I Shop, Therefore I Am

[Photo credit: Barbara Kruger]

I've been in a weird mood lately. Maybe I think too much. Maybe I'm just going through a phase but something about me has changed. It was gradual but it has happened nonetheless. I guess I could say it began after my trip to Mecca and Madinah and it wasn’t until today that I realised how much I’ve evolved as a person. I went shopping with my Mum yesterday and as much as I love shopping I didn’t find it as thrilling or satisfying as before.

Boys and girls, I realised that I’m not such a huge fan of malls anymore.

Say what, Sha? Are you sure? Do you know once you publish something publicly it could come and bite you in the butt someday?

I know its shocking but hey, it's not the first shocking change I've been through recently. (By the way, some people still can't believe I wear hijab now. They think I only do so for the sake of taking photos. They have to meet me in the flesh to believe it!)

Sometimes we need a change of environment in order to notice the little everyday things that have become so naturalised in our lives. When I was staying with Lamya and the rest of the Omani girls during last semester I barely watched television simply because no one in the house did so. During the 2 and half months that I spent with them I only switched on the television 3 or 4 times. I also didn’t listen to the radio much because I usually walked to campus instead of going by car.

The environment is completely different here at my house in Kuala Lumpur. The television in the dining area is switched on pretty much 12 hours a day and it’s a common scene to find my Mum upstairs watching some cheesy Malay series at night. To top it off, the reels of advertisements drive me insane. It’s one ad after another trying to convince us that we need things to be happy. We’ve all fallen into their traps. It’s the whole cradle-to-grave marketing that creeps me out. Many ads are designed to target kids as young as 2 years old and this means corporations are out to ‘secure’ their target market as early as they can get ‘em. Why? Because they influence a staggering USD $700 billion of consumer spending a year. That's almost as much as the financial cost of the Iraq war (stated to be USD $704 billion as of February 2010).

When I look back at my childhood I can definitely see how these marketing schemes work and I’m a marketing student so I guess you could say I know what I’m talking about. It’s freaky to think that ever since we were tiny tots who didn’t know any better, we were ‘programmed’ to believe that buying more equals to being happier.

Okay, so not only are we burdened with the problem of consumerism but now there’s something called new consumerism (read Juliet Schor's article or watch a snippet of the Overspent American here). It’s basically the practice of emulating the lifestyle of the rich and the famous. In the past, we usually compared ourselves to those of similar socioeconomic status and income. You know, people like our neighbours. ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ they call it. So it’s completely normal to look at your neighbour’s car and feel that you have to have one just like it or similar to it in order to maintain your social standing.

However, today we’ve upped this to a whole new level.

We are now trying to emulate the lifestyles of the rich and the famous. We're keeping up with the Hiltons. We want their clothes, their hair dos and some of us even want their bodies! It’s not realistic and to me it’s only a mirage because we’re never going to be truly happy just by earning or consuming more. Sure, there’s that adrenaline rush whenever you purchase something you’ve been eyeing for quite a while be it a brand new cellphone or a sporty car. But tell me this, how long does it take before you feel the same way you did before you went and bought that expensive purchase?

And this is why I don’t enjoy going to malls as much as I did before. They represent the idea that happiness comes in a bag when I know deep, down inside this isn’t true.

All this wasn't visible to my naked eye before and ads were just another part of television. Now I see them in a different light because I can see how they are becoming more and more prevalent in our environment. They don't just exist in one form of medium or as a separate category anymore. Ads are on our mobile phones, they're in our favourite television shows, movies and even on blogs! It's known as product placement - the embedding of ads into contexts that are expected to be commercial free. Some people are walking ads for brands!

I find it scary that we hardly question why this is. Why is our world becoming increasingly commercialised? Our private lives are becoming commercialised and why aren't we questioning it?

The ones I fear most for are the children, 'tweens' and the teenagers who are still figuring out who they are and where they stand in the society they live in. When you're young you're more likely to have more insecurities about... hm, everything?! Your body, your friends, your intelligence. Heck, I'm 22 and I still have some insecurities about them!

