Ian Zimmerman, Ph.D.

Ian Zimmerman Ph.D.

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We Are What We Consume

Our identities influence and are influenced by what we consume.

Posted Sep 15, 2013

Consumption exerts enough of an influence on our lives that it becomes part of our identities.  We not only use consumption to construct our own identities, but we use it to infer the identities of others.  Products represent our identities by the meaning attached to them.  That is, we use products symbolizing certain qualities to send the message to others that we also possess those qualities.  Sometimes consumption can deleteriously influence our identities, by making us feel inferior or inadequate.  Ultimately, consumption and identity can be closely related and in this post I’m going to discuss how so that you can start to understand the relationship between what you buy and who you are.

When we’re making judgments about another person’s identity, those judgments can be influenced by what that person consumes.  So for example, when we see a woman wearing a suit and driving a luxury car we probably identify her as financially successful.  The woman’s use of those products associated with success is of course in most cases not an accident; she’s intentionally trying to communicate success with those possessions.  Why do they communicate success though?  That is, how do we know that one car communicates success and another doesn’t?  It’s because we learn through marketing and advertising what symbolizes success and what doesn’t.

The fact that we can make judgments about other people’s identities based on what they consume shows products have meaning.  As previously stated those meanings are learned from marketing and advertising, and since we all see the same marketing and advertising messages we can often accurately infer someone’s identity from that person’s possessions.  When constructing and maintaining our own identities we tend to be pretty careful to select products that will send the ‘right’ message to others.  So for example, many men wishing to communicate a masculine identity won’t wear pink or use bath products marketed to women.  By sending certain messages to others with our possessions we can also signal membership in a social group.  For example, wearing a shirt with a football team’s logo signals we’re part of a group of fans of that team.

One meaning we learn at a young age is what identifies a ‘beautiful’ person.  Unfortunately, this learning is heavily influenced by our consumption of media portrayals of ideal bodies, which are often unrealistic and unattainable.  This can not only lead us to create identities that include negative conceptions of our own attractiveness, but it can also lead us to spend a lot of money consuming products in the hope of changing our appearance (and the corresponding part of our identities).  For example, we might spend money on make-up, lotions and creams purported to make skin younger, and we might even get cosmetic surgery.  Ultimately though these products rarely if ever transform us into movie stars and supermodels, and we’re left unfulfilled and still feeling about bad ourselves.

In a culture so intertwined with consumption, it’s inevitable that the things we own come to represent us as people.  This practice can be innocuous, but it can also represent unhappiness and dissatisfaction with our identities.  When we consume to change ourselves it’s important to ask what we’re changing and why.  If there’s nothing inherently wrong with what we’re changing, why do it?  If the reason is to become more like a fictional TV character whose appearance may have been digitally altered anyway, we might want to re-evaluate our actions.  As long as we’re consumers it will be impossible to completely extricate ourselves from a consumption-based identity, but if that identity represents who we truly are and not who we’ve been told we should be, we’ll probably be happier, more comfortable people.

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