The inconspicuous consumption of parenthood
We can't stop buying things and it feels terrible
This year spring break coincided with an abundance of beautiful weather, broadly accepted comfort with getting back on planes, and many people resuming the trips and vacations that were postponed indefinitely over the last few years.
With it came the usual barrage of IG stories—here we are at the beach in Tulum, here we are in the VIP lane at DisneyWorld, here we are at a soccer game in France, here we are backstage at Coachella meeting Japanese Breakfast.
Even those who weren’t off in 80+ degree weather fighting throngs of other people as some compensation for the lost years of life/childhood that make up 2020-2022, were displaying the edification, access, or progress of their lives. “I can’t believe this is my actual kitchen!,” exclaimed an acquaintance whose been renovating their home for the last few months. “The wallpaper is even better than I imagined.” They linked to their various light fixtures, all vintage one-offs, now sold out.
Of course, this is what social media does: it exposes us to the heavily curated triumphs and narratives of other people’s lives, cased as somewhat real-time narrative, with an extreme bias towards self-flattery.
Lately my kids have been talking about the moment at which they’ll get a phone, a prospect which terrifies me, and makes me feel in a perpetual race to instill as many values and positive habits in them before this moment occurs. Ada is loosely aware of The Internet and has wandered onto Youtube a few times, but doesn’t fully grasp the aspect of a-place-where-you-can-buy-or-see-anything.
I’ve been trying to deconstruct my anxiety around this getting-a-phone moment, and what it means they are really getting access to, and I think part of it is tied up in what I see as a world of grotesquely inconspicuous consumption, more and more magnified, more and more cyclical.
In 1899, Thorstein Veblen coined the term conspicuous consumption. It referred to the idea that the lower the social class, the more overt the outward consumption, in order to signal wealth that was often not there. This held fairly consistent for much of the 20th century, and in studies where people of different means are given the same amount of money, proportionally, the lower-class individuals spend more of it on luxury and consumer goods versus on invisible wealth (education, real estate, etc.)
In a 2008 article titled “Inconspicuous Consumption” in The Atlantic, journalist Virginia Postrel wrote,
Writing in the much poorer world of 1899, Veblen argued that people spent lavishly on visible goods to prove that they were prosperous. “The motive is emulation—the stimulus of an invidious comparison which prompts us to outdo those with whom we are in the habit of classing ourselves,” he wrote. Along these lines, the economists hypothesized that visible consumption lets individuals show strangers they aren’t poor.
But in this piece, now 14 years old, she also observes a shift. That there’s more comfort with inconspicuous consumption—everyone showing off their sh*t—particularly when the good also confers some cultural capital like exclusivity (like getting an invite to TED), access (that backstage pass), or the ultimate modern luxury goods of time, focus, and attention.
Veblen’s theory obviously preceded social media, and the idea that you could make the most private details of your existence visible. That everything from your face creams to your bathroom fixtures to the snacks you feed your kids (organic) could be signals, in some way, of your status. That access (to galas, to travel, to get into the otherwise sold-out concert), as well as time autonomy (the affordance to take April break, to pay for childcare while on vacation, to even have time to look for tickets to the aforementioned activities)—could be displayed for the public.
Earlier in the spring I interviewed a dozen or so upper middle-class women from all over the country about their shopping habits for a client project. The takeaway was unsurprising but nonetheless alarming: women are shopping all of the time. One literally called herself a “constant consumer.” There are different means of justification—I need new clothes to go back to the office, I need this new face wash because my skin is breaking out, my other shoes are so worn out, we haven’t taken a trip in sooooo long and it’d really help me de-stress—but many, many women in the middle/upper-middle class are stuck in an endless loop of browsing, buying, putting things in carts, making appointments, going to appointments, scheduling trips, getting boxes, recycling boxes, ad nauseam. Many of these women are buying because of what they see other people doing on IG, and many of these women also feel guilty and terrible about how much time/money go into this cycle, but just can’t stop.
I think potentially the greatest justification for inconspicuous consumption in 2022 is kids, with constant consumption and even luxury-consumption justified by their well-being, edification, or exposure to experience. You could put nearly everything in this category: getting the SNOO because it really works as you explain to your friends on FB, showing them wearing a $200 wool sweater that requires dry cleaning as they roll down a grassy hill, showing a glimpse of them at the competitive-to-get-into $100/hour private violin lesson and casually captioning it as a fun Saturday morning, talking about how you can’t believe you’re a parent that is taking your kids to Disney while still planning to take them to Disney, etc. It’s time autonomy, access, parental attendance, the ability to plan, all on display.
It’s of course naive to think we’d only spend money on what we truly need, or that part of consumption isn’t about showing it off, or that cultural capital isn’t something that’s fun to fan in front of others. But, the part that feels grotesque is how comfortable so many people are doing it—and how constantly. It feels it makes kids indifferent to abundance. That they’re learning that so much is purchase-able and disposable. That we should buy and trade and judge each other’s character in goods and experiences rather than who we were before and after those things existed.
To read: Julian is extremely into Edward Gorey’s books, which are famously/infamously about gruesome deaths, misbegotten adventures, and bad luck. But kids are weird and dark and love talking about dying, so I highly recommend these. We’ve been loving The Epiplectic Bicycle and The Gashlycrumb Tinies.
To eat: The crispy Szechuan noodles at East Wind Snack shop are hot, greasy, spicy, tingly noodle perfection. Ate this outside in the sunshine yesterday and it was the best moment of my day.
Socks: I am told that the place to get cotton socks (by 60% of the people who replied to my ask on IG) is Le Bon Shoppe. I will report back! I have ordered the Boyfriend Socks. Also got some of these floral socks from Etsy.
To read: Anne Helen Petersen’s essay on The Expanding Job, the ever-growing expectation of the employed individuals to be multihyphenates and the utter un-sustainability of this.
That’s it for this week. And welcome all of you new subscribers! Hope you made it to this point.