In her short non-fiction book ‘A Room of One’s Own’, Virginia Woolf lamented that women had always been poor. And being poor was not a conducive condition to be creative. Hence they never had the opportunity to create meaningful literary work. When one does not sup well, one does not do well. When one does not sleep well, one does not think well. And that was the reality for most women until recent history.
Many of us in the 21st century no longer had to endure the appalling living conditions experienced by Victorian working class. We are given opportunities we take for granted such as basic education, legal protection, human rights and liberty (or at least the illusion of it), as well as access to life’s necessities.
To Consume is Human
We need food, clothes, education, skills and technology – software and hardware - in order to partake in the capitalist system of the 21st century, with the hopes that we can earn a proper living that will at the very least put us in a comfortable place to pursue the elusive goal of self-actualisation. Some might even argue that owning a mobile phone and access to the Internet is now more important than having a roof over one’s head.
Aside from meeting the basic needs of existence, there are other facets of consumption that are potentially enriching and empowering. In light of the horrendous plight that Victorian women had to endure, these facets of consumption have been significant in giving women opportunities to improve their lives, such as education, technology and access to the vast wealth of knowledge available on the internet, affordable healthcare, exercising legal rights to pursue freedom from physical and emotional harm (ie, divorce), and exercising one’s rights to choose when to be married and utilising contraceptives. I would even argue that being able to go to the gym is empowering for women, now that sharing the same space with men is no longer frowned upon. For many women, the act of attaining education and access to information has emancipated them from a restrictive life that was previously highly dependent on men. To paraphrase Bill Nye, in order to change the world, we need to educate women worldwide. Most women no longer feel the need to define themselves solely as walking human ovens; we are free to seek employment that feels meaningful to our individual selves – though still within some implicit social and economic boundaries – or create one without the need to seek permission from our male counterparts.
The Birth of Consumerist Culture
One can safely conclude that the act of consumption is neither inherently good nor bad. Yet today it has received a bad reputation, because consumption has evolved into a culture of consumerism – defined by sociologist Colin Campbell as a social condition in which consumption becomes the purpose of people’s existence. Consumerism is a modern phenomenon that occurred just a few centuries ago. When wages started to rise for the working class of Europe in the industrial era, people began to purchase small luxuries, like extra pairs of underwear or a mirror – what we consider everyday necessities now – then it snowballed into rugs, carved furniture, wigs – things that only the upper class could afford just a hundred years prior. The more they spent, the more businesses grew, the higher the employment rate, expanding Europe’s monetary prosperity exponentially. And thus began the consumer revolution – running the capitalist world as we know it. Today, we have things like brunch, botox, and bricks from Supreme.
While consuming is not inherently detrimental to our well-being – having things can expand our welfare after all – it has become the primary moral compass of our lives that is sinking ever deeper to the lowest common denominator in order to garner the highest amount of external validation. We seek happiness and fulfillment through the very act of consuming; it becomes the basis of our identity and sense of self, often a therapy to life’s ills and a means of overcompensation for self-inadequacy. If we seek to compensate for life’s woes by consuming inspirational objects of the higher order that prize intelligence, rewarding social life and meaningful labour more frequently than inane, dull things (which can be necessary but should be limited really), then I say, what’s wrong with consumerism? However, these are the useless nonsense which is glorified today.
Polish sociologist Zygmant Bauman put forth the argument that consumerism now shapes the entire social system in which we exist through our consumptions habits. These habits define the way we view ourselves, how we affiliate with others, and how we are valued as a person, by others and ourselves. A recent BBC podcast highlighted that older women are going under the knife and opting for botox in order to look good on social media. We are so transparent that Facebook algorithms can guess our age range, educational background, political affiliations, and possibly how dissatisfied we are at work. In other words, we define our sense of identity through the things we consume.
With the permanent existence of social media, the culture of consumerism has squarely implanted itself in our lives. Like it or not we are now subconsciously consuming beyond utilitarian and/or aesthetics purposes. In most instances, the brands we pick to the lifestyle we have chosen are the façade we want to project on instagram in order to cover up our deep insecurities and anxieties. It’s a self-serving decision to separate ourselves from the haves and have-nots, and to identify with the social tribes we want to belong to.
Can Feminism Align Itself with Consumerist Culture?
Consider the complexity of these scenarios. At any given time, somewhere in Shanghai, tens of thousands of Chinese factory workers who migrated from poor villages hunch over their work stations for over twelve hours a day in order to make iPhones, many of them used by lawyers who fight for the rights of women and children. Every summer, the children of Uzbekistan are forced to pick cotton during school holidays by their government who is supposed to protect and foster their wellbeing. It’s more than likely that this cotton, picked under slave labour conditions, would make its way to one of Lululemon’s numerous sub-contracted manufacturer (Lululemon does not practice vertical integration) that produces gym clothes for many women who would wear them to a de-stressing yoga class or a liberating pole-dancing session.
