Monday, March 11, 2013

Snobbery and indifference to stuff, or my love-hate relationship with the idea of buying pants at Lululemon

Is dislike of stuff - of shopping, of material objects - an admirable quality? Is liking stuff evidence that one is a bad person? Or is there more to it?

Graham Hill's account of having gobs of money but choosing to live with less helped me put my finger on what it is about the 'we have too much stuff' line of thought that can be so frustrating. Hill insists, and insists some more, that he's unusual for having had so much to begin with (tech-boom something-or-other), but that his lessons apply to regular-folk as well. And, well, yes and no.

First the yes: There's no point disputing that stuff tends to be bad for the environment, and to have been produced in unsavory conditions. Stuff plainly does not matter more than people. If, in a fire, you'd save your stuff and not your family, you have a screw loose.

But is the difference between the pro- and anti-stuff contingent really that the latter set care, while the former set are ego-driven and oblivious?

There are multiple reasons someone might join the anti-stuff bandwagon. Some people really are just hippies, and would rather meander in the wilderness than deal with the hustle and bustle of the mall. Others wish they could afford the $90 Lululemon yoga pants,* realize that they cannot (or can't get those and also buy cheese and, well, priorities), and then are all, screw Lululemon with its $90 yoga pants. Or: they think of all the amazing things they'd do with $90 (save the world, spend it on experiences, and/or buy even more cheese) and can't believe those with $90 to spare waste it on leggings.

Or - and here's the one we tend to forget about - there are those who could totally afford $90 yoga pants, but who are so secure in the knowledge that they could do so that $90 leggings don't feel special. If you don't have the concept of needing to save up for anything, you can afford, as it were, to be less materialistic. Status items lose their appeal if you already have whichever status. Result: they're associated with strivers. It's a form of status to have whichever handbag, but a still-greater form to not get one.

Now, this doesn't mean that everyone who doesn't own an Hermes (i.e. nearly everybody on the planet) stands accused of not owning one because they think they're too old-money or intellectual for something so obvious. Most of us can't buy the thing in the first place! It means that non-ownership of name-brand stuff - when it could be afforded, or when it's presented in a certain way - can have that meaning.

This came up in my post on weddings - that opposition to the big blow-out wedding seems very anti-one-percent, but is often snobbishness of a different kind. Spending up on a wedding seems low-class, crass, and McMansion-ish. Does this mean that everyone should have a conventional and expensive wedding, perhaps going into debt, in order to demonstrate non-snobbery? No. (Which I should have spelled out - many readers seemed to come away thinking this was my point.) But it means that we shouldn't have such a simplistic take on what snobbery entails. It isn't just the contests over who has the biggest wedding/ring. It's also the ones over who best demonstrated their distance from the bourgeois, mass-culture norm.

We kind of understand this when it comes to poverty (as opposed to middle-class-ness) and food (as opposed to stuff-more-generally). The whole lentil argument - why don't poor people eat more lentils? (Insert whichever observations re: buying in bulk.) And the requisite-if-oversimplified answer is, because the only treat available to them is fast food. But we really don't when it comes to status-seeking among the not-impoverished. Some commenters do, but on the whole, most who discuss this topic don't. To understand doesn't mean to celebrate, or to be all relativistic and say that there's no ethical problem with wastefulness. There just needs to be a better way of urging less-stuff, one that acknowledges why some care for stuff more than others.

There's a gender component as well - yes, men and their gadgets, but on the whole, materialism is associated with femininity. With men earning and women spending. Spending largely on their own upkeep, but also on decorating their houses. Conversely, getting rid of all your stuff - especially doing so to travel the world with "an Andorran beauty" named Olga - is a kind of classic macho fantasy. (Is it OK to write about women in this manner in the New York Times opinion section if you seem to be coming from the left?) I suppose the appeal of this article was partly that Hill acknowledged the male capacity to accumulate stuff. Too often, 'stuff' is equated with stuff women use to look pretty and save time on housework, when of course women should be naturally pretty and slim from all that vacuuming.

