In Defence of Materialism: Its Secret Profundity and Transformative Power
Living and working in the Toronto arts scene, I hear a lot about the emotional vacancy of materialism—of how the fetishization of objects is a capitalistic construct created by corporations to compel consumerism (and encourage alliterative critiques). As a fellow young, liberal arts worker, I am often called upon to intermittently nod in agreement and shake my head in moral dismay. A disdainful attitude towards the sad pursuit of material gratification is a prerequisite to first-year courses in Enlightened 21st Century Self-Righteousness.
That will be the most bitter-sounding thing I allow myself to say in this post—proceed knowing that I have great affection for my enlightened friends, but can’t help teasing them when I see an anti-capitalism post tweeted right after we just got Starbucks the other day. This is not a bitter post; I’d like to celebrate something instead—the marvellous, reflective, and often transformative power that material objects can have on our interior selves.
We all know that when my enlightened friends blame corporate greed for our materialist culture, they’re not wrong. Anyone with Google can easily research the empirical truth behind this claim. We all know corporations fuel advertisers to make people feel dissatisfied with what they have and to keep spending money—to them I can only say “Do your worst.” I’ll take responsibility for my own spending habits. Advertisers sometimes seduce me, but it’s up to me to remain aloof.
Living in a world saturated with advertising is A LOT like online dating. Dumb guys will approach me with a “heyyy babe like 2 chat?” and I ignore it as easily a I ignore an ineffective ad on the subway. Middle-of-the-road nice guys will compliment a picture, make a shallow observation about my profile, and ask if I’d like to get tea. If I’m in a good mood, I might smile, look in the window for a split second, but keep walking, knowing this garment won’t look actually suit me if I tried it on. Pseudo-intellectuals try to imitate my style of writing in order to make it seem like we have something in common, much like how some commercials try to “keep it real” in appeal to me on a relatable, no-bullshit level. This, however, is a tactic in advertising and online dating that has minimal effectiveness on a critical mind.
But every now and then, I get a beautiful message from someone who put time, effort, and talent into what they wanted to say to me. And whether he’s selling me a line or not, I enjoy buying it. Similarly, I sometimes see an ad or an object being advertised that is so beautiful and artistic I have no shame in admitting, “You got me. I’m sold. I happily concede defeat as long as I can have you.”
Frankly, I think whoever can sell to me, a jaded customer in both love AND shopping, deserves something for their ingenuity in surmounting my reflexive suspicion. No, I don’t put out just for a beautifully constructed paragraph—but I will possibly meet for coffee. And I don’t always buy something immediately if it’s beautifully, thoughtfully made—but it will stay in my mind, continue to seduce, and sometimes grow into a purchase.
I know that many advertisers have been flagrantly irresponsible with how they warp young women’s self-image and young men’s standards of masculinity—I’ve seen the Dolce and Gabana gang-rape ads and wanted to throw a brick through a shop window in Yorkville. I don’t contest the allegation that advertising frequently equates sex to violence and beauty to sickness. I’m tired of it and something should be done (though a Dove commercial passive-aggressively bullying skinny women is not the answer).
My point is that when I see an advertiser trying to sell to me, I take responsibility for whether I allow myself to be sold to or not. I’ve taken this same tactic with men, and thus have relatively few experiences that I regret. I can’t say the same for shopping– I’ve definitely been more free with my wallet than my heart. I know my enlightened friends would say if I was more free with the latter, I might not need to be so with the former. They have a point; and yet, I can’t completely agree.
You see, I have marvellous relationships with my objects. Relationships of respect, pleasure, self-reflection, and delight. Must we only derive these experiences from other people? I’ve had wonderful rewards emerge in friendships, but I see nothing wrong with finding them also in my relationship with a gorgeous sweater, a corset showing up 50% off, or the perfect pair of heels (see Fluevogs—which I sadly did not end up getting). Some readers are going to reluctantly understand what I’m saying, and others are going to find me utterly perverse.
But you can call me perverse if you like; my objects can still imbue day-to-day routine with grace, beauty, positive thinking, and productive reflection.
I recently found an American Apparel dance shirt 70% off at Winners. I jumped at the opportunity of owning a high-quality item without giving my money to their grease-ball CEO. But also—this was a deep violet scoop-back leotard. When I put it on, I had never seen my own scapula look so graceful, or my own back look so erotic and yet so tasteful. I felt as though I was accessing a side of myself that had always been there, but had never been framed right so that I could see it. Even in the infamously wretched lighting of a Winners dressing room, my heart started racing at the sight of myself in the mirror.
This was beyond ego, beyond vanity—it was like I at the top of a skyscraper, looking through one of those expensive little telescopes they have at tourist locations, and looking down onto the crowded street below to see myself walking by thirty stories below… but a beautiful, confident version of myself. I wanted to rush to elevator and chase after her, but I couldn’t tear my eyes from the lenses—I had seen something at a distance that’s taken me most of my life to realize was always there: an effortlessly self-assured young woman who can handle any hardship that comes her way. All because of a shirt…?
