It goes beyond rich people trying to hide their wealth

3 03 2009

In today’s Stuff Tufts People Like column in the Tufts’ Daily a quote jumped out at me (bold emphasis mine):

Also, the way somebody dresses is typically not correlated with class. Maybe that Louis Vuitton bag sticks out, but most Tufts people, even if they can afford those bags, won’t carry them on campus. The same goes for many other ostentatious articles of clothing. In fact, I find anecdotally that wealth and clothing are generally negatively correlated — that is, only rich students dress like they are homeless, and poorer ones spend more money than they can afford in order to appear wealthier. It’s the reverse of what you might expect because people don’t want to be identified as rich. Well, to these people, I have only one thing to say: You go to Tufts. In the rest of the country and world, you’re already considered rich.

Instead of speaking to how wealthier people trying to hide their wealth I’d like to address how increasing patterns of consumption mark how people may try to overextend themselves, even in times of economic decline, in order to gain greater sociocultural status. Consumption is an indicator of class and being able to engage in consumerism is a marker of membership in more privileged and elite classes. Owning certain products, designer clothing or fancy technology, demands respectability and credibility because these items are associated with certain class privileges that not everyone has. Because wealth can be perceived superficially, creating the semblance of wealth and class privilege through consumption and ownership is enough to enable one to slide by and pass off as wealth.

This becomes more troubling and problematic in the context of globalization and the exportation of western hegemonic beauty ideals. Beauty pageants, the cosmetics industry and the fashion industry all create and perpetuate western standards of beauty. In “third-world” countries that are steadily burgeoning in the global economy, often the emergence of a new consumer based middle-class, economic liberalization policies and political discourses embracing modernization correlate with cultural changes in the ideas about and expectations of femininity.

The globalization of the beauty industry co-opts the female body in order to delineate homogeneity, or at least the illusion of homogeneity and it is no coincidence that the ideal of femininity that women across the globe want to conform to is a western ideal. One instance where this is visible is in the flourishing skin care markets in many Asian countries. The thriving skin care market contributes to the normalization of the ideal of fairness by fetishizing fairness and exploiting social stigmas about darkness. Because everyone wants to achieve the ideal beauty standard of fairness, this ideal slowly crops down to become the norm.

For instance in India, Fair and Lovely is the dominant brand for skin whitening creams. Fairness is a western beauty ideal and can serve as a metonymy for modernization, progress and upward mobility. Marketing campaigns for Fair and Lovely often emphasize, exaggerate and capitalize off  fears and insecurities about darkness. Commercials and advertisements embellish the shortcomings one experiences by misfortune of having dark skin, including limited employment prospects, poor marriage prospects, social segregation, name calling and unpopularity.

This also reveals a stark class divide among elites who can easily access western exports and commodities, and the middle and lower-middle classes who lack the resources and privileges to do so. The elites can participate in the globalized world because they are wealthier (and can therefore exercise greater consumer power), educated and speak English well (or at least can afford the time and money to learn to speak English well) while the lower classes are indicative of “backwards” traditional society that is less able to keep up with the changing times. Less privileged and disadvantaged people may engage in imaginary fantasies and overextend themselves by purchasing beauty products and skin whitening creams that they cannot necessarily afford just to partake in modernity.

The growth of consumerism and the onset of globalization and economic liberalization compacts identity because individuals can simply buy a prepackaged product and superficially embody a particular image and status, typically a western image. Here, we see another way in which capitalism is inextricably linked to gender norms and ideals.



One response

3 03 2009

I also think the Daily author’s class is showing when he said that. After going to prep school then coming to Tufts, I’ve noticed that while the wealthier students may not dress ostentatiously, their brands of clothing will designer. Yes they’re wearing a t-shirt and jeans, but the jeans are 200 dollar and the jacket over the outfit is a few hundred, too.

I think the assumption that “poor people” are just trying to not “look poor” and spend money they don’t have is pretty condescending and an ignorant assumption.

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