*Lululemon might be the clothing store closest to where I live. It taunts me, saying, 'Do you really think those Old Navy lounge pants, those Target sweatpants, do you any favors?' I tell it, 'But I just bought new jeans a few weeks ago, and finally, in friggin' March, got around to buying a proper winter coat (there's still snow, and it was of course now on sale). I'm not about to spend $90 on leggings.' Do you think it cares? It responds, 'But these pants, which you've never even tried on, would be amazing, so amazing as to inspire you to work out more often.' I tell it that I've tried this before, albeit with much cheaper workout wear, and it sits in the workout-wear drawer, the fantasy of going through that many workout outfits (five?) in one laundry cycle still unrealized.' And so it goes.


Amber said...

I haven't worked out in months, since being laid low with a mysterious lung ailment in the fall, but all sneering aside (and I spent many years sneering), Lululemon stuff is really nice. I have Target yoga pants and various cheap sweats and my Lululemon zip-up jacket is just better quality in terms of stitching, fabric, cut, thoughtful detailing.... At this point I would rather have one sweatshirt I really like than three or four to which I am indifferent.

Anxiety re: stuff and status is not simply about desire for signifier brands but also about desire for abundance. It's a form of status not to just have all the things, but also to be secure in the knowledge that nonownership of a particular thing does not preclude access to that particular thing should it be needed---the materially secure can simply buy what's needed.

Amber said...

(Because I am a mucky striver at core, the upshot of the above is that I have both the Lululemon sweatshirt and all the ratty old sweatshirts. In case I need them. Or something. Perfect storm of stuff-anxiety.)

caryatis said...

I agree, and would add that the stuff question is also about simply what kind of space makes you feel comfortable. Does an empty room help you think clearly? Or do you enjoy the wonderful sense of abundance of book-lined walls and sixty kinds of spices in the kitchen?

It's also a matter of age. I think young people are naturally in an acquisitive phase, thinking about the things they don't have, and older people are more inured to having abundance at whatever level they do and feel more comfortable cleaning out.

I like American Apparel yoga pants. Not as recognizable and colorful as Lululemon, but they're flattering and $35.

fourtinefork said...

I am actually a bit embarrassed to wear my Lululemon stuff. I don't see myself as the kind of person who wears $90 yoga pants. I'm not some pampered Upper East Sider. Etc. etc. And in my slightly crunchy, laid back hot yoga (not Bikram!) studio, I feel like I should be wearing some indie brand I've never heard of, rather than corporate yoga gear.

Of course, the indie stuff would probably cost more than the Lululemon stuff, since I did buy everything on sale, though (everything was under $20).

But by protesting that I only buy things on sale, is this also bad? Like women who are so insistent that they don't wear makeup, or are low maintenance, or whatever? Aargh.

That said, the Champion stuff at Target is actually quite nice. A got a good pair of leggings, that have worked quite well in hot yoga, there last week. Full retail price, a mere $19.95, and much better quality than similar looking ones from Old Navy. (I've had problems with the gusset in Old Navy pants; I refer to them as my "labia" pants. So unflattering.)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I'm sorry about the lung ailment - hope you're feeling better!

"It's a form of status not to just have all the things, but also to be secure in the knowledge that nonownership of a particular thing does not preclude access to that particular thing should it be needed---the materially secure can simply buy what's needed."

What I wish I were articulate enough to have said. Precisely.

"At this point I would rather have one sweatshirt I really like than three or four to which I am indifferent."

I go back and forth on this all the time. I don't believe in 'investing' in clothes, but I also like to only buy things I'm excited to own. As it stands, I'm glad I spent up ($200-ish) on Frye motorcycle boots over a year ago, but wondering whether a recent-ish purchase of $45 sneakers was worth it. And, most of what I own/wear probably falls into the category of too worn out to donate. This will likely have to change if I ever make it from the dissertating/freelancing world into human civilization.


