In The Contented Soul, Lisa Graham McMinn tells the story of entering graduate school as a mother of three young children and deciding to identify herself by buying a certain brand of shoes.
“The prior decade I had been in maternity clothes or the casual clothes of a mother orchestrating the lives of three young children. Now I did what all self-respecting slightly older students returning to school did in the early 1990s–I bought myself a pair of Birkenstocks. Birkenstock wearers ate granola, grew vegetables, voted liberal, and like trees and folk music. That fit me well enough–and so I established and showcased my identity with the shoes I purchased and wore” (pg. 27, McMinn).
McMinn calls this “conspicuous consumption,” “a cycle of buying more than we need, then using, discarding and buying anew, not because we need it to live well but because it is the expected way to live.” In chapter five of The Suburban Christian, Al Hsu calls this “storifying” our lives with brand names. In other words, where we shop and the labels we wear and display on our bodies and in our homes tell the sotry we want our lives to be about.
I remember some of my early obsessions with brand names. I don’t have any memories of brand attachments prior to going to school. My mom made most of my clothes, or I received hand-me-downs from older cousins. And because we lived in a rural area, there weren’t many television stations to promote character-branded products. But once I entered school, things changed. Even in elementary school, I remember wanting Nike sneakers and a Holly Hobby bed spread. When I was a little older, I saved my Christmas money for my first pair of Jordache jeans, and somewhere along the line, Izod polo shirts became all the rage. I’m not sure I could have articulated the story I was trying to write about my life by wanting and purchasing these products. But I could point to the lives of those around me and see that I wanted what they have.
That’s the deception of falling into branding for shaping our identity. For one thing, very few brands maintain the same image over time. For instance, when I was in high school, it was embarrassing to shop at Sears. Now that I’m a homeowner who needs tools and appliances, Sears is back in vogue. The other problem is that using brand names to shape our identity doesn’t actually work, unless we are two-dimensional television characters.
In fact, I think corporate branding has made us all a little lazy in how we get to know and evaluate the world and the people in it. Rather than creating our own aesthetic style in how we dress and decorate our homes, we simply shop at the Gap or Pottery Barn. And rather than taking the time to explore the character and history of our neighbors, we identify them as the man with the blue Suburban, or the family with the matching Trek bicycles.
I consider myself fairly unbranded; I buy a lot of products in bulk from a locally owned grocery store, or from farmers whose agri-businessed don’t even have names. But I still identify myself with brand names when I tell people I listen to National Public Radio and shop at Trader Joes. I don’t tell them this so they can know my listening or shopping habits. I tell them this so they’ll know what “type” of person I am.
As a believer in Jesus, I see this chapter about brand-name consumerism less as a challenge to be a better steward in my consumption and more as a challenge to do the hard work of letting myself be identified by my love of God and others instead of the brand of my vehicle.
I also am realizing that as hard as I work to be blind to the racial and ethnic differences of the people I come into contact with, I have a long way to go in seeing beyond the corporate identies of the brand names they wear and display. I need to be intentional about moving beyond the story someone’s t-shirt is telling me to the story of the person inside the t-shirt. The real stories of the people I meet can never be captured in a logo. But it takes a lot more time and energy to hear those stories.