As a frequent listener to public radio, the oft heard phrase “and consumer spending is down” is repeated as a dismal sign that the U.S. economy is not picking up. A “normal” American spends money at the mall on clothes and consumables, doing their part to bolster and fuel the economy. I consume and spend, but not usually at the mall. Walking through a mall leaves me feeling discouraged, wanting to reach out to other spending consumers – particularly young women – and tell them they don’t have to surround themselves with the prevalent images of indignity. I just realized recently that I consistently have the same post-mall-shopping feeling – oppression.
I don’t remember shopping for clothes much growing up. There was the occasional trip to J.C. Penney and clothes as gifts from relatives. We had what we needed, we just weren’t “shoppers.” Through college and beyond, I have come to appreciate the variety and prices afforded at thrift stores or outdoor markets, depending on which continent I’m living on at the time. I thought I liked shopping for secondhand clothes because it saved me money. There are certainly many good reasons to buy secondhand. My grand self-discovery is that I can’t stomach the advertising and subliminal messaging exceedingly prevalent in shopping malls.* For women in particular, malls are oppressive. Soft pornography is pervasive. The visuals scream “we’re all abnormally thin and our cleavage is falling out of our shirt! Don’t you want to look like me too? You should expose yourself more!” I don’t feel the urge to compare myself to a picture. But I look at the thousands of young women laden with shopping bags, pressured to search for significance in their image.
I know, not everyone who shops at the mall is looking for ways to make their life matter, though they certainly won’t find a cashier who tells them they should put away their credit card and work on issues of the heart. Sure, the mall can be a joyful place to browse and stock up on gifts during the Christmas season or find that one particular item for that special event. I enjoy that experience in moderation. But overall, even at Christmas, I cannot manage “shopping” for more than an hour before the oppression consumes me. I leave feeling saddened and discouraged. Not because of my personal experience, but because of the overwhelming reminder that worth in all cultures is measured through external appearance. Heart and spirit do not matter. In fact, forget you have a heart and spirit. Numb yourself to this fact by spending more money on externals. Show a little more cleavage, a little more thigh, wear a little more eyeliner and pluck up those lips. Feel fulfilled yet? Reminds me of something I read recently by a talented writer about a young lady who earns money on a pole. (The article is graphic but illustrates a strong point about humanity and objectifying women).
So, off we go to the thrift store or charity shop where I can browse the racks without a mostly-naked body on a massive banner dangling from the ceiling above my all-too-aware head (or above my toddler’s soon-to-be-aware head). Or off we tromp through the stalls at an open-air used clothes market in Africa where there are certainly other forms of oppression lingering in the air – just not on a thousand gleaming advertisements. We’ll consume and spend and play a part in the global economy. But I won’t tempt myself to submit to the bondage of the “image.”
* I recently read “Unseduced and Unshaken: The Place of Dignity in a Young Woman’s Choices” by Rosalie de Rosset. The discussion in one of the chapters led me to this revelation.