What I realized, as I contorted for the cashier to scan the tag of a garment I was STILL wearing, was that this revelation had been forming for a long time. Little things in my life had contributed to a long journey towards being the self-assured person I want to be—and it took one great shirt to tip all of this internal development out into the open. The shirt is not the cause of my recent renewal in self-esteem; it is only the lens that helped me realize it had been building subliminally for a long time.
I wore the shirt to a pole-dancing class later that day, to meet a friend for coffee, then to an outdoor movie with another friend. I pouted the entire time it was in the washing machine and rejoiced when we were together again. The shirt is not a replacement for self-esteem, or a temporary source of happiness. It’s not a band-aid for a deeper problem. It’s only a reminder, a helper—when I felt like crap the other day, I put the shirt on and like a good friend, it nudged me back towards a more positive perspective. Even after a renewal in self-esteem, I had a day where I felt ugly, untalented, forced to put mindless hours into a job that left me with no time for creativity. Putting on the shirt was like inviting over my oldest friend, who said “This is only for now; this is just one bad hair day. Tomorrow will be better, and next month will rock! This is just one day, so never forget who you are.”
My shirt is not a magical talking shirt; you can’t find those for 16.99. The shirt is instead an object that encourages me to talk myself out of a slump. It’s something to shift my perspective, remind me of a time when I felt beautiful and confident, to get me out of my room. Even though it’s just an object, it interrupts a negative mental track in my mind and steers me towards a positive one. In this way, the shirt is a transcendent object, one that exists externally in the material world but has a profound effect on my internal dialogue.
There’s an antique blue fan that I take with me to clubs, because I find myself feeling very lumpish and self-conscious dancing in public unless I make a kitschy joke out of the experience with a Japanese dancing fan. Posing and turning with the fan loosens me up until I’m comfortable with myself, and then it’s handy in keeping myself cool.
I have a metal ring made to look like two pieces of armour connected by little chains; one half sits below my nail, and the other above my knuckle. I wear this when I know I’m not feeling particularly strong or resolute. There have been times when I have to talk to someone I don’t like, and I secretly run my thumb along the grooved texture of the armour and am reminded of Joan of Arc, of warrior queens and political children throughout history who were probably terrified when they faced a bloodthirsty mob. I feel the texture of this ring and remind myself who I am and what I can deal with. This ring gives me a dynamite poker face.
And I have a coat. I have a red coat. From the first moment I put it on, I felt more myself than I had before. This coat doesn’t make me feel like a better version of myself, an idealized version—it gives a physical representation to something intangible inside of me. It embodies carnality, power, and grace—it synthesized my black and white swans into a cohesive, crimson reality. The first winter I wore it, I got more in touch with myself than I ever had before. Every winter since, the day comes where the wind is cold enough to demand a coat—and I know that this is the day. This is the day I get to go back to feeling vibrantly and unambiguously like my deepest self while in public.
I slide my arms through the black embroidered lining of the sleeves and nerves light up and explode as they feel the familiar fabric enclose them. Wild, preening, salivating parts of my psyche, frequently buried for the sake of decency and decorum, roar up from their deep summer cages and click into position. They know that we are no longer hindered by the heat; they know that they now have a voice in parliament. There is someone new in the Imperial court with their interests at heart, representing their needs, and telling the power on the throne that things need to change. This red coat is not just what I wear in the winter. It is my sensuality’s attorney. It is the ambassador for my pride. It crosses the Atlantic to represent the interests of parts of myself that have become foreign countries to me, and within a week of wearing it regularly, the coat has championed and won.
Winter is a season where my deepest secrets cease to be shameful and my desires don’t seem so unattainable—all because this coat came along when my self-esteem needed a good lawyer. Nothing makes me look as good as this coat, and nothing reminds me, every second that I’m in it, that I can be much more than I usually allow myself to be. This coat refuses to let me think I’m ugly; it won’t let me lapse even for a second into self-deprecating sulking. I couple winters ago I tried to tell myself I was never going to be a writer—and the coat responded with a resounding “Ex-CUUUUSE ME?!”
I’m sure I’m supposed to see the toxicity in this; I’m supposed to see the ways in which my material objects are helpful to me and say “No, that should come from friends and family, from connection with people. If you’re getting that from a coat, something is WRONG.” To that self-righteous false logic, I say “Thank you for the platitude, you pompous extrovert.” I could just as easily argue a similarly condescending point; what if I was to be a correspondingly narrow-minded dick and reply,
“Well, I think self-esteem should be self-initiated. If you need friends or a boyfriend/girlfriend to feel good about yourself, then that’s just sad. You’re relying on other people to feel good about yourself.”