Good point re: the existence/value of stuff that takes up space but isn't necessarily status-oriented. (Taken to the extreme, is hoarding about status?) Books, spices, I guess one could say this is about cultural capital. But unless one is buying books by the yard to look intellectual, they're generally acquired to be read.

Also true enough re: age. It's incredibly exciting to have one's own money, however little of it. My own acquisitions were mostly in the form of mochas, but I could see how others would go similarly crazy at H&M.

And, American Apparel is not in town, and thus not taunting me. I do have some of their leggings, which don't do me any favors, but yoga pants are, as I understand it (having done actual yoga exactly twice, both times at the spouses-of-scientists class) something else.

caryatis said...

"It's incredibly exciting to have one's own money, however little of it."

Absolutely. I'm still young enough to be excited by going to restaurants and picking up the tab.

I didn't mean to claim that my books and spices are not about status as well as comfort. It's a message I'm sending to myself and to other people about what kind of person I am. Or else why do I keep books I'm not going to reread? And Helen Gurley Brown says in Sex and the Single Girl that the single girl should prominently display her spices and cookbooks so as to attract men. Might be bad for the spices, though.

I do yoga, and it does bother me a little bit that everyone else has Lululemon head to toe and I do not. Sometimes I have to remind myself that clothes are simply not the priority. But yoga pants versus leggings versus shorts does not make a practical difference, as far as I can tell.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Re: yoga pants, my impression is that these are leggings that are not see-through? This would interest me even just for jogging and (almost entirely theoretical) gym-going. And if they're incredibly flattering, well, that wouldn't hurt.

Miss Self-Important said...

Solution: buy the lululemon pants on ebay, slightly used, for 80% off. No environmental damage b/c the guilt for that is incurred by the original buyer, no saving up, same flattering of butt and thighs. (And it's true, yoga pants do flatter for all exercise-related activities.)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


The thought had crossed my mind, and I'd indeed already looked up this possibility! Problems being: 1) I don't know what size I take at the store, let alone in any particular style, and 2) leggings, even high-end ones (I'd imagine), tend to deteriorate in the wash, meaning that one isn't really getting $90 leggings for less. I'd get the brand, but not the allegedly miraculous fit.

Petey said...

"This came up in my post on weddings - that opposition to the big blow-out wedding seems very anti-one-percent, but is often snobbishness of a different kind."

Of course. Any kind of taste-assertion is snobbishness of a different kind.

And, of course, if you're a NYC resident of any income bracket, getting married at the City Clerk's office is taste-superior, precisely because you are asserting your common citizenship in our great society, rather than your bank account. That is civilization at its finest, taste at its finest, and also indeed snobbishness of a different kind. But just because de gustibus non est disputandum doesn't mean that, in reality, some taste isn't genuinely superior to some other taste...

(Not truly related to the NYT piece in question, which I found reasonably ridiculous due to its incoherent consideration of its various underlying YPIS issues.)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


This isn't an "of course," though. Should be, but isn't. There are a whole lot of commenters super-proud of dude for paring down his lifestyle to just a touch of tons of international travel and living in a chic part of Manhattan. Not to mention the many internet commenters riled to no end by my post. I might have thought that the main problem with "fauxbivalence" is that it's stating the obvious.

The problematic thing YPIS-wise with that minimalism piece was that Hill seemed to think he was preemptively addressing YPIS accusations, by pointing out that regular middle-class sorts also own too much. What I was trying to get at here was why that didn't add up.

Miss Self-Important said...