The act of consumption becomes problematic when it involves the exchange of money. In the 21st century capitalist society, some people inevitably have more money than others; this money is earned through the exploitation of a large group of people somewhere really, really, really far down the food chain. What began as a liberating economic system for the masses during the industrial revolution quickly became a self-perpetuating formula for wealth inequality.
And then there’s femvertising - a growing trend in which marketers, usually large corporations, bid for women’s money and attention by creating advertising messages specifically portraying the emancipation of women from social restrictions. These ads target women who are upwardly mobile, affluent and highly educated. Empowerment became something for women to buy. Many of these companies simply pay lip service through their taglines and positive visuals, but their products still perpetuate gender norms and beauty stereotypes. They also gloss over the reality that their products are not necessarily ethically-made, and often contributes to environmental degradation. Aside from correlating empowerment to a person’s buying power, underlying these femvertisements is the message that women – now with disposable wealth and emancipated from explicit patriarchy – has every right to take advantage of their individualistic freedom to varying degrees of selfishness, i.e. it’s my life I can consume whatever I want. Think of Kim Kardashian and her faux-empowering justification of her nude selfie. ““I am empowered by my body,” she wrote. “I am empowered by my sexuality.” Yes let’s continue glorifying women for their bodies, Kim, and not for our brains or our abilities in shattering the glass ceiling. With one photo and one sentence, empowerment has been trivialised - robbed from women who made extreme sacrifices by selling their bodies to feed their family - in order to to pad up a useless instagram account.
The culture of consumerism paints a bleak picture of the path humanity has taken; from self-absorbed social media usage to a rampant consumption of material goods. It is thus very tempting to say that the culture of consumerism and feminism are mutually exclusive because the former fosters inequality and individualistic selfishness devoid of empathy for the common good. And yet because of consumerism, the very same overworked factory proletarians are now able to send money back to their families back in their hometown so they no longer starve. They can afford to send their children to universities with the hopes that they can have a better future. In the last thirty years, an estimated 500-600 million Chinese have hoisted themselves out of poverty through the act of state-controlled capitalism and consumption, an unprecedented scale that no other country has ever carried out within a single generation. There are still many poor people in the country, but they are less poor than the previous generation.
While there is no black and white answer to the question, it is evident that the consumption of technology and education has been empowering for women young and old, every person rich and poor. Poverty will not be eradicated any time soon, but access to technology has given the impoverished opportunities to lift themselves out of dire situations. Mobile phones, now as cheap as they come (thanks to overworked Chinese), provided their fellow countrymen with access to Internet to find jobs, seek out friends, access (censored) information, and buy goods that will make them marginally happier. When they move up the social ladder, someone even poorer will take up the vacuum they have left behind. It is simply the reality of our capitalist society today. It’s not the healthiest of situations, but the globalised world has not been able to offer a better solution because we have sunk so far down in this toxicity that it’s far too difficult to imagine a different scenario.
Let’s face it, we are constantly bombarded with advertising messages that promise empowerment – most of them superficial. But it’s also foolish to dismiss them outright just because it’s de rigueur to be outraged at everything. The most empowering form of consumption is the kind that brings about opportunities to individuals and communities. Women of the 21st century have plenty to be grateful for, thanks to the feminists of the Victorian era who fought for our right to education and voting, even if our work is far from over. We also need to recognise that what is empowering on the surface to a certain group of individuals is not necessarily beneficial to large swaths of communities in the long run.
Consumption doesn’t necessarily have to be carried out on the back of frivolous, unhealthy products. We can vote with our wallet but we also need to be mindful that no matter how ethical we try to be, the economic system we are in will not eradicate the division of wealth. We are invariably standing on someone else’s shoulders so we can have our necessities and luxuries in life. Keeping that in mind, we should pass on the compassion to others with the hopes that the downtrodden would eventually lift themselves out of poverty, a dollar at a time. We can also support industries that generate profits from helping consumers and producers fulfill deeper needs of our lives – think pursuit of knowledge, science and technology, artistic endeavours, meaningful designs, empathetic social connections and awareness of our flaws while fostering relationships with others. While I do think that there is no such thing as truly ethical consumption under capitalism, until we can actually find a practical and sustainable economic system of production and consumption, the least we can do is to develop a new culture of consumerism.
Wearing vintage French army coat and trousers; Alexander Wang x H&M top; Ann Demeulemeester trousers and boots. Special thanks to Israel Sundseth for this series of photographs taken in Tokyo