To clarify, I have not, nor ever will, say or believe this ignorant statement. But I find the same argument frequently used against objects. Against my objects.
“If you need that coat to feel good about yourself, then you’re not really loving yourself.”
I do love myself; there was a time when I didn’t, and the coat witnessed it. The coat didn’t always work, but it always tried to help. Slinking through slushy streets, wondering why I could never make myself understood to the people I cared about, sometimes I forgot the coat was on me. But the coat came to represent something, and so when I sunk into pits of self-loathing and hopelessness, I might catch a glimpse of myself in a dark window in this coat and be reminded of something that could combat the abyssal thoughts.
The coat came to represent the iron core inside of me, and all the principles outside myself that I aspired to; it began to stand for strength, courage, nobility, and compassion—all at once. When I wore that coat, I believed I could practice all these qualities at once. The coat made me feel connected to an ancient tradition of women who were found to be perverse by society, wilful, smart, frustrated women who could be just as hypocritical as the world they rejected. Women like Antigone who died locked in caves because they wouldn’t submit; women who were found to be unmarriageable because of their strange personalities, their unfeminine features, or their wayward inclinations. I’m not saying I’m as strong as them, or as smart; but the coat reminded me that I was not the first person to feel alienated from society, abandoned by her friends; I was not the first person who didn’t want to choose between being themselves or being a part of the world. The coat itself was just fabric, but what it generated in my mind was truly valuable.
All the emotional content aside, I truly appreciate the pure tactility of a well-made object. I respect craftsmanship, uniqueness, inspiration in design. I relish the little elements of a shoe that make it thrilling, the carvings on an antique box that signify its age, the thought and care put into the design of a beautiful notebook. Someone cared enough to pay for good materials; they had enough confidence in their idea to work with the best resources. I feel sometimes as though objects are transmitted to me from their creators like children who need to be cherished.
Odd words coming from someone who grew up in the post-Fight Club era; I loved that book and film as much as anyone else, but remember, Fight Club was Generation X’s statement of rebellion. It was their rejection of consumerism. I was eleven when I saw that movie; as a teenager, I rebelled from their rebellion. I embraced the beauty of objects that made me feel more myself than I had before, objects that allowed me to try on different identities. A black lace choker and Manson shirt helped me feel goth; a Doors t-shirt helped me feel connected to an era I mourned the passing of and longed to be a part of. A parasol made me feel delicate in ways my awkward body had never allowed. These objects had a transforming effect on my identity during this transitive phase… to anyone who’s been a teenager, this is so obvious it barely needs to be stated.
But as we get into our twenties, settle into one identity or another, we’re supposed to reject the use of objects as a way to convey identity. My generation in particular has a lot of pressure to pretend they hate capitalism, and by extension, materialism. I think there should be critique of capitalism, and I am all for a healthy dose of socialism in every government. I’m Canadian; the idea of paying for basic medical care is barbaric to me. But I will not let this temporal attitude make me feel ashamed for finding refuge, reflection, and renewal in my lovely objects.
Don’t mistake this for just a superficial, visual love affair. Material things possess a sensuality beyond appearance that we crave; we like to touch, smell, rub velvet on our cheeks. The creaking of a broken-in leather jacket is a very arousing sound. In fact, the smell, feel, and sound of leather are good for that. If I liked a guy enough, I’d probably even open my mouth against his leather jacket and try to bite it. Why pretend that we aren’t creatures of the senses, or that our senses are divided from our higher reason? What feeds my senses also feeds my mind; the Cartesian notion of division between the brain and body makes me want to PUKE. That animal-abuser must have been insane to think that the brain and body are distant cousins that send letters to one another, rather than lovers constantly interlocked as close as possible in a gasping, grasping grind that rises and falls in intensity depending on what your senses are experiencing.
The sound of my fan clicking open has a satisfyingly flirty sense of introduction to me; it’s the sound of a flirtatious dance about to begin. The click of my heels on pavement creates a rhythm that excites me for wherever I’m going. The feel of my hair under my own fingertips is exciting at times. We’re all creatures locked into our sensuality, and dismissing it as base or inferior, is just applying the same dualistic mentality that keeps women oppressed in many parts of the world, or other races. Our different aspects do NOT need a caste system; that are meant to work with each other, not in spite of each other.
I respect the power of the material as much as I respect the nerves and synapses in my own body that make the material experience so luxurious, and often profoundly redemptive. I couldn’t separate them any more than I could lobotomize myself. If I were to make myself abhor the material world of sensual research, lead an ascetic existence, I would cut myself off from one of my best sources of inspiration, transcendence, and communion.
So don’t blame yourself if that pair of shoes makes you feel like the person you want to be; they’re only suggesting what’s already there inside, and what’s possible.