Sizing is easy - just go to the store, try them on, and fail to buy them. About used-ness, maybe try the NWT options on ebay? I just looked and there are several for around $50; still way too much for leggings, but cheaper than retail. I think sellers often understate how much wear an item's gotten in their descriptions so long the wear is not visible, which doesn't matter so much for shoes and blazers and other outer garments, but probably does for form-fitting semi-underwear.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Well, this would take research - I went on their site, and it seems there are several different styles, and that these sometimes aren't made like they used to be (or so say the women who own multiple pairs of these pants). It seems as though I could end up being out the $50, a pricier version of what happened when I wanted to wear riding breeches as pants (it seemed chic?) and misjudged my size in that eBay garment.

But... those reviews are amazing. They're all variations of, 'I'm 5'8" and 110 pounds, and I run ten miles a day, and these pants [...].'

Miss Self-Important said...

In the event of a misjudgment, I usually re-sell on ebay. But that takes effort. The best of all possible worlds is probably not to spend anything on Lululemon, and stick w/ the Old Navy version, which I, a 5'2" woman who runs 0 miles a day, personally endorse (as do 59 other women of varying sizes and workout regimens).

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

"I am 5'4" and 130 lbs. I am usually a XS in Old Navy clothes." A different store entirely. Those don't look half bad.

The best option of all, though, is to continue to wear the washed-out leggings I already own, but to spend more time exercising and less wearing lounge-wear on the couch. That said, shopping and not exercising holds a certain appeal over exercising and not shopping.

kei said...

If you ever publish something and want to bring up "wanty," now you can use "acquisitive"! What a great word. Or, what great words.

The problem of the rich telling us about chucking our stuff, that's a great point, maybe a suppressed premise/assumption, that should be acknowledged. I suppose the article could be like, "Only I, who have seen it all, can tell you what it's like. And trust me, you don't need all that trash." But still, meh. Rich white guy telling me what I ought to do with *my* thanks.

But I will say this, and this is only being said because you happened to bring up Lululemon. If someone wrote about how "we" shouldn't want stuff, particularly Lululemon clothes, even if they were guilty of the "I'm so rich I don't need to care about expensive brand names," I'd be like, Yes! Let's all go to the Nike Outlet and get running pants! Lululemon is the one brand I cannot get on board with, and I'm not totally sure why. Part of it is the absurd pricing, part of it is the whole "culture" that's associated with it, but I don't know what that means. I guess I just don't like (even though I'm very impressed by, as a business model) how they became the "default" yoga brand, *seemingly without question*. I may also just be sick of seeing women at Whole Foods (a place I have difficulties with from the start) in their Lululemon pants running errands, like you have to look a certain way/dress up to get some groceries. Egh.

Britta said...

What I envy most about being rich is having enough money to hire other people to handle logistics or having enough money to justify spending on comfort and convenience over value for money. I would love to go to some foreign city and not have to worry about getting to a youth hostel on public transit with all my luggage, because I know I can take a taxi to the nice hotel I (or my minions) have booked, or better yet, have arranged for someone to pick me up. (I've always wanted to be one of those people who has someone with a sign meeting them in the luggage claim area.) The thing is, I *could* afford a hotel and a taxi, but it seems like an unnecessary and unjustifiable expense when a hostel and airport shuttle are available. Anyways, I'll know I've made it if my first question off the plane isn't "shit, where am I going to stay and how am I going to get there? (And how am I going to do it in Turkish?)"

More generally, I think financial security is a big thing too that I envy wealthy people about, even though 1) people with much higher incomes than me aren't financially secure, 2) I am more financially secure than many people, and 3) my disposition is such that I would probably always worry about money, even if I were Warren Buffett level wealthy.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


The aesthetic of the Whole Foods women you speak of (as I go on about in the comments to a post over at Miss Self-Important's, and, I suppose, on Pinterest) inspires in me a love-hate sentiment not unlike the yoga pants themselves. On the one hand, the excesses of unchecked capitalism! On the other, as someone who never looks so polished, I can't help but admiring them for looking just so even when casual. Their pants do look better than even my 'good' running tights (New Balance via Marshall's).

