot. Whether we are hooked by the tidy stacks of sweaters in our favorite colorway, the scent wafting from Cinnabon, conveniently located near an AC intake, or the larger-than-life photoshopped beauties in pushup bras suggesting easy access to sex-filled, frost-free winter wonderlands for only $49.99, it’s little wonder that we go in for underwear and come out with three bags of bullshit.
Millions of dollars are spent every year to keep us believing that our decisions are of no consequence to the whole of humanity. But it’s not true, and on some level we all know it. These are kindergarten ethics, people. One kid in the class doesn’t get to hog all the crayons. It just isn’t fair. You can’t pick the macaroni off of someone else’s cardboard and glue it to your own. That’s not tolerated. You’d be sent to the school counselor for an emotional evaluation if you uprooted all the beans sprouting between wet paper towels on the windowsill. But on a global scale, with people and the planet on the line, somehow greed is considered glamorous, as long as it’s displayed well and priced right.
As a culture, we’re living as if the fairy tale were real. Shopping is now considered an acceptable pastime like soccer or whittling or bird watching. If this isn’t considered pretending problems away, I don’t know what is.
Just like in Candy Land, there are winners and there are losers in this real time game. Only, many of the losers live in third world countries and will never set foot in a mall (not that they would be allowed to anyway because they have no shoes). And the rest of the losers? Well, they’re not even born yet. I daresay future generations will pay greatest price for our haphazard consumption.
My intentions are not to sour your eggnog on this fine December afternoon. My intentions are simply to call the kettle black. Because the second I set foot on U.S. soil, somehow the kettle turns a million shades of gray again. Not because it isn’t actually black, but because there’s no Canyon of Cavities on the game board. The ugly realities are on the other side of the world, tucked neatly out of sight for the sake of profits.
Living amidst so much poverty has changed me. Seeing firsthand the giant chasm of disparity between a people of plenty and a people of dire need brings up emotions in me that I’m still trying to reckon with. Strangely enough though, I’m not overwhelmed with pity for the the plight of the poor, nor do I feel the need to save them from their situations.
You know what I do feel? I feel embarrassed. By our waste and our greed and our “profits before people” mentality. I feel saddened by our abuse of power and our irresponsible monetary influence. I feel a desire to protect the developing world from our unsustainable systems and mountains of needless, polluting goods. I feel that we have just as much to learn from them as they do from us.
Above all though, I feel inspired here. By the examples I see every day of how to live life without pretending the realities away. Of so many people still connected to their food source, unaffected by hurry and focused on their families. Of consumers who don’t buy needlessly or throw away carelessly. Of people more content in their poverty than we are in our wealth.
It is because of the nameless, smiling faces that I pass in the street, the shoeless children running along behind them, and the countless lessons I’m learning from their lives that I’ll continue to call the kettle black. Because if we’re honest, that’s the color it really is.
Thank you for writing this!
You’re timing is perfect!
Your words are poetry with a conscience!
I’m sorry, but your failure to realize that the shopping mentality enslaves millions of middle and lower class Americans belies that as an upper class momma, you don’t see, realize or feel the horrible cycle that that the shopping mentality inflicts on America. We used to have laws against usury because just like drugs, responsible politicians realized it is simply beyond the will power of a majority of citizens to break the habit. The stakes are stacked against too much against the consumer when the interest rate starts at 18% and jumps to outlandish rates upon one late payment. Look in the malls. Although it varies, it’s largely lower and middle class folks spending the day as a form of entertainment, inevitably leading to useless spending (as you point out). They are just as much in need as the others in distant lands, and eductaing them would help the ease the consumption cycle as well.
JW – Huh? While I think you might have some good points in there, I’m not sure how I would fit all that in a single blog post. And just so you know, I am far from an “upper class momma.” Thanks for reading!
JW, how do you get that Beth is wealthy? You seem to be generally agreeing with her and simultaneously judging her negatively, very wrongly, I might add.
“It just isn’t fair. You can’t pick the macaroni off of someone else’s cardboard and glue it to your own. That’s not tolerated.”
Unfortunately, Beth, I think it is tolerated–on the grander & less personal sphere. And “fair” got lost somewhere between my childhood and yours. I’ve learned to not even use the word anymore since so many people have rejected my use of it as appropriate to ANY situation.
This past week NPR did a whole look at the horrible Enron catastrophe. There are still people that think that what those executives did was ok–I’m being broad here–because they got away with it and they were just doing what we right for the company.
Which leads me to remembering that the Supreme Court has now decided that the VERY amoral American corporation is entitled to the same consideration as an individual. At least individuals are still held accountable–if they are caught red-handed–and judged for being immoral, whereas a corporation is not considered culpable because because it is not human and does not have to be moral. I’m SO confused! What a world we have been living in.
The good news is that more & more people are saying I won’t take it anymore. Maybe the morality/immorality scale as finally been tilted too far. Maybe we’ve been asked to swallow too much.
Hope I didn’t curdle anyone’s eggnog!
when i turned thirty, i decided that i wouldn’t buy anything beyond what i needed (i.e. toiletries, gas, food and plane tickets to see my family) for a year. i’ve always been frugal but that year taught me that there was so much i didn’t need. the practice stuck and i rarely buy myself things unless i really need them. it helps to have girlfriends who love to shop and pass along rarely worn, designer jeans, shoes and such… that said, i gave myself a loophole with gift cards that year and recently upgraded to an iphone 4s. i know i can do better, which is what this blog reminded me. the holidays are the worst when it comes to unnecessary consumption. thankfully, my family is mindful of the trap; we have been picking names out of a hat for years. it’s taken the pressure off to spend money you don’t have on gifts that people often don’t really want or need anyway… nicely done, beth. xoxo
Very well said, Beth. What I hope for is that as more and more Americans become enlightened to our own waste and greed we will simultaneously understand the enormous power we carry by our spending habits. I say to my kids again and again, “if people didn’t buy it, they wouldn’t make it”. We have to take our own power into our hands and STOP buying. If we STOP buying, they’ll stop making. I believe this is the only way to break some of this ridiculous cycle. But marketers are smart. Just as I feel I have detached completely from the consumption cycle, someone will come up with products or marketing methods that catch my eye. Anthropologie is one of those places for me. I can’t afford a thing in there but I’m so attracted to everything about their stuff. If I could afford their stuff it would be a matter of remaining determined not to be sucked in. We must all remain determined in this heavily marketed to culture. (of course, one thing that keeps me away is that I inevitably call it “Anthroposophy” and suffer my teen’s ridicule for a while).