(click here to watch the first part of 'Consuming Kids: The Commercialisation of Childhood')

I'm not anti-consumerism. Inevitably, what we buy reflects who we are but it shouldn't have to define who we are intrinsically. I don't want material things and brands to become a barometer of my self-worthiness. More importantly, I don't want to rely on them to portray my self-identity because the human character is so much more complex and dynamic than any piece of item can ever represent. I think new consumerism has led to the devaluation of elements of the self that matter so much more. You know, like moral values, principles, intelligence, charisma, just to name a few. We've become too focused on the physical aspect of a person. In other words, we've become so shallow.

I'm not going to stand back and blame the media because it is merely an instrument for those who use it for their own capitalist agendas such as branding. As adults who can think for ourselves we should take the lead and really start to evaluate the consumer culture we have helped to develop and promote. Like most women, my weakness is my love for fashion. I think it's innate and normal. I also believe that as women it's very important to look after ourselves and to beautify ourselves (to keep us healthy and happy) but we have to balance it out. We should have our priorities right and try not to go overboard with our spending. As women, our bodies (and minds) are our battlegrounds. As parents (or future parents), our role is to protect kids from being sucked into believing that consumerism is the answer to the world's problems. In fact, it is the very thing that's destroying the global environment.

Changing our habits is not easy, I know because I'm trying to do so myself, but this is the challenge we face as global citizens of the 21st century. Someone was saying how the 'American dream' should no longer be the chase for wealth and fame rather it should be the pursuit of equality, equity and equilibrium.

I think it shouldn't only be the new American dream but really, a global dream for all of us to get a headstart on as soon as possible. Let's begin by educating ourselves and using the most important tool we have ever been given and what corporations don't want us to use - our brains. I leave you with this simple yet informative video - 'The Story of Stuff: The Full Version' brought to you by The Story of Stuff Project. It should tell you some important things you need to know about consumerism and sustainability.


well said shahirah!! i had the talk with my brother once about the "happiness" of being able to buy something, and after a day or so, I was back to normal and starts looking for new things!

and now that i'm working, my perspective in shopping changed too. I'm looking at buying a house and kithenware! haha.

take care babe,
Salaam Shahirah. I was nodding my head throughout! Alhamdulillah I am so lucky to have stumbled upon you. It's rare to have people with such mindset!!! Kudos Shahirah for the write up. Definitely love this write up. Do you mind if I were to share it on Facebook?
Mona Zenhom said…
This was a really great read. I love the new look btw. :)
Very educational thanks for sharing :P
Almost Clever said…
I too think it is dangerous when we start looking for ourselves in our things. Clothes, shoes, accessories, cars, houses, etc...

Keeping up with the jones' reflects a character deficiency within us.

Fashion is fun, I love it, but in doses. I might admire certain fashions but that doesn't mean I have to have it. I am ok with wearing older clothes, or buying new things once in a while. I think there is nothing wrong with consumerism, as you said, so long as we are not getting lost in it, or feeling our worth coming from our style.

Our credit cards should not be maxed for our pursuit of stuff.

I think my biggest issue comes from the shallowness that is shown in people who try to reflect a certain image, when reality is something completely different. The media is so good at making us insecure, and if we are not aware of their marketing schemes, we become them.

For example, marketing women as highly oversexual, with barely any clothes on, as "worthy." So many girls have swallowed this whole in order to "find themselves."
Smart CoOKie said…
Great post. :)
Asalaamu alaikum,
New Consumerism is real and it's evident here in the states.
While shopping for a pram for my niece, I came across various ads for fancy and expensive prams along with pictures of celebrity moms using them. I've noticed many of young 'modern' parents using them as they walk their babies at the zoo or wherever & the crazy part is that the prams look and feel so bulky...definitely not practical.
A lot of people in the States have gotten their homes taken away by the bank because they couldn't afford it. Basically people wanted to live in fancy homes w/ marble counter tops and expensive wood cabinetry along with private pools, etc but they can't afford it.
I love shopping but I'm more of bargain shopper. I'm happiest when I come home with loads of stuff that I got at a great deal :)
As for TV, I'm a huge fan of educational tv like cooking demos and documentaries. I started hating senseless tv like dramsas and stupid reality shows like MTV shows at around 17 and for the most part people thought I was boring & strange. As for your Mom watching the Malay dramas, you just have to be patient. You are still young and developing as a person. It's much more difficult for older ppl to give up habits.
Anyway, wishing you a blessed Jummah in advance :D
ᖇᗩE said…
I actually don't see any problem in shopping. The real problem here is us, girls. We buy a whole lot of stuff that we don't really need.