A friend forwarded your post to me. Thoroughly enjoyed it. I live in Mexico and your perspective is my feelings on not living in the USA.
Touched some nerves! Way to go. You nailed some big issues. The big problem to me (and in me)…we are selfish to the core. All of us. We each have various (sometimes sophisticated) disguises. But if we get alone and really honest, we can see it. The problem is bigger than opinions and positions. It is, in fact, bigger than us. The problem is in the mirror, but not the solution.
Love this, Beth! Could not agree more. It speaks volumes that in our greed, we are not a happy nation, yet so many living in poverty can find joy in simple things.
Maybe Congress should pass some laws to limit how much time Americans can spend in the malls. Since they are taking away so many of our rights, I guess they might as well take this one and maybe that would save the planet!
For me, it is more about taking personal responsibility and choosing a conscientious lifestyle than blaming the government, left or right. I’m okay with cynicism, too, as long as it isn’t rooted in anger. “How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it.” Marcus Aurelius
It would be great if Congress could pass some consumer protection laws and strengthen important agencies like the EPA and Department of Education instead of spending the nations wealth invading middle eastern countries to steal their natural resources.
As far as shopping laws and restricting malls goes, it’s very unfortunate that the USA has been deceived by corporations and their minions in government into an amoral consumer lifestyle that is killing the planet. We don’t need mall laws, just Americans with a conscience.
Love your blog, Beth. This is the term that came to me in my last visit to the US: “Incubator of Oblivion,” and your post summed it up perfectly. In the US, consumerism’s overwhelming messages bombard me with frightening force. At first, it is easy to recognize and fight against them, but in time, the constant pressure dulls my senses and weakens my defenses. It’s not long before I find myself fantasizing about things of no worth and forgetting that majority of the world lives in poverty.
Consumerism’s anesthesia (oblivion) is perhaps its greatest weapon: we can conveniently forget our responsibilities to the planet and the world’s poor, and become entirely captivated by what should otherwise be a pointless race to get and spend our lives away.
Thank you, Ann, my new friend and fellow enthusiast! I look forward to many more such discussions. My mind is racing, let me tell you. Let’s have tea soon or something.
awesome post. really. I totally relate, too. I have felt protective of life here in Palestine and it just gets my ire up to see KFC moving in to this non-fast-food culture. and I have also felt embarrassed for similar reasons. thanks for your thoughts.
Great post. Your comment about there being more that wasn’t shown in the malls, that it wasn’t the whole picture, made me think of a photography project I recently browsed that tackles the subject of consumerism, and I thought you might enjoy it. You can find links to it from this review (from another good website New American Dream):
Keep your honest insights and great writing coming.
I have recently begun to read your blog and am so inspired to see someone living out her ideals and teaching her children the value of individualism. I agree with you – we have so much to learn from those around us, especially those who have not been corrupted by the commercialism we have been bombarded with our entire lives. As a 34 year old mother of a fifteen month old, I have been trying to make more thoughtful decisions so that I can teach my daughter a better but less materialistic approach to life. Unlike most of the people who seem to comment, this is a completely new way of thinking for me. I have been caught up in the materialism and corporatism of the western world from birth until now, but it has almost broken me financially and spiritually. I do not want to live like this any longer and want to teach my daughter and any future children that there is a better way to live. Please keep your thoughts and ideas coming! Thanks for putting yourself out there for all of us!
Rhonda, I so appreciate your thoughts, openness and encouragement. I assure you, I will keep writing — comments such as yours make me want to do just that. And good for you for choosing to be thoughtful. It’s not always the easier route, but I agree, it’s better on the soul.
“You know what I do feel? I feel embarrassed.”
it’s so good to read that others actually DO feel this way too!
I’m so proud to hear your words. I agree with all my heart. A good read (for hope for America to wake up) is ‘Spontaneous Evolution’ and you can get it used on Amazon. Just found you tonight and will stay with you. cheers!
Thanks, Ruth! I will definitely add it to my list of books to order next time we are stateside. I appreciate your encouragement!
Thank you so much, Ruth. I will totally check out “Spontaneous Evolution.” I’m glad you’re here!
Your post describes on of the reasons why my husband and I chose to raise our children in his native country, Tunisia. American consumerism is overwhelming, and here we were able to talk about it and not completely succumb. Distance lends perspective; it is hard to help Americans caught up in the cycle actually see what is happening as they have grown up feeling entitled to the way of life there. I wonder and worry if it will take a disaster to force a change in American consumerism. It would be better if change could come by thoughtful choice, as you have described.
Dorothy, you are spot on in describing my own feelings. I am so grateful for the perspective I’ve gained from the outside.
I know I’m a few years behind, but sadly, not a lot has changed in consumer practices since you posted this gem. Shopping is a tough one. Personally, I hate it. But, it does keep people employed and drive the economy, yada yada yada…. so the best I think we can do is choose good and ethical businesses to spend all our “easy-come-easy-go upper class dinero” (Ha!)