My first encounter with Lululemon, though, had zilch to do with these women. An incredibly stylish French classmate I once had, who's also this possibly well-known writer back home, had this great bag I was admiring, and when I asked her where it was from, expecting to hear something French and fabulous, she explained that it was from that yoga store of all places. Not a yoga bag, just a regular bag like you'd take to class.

But I think what's off-putting about Lululemon is the same as what's off-putting about Whole Foods - capitalism and entrepreneurship dressed up as do-gooder hippie-ness. It feels hypocritical, or like something authentic has been sold out. I could see, if I were someone who did yoga and took it really seriously, finding the $90 pants offensive. To me, these are just $90 pants, and no more offensive than other clothing items out of my price range.

Oh, but before I forget, re: Whole Foods specifically, this is the easiest supermarket for me to drive to, so I'm a captive audience. And I'm enough of a lentil-ish grad student that their bulk foods make this not so expensive. But they're getting weirder and weirder. They now ask at checkout if you wish to make a "small donation" to some mysterious Whole Foods charity, without it being at all obvious what this is, and that it isn't just handing over still more money to Whole Foods. And the bagging situation is out of control. I bring my own bags, but depending the checkout, you either must bag yourself (arguably the easiest), cannot do so, or are in some awkward dance with a professional bagger, with whom you're meant to share the task, but there isn't really space, and the person behind you is getting antsy. All told, it might be time to figure out how to drive to Wegmans, but there are like four lanes there, or that's what it feels like.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


What you say re: comfort and security makes sense. Rationally, yes, those are the real advantages to being rich. The difference between $10 and $90 leggings, not so much.

But what came up in the comments here is, sometimes not having much money makes stuff appealing - the wanting of what one can't have. The very same person with the very same values might have two entirely different takes on $90 leggings depending what they'd do to the budget. If they'd make no difference, they're nothing special, and can be not-bought with ease. But if they pique interest and seem kind of unaffordable, they have a different power.

Miss Self-Important said...

I looked at the yoga pants on your pinterest, and those leggings have a special ass close-up as one of the garment images! Also, they're made of not just generic ol' nylon/spandex, but some proprietary magic outer space material called "luon," which completely justifies their price, just like their $140 totes made of upscale rubber. This store is clearly absurd and should be avoided.

Rosiecat24 said...

Testing, testing...Blogger ate my first comment. Let's see if this works before I try to rewrite my comment.

Rosiecat24 said...

Okay, then, take two! Thanks for a great post and really great comments. There is a lot of food for thought here. After reading the NYT piece, I was torn between agreeing with the author versus thinking that he sounds like kind of a self-congratulatory douchebag. He made a really basic observation (yay, him!) that the difference between owning your stuff and being owned by it is thoughtful consumerism. Stuff ALWAYS comes with a maintenance price except, I suppose, for things that are immediately and completely consumed, like food. And it’s not like he’s opted out of consumer culture: his space-saving/extendable furniture sounds like it was purchased to his exact specifications, which means he has the resources to live exactly as he wants to live. Not all of us have that luxury, and for a variety of reasons, not just money.
Also, I have serious doubts about the Bodenhausen study he cites. Anecdotally, I see a lot of people on the internet and in real life trying to be very conscious about their lifestyle and how they use their resources, including time and money. Maybe the answer is that in order to pierce the veil of “more is better” American-style consumerism, we have to wake up to the notion that we have a complicated relationship with our stuff. I might try to hunt down said study to take a closer look at the methods.
Also, anyone who likes to feed people might argue that consumerism in that setting is about procuring the resources to make people happy. How is having people over for dinner antisocial?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

MSI, all,

I picked Lululemon yoga pants precisely because they're *not* at the top of my (credit: Kei) wanty list. They're exactly the sort of thing I'd buy if $90 meant nothing to be, but wouldn't save up for otherwise. Yet I could see that if $90 seemed like $9, I'd maybe not even remember that such a thing as $90 yoga pants existed.


"Maybe the answer is that in order to pierce the veil of “more is better” American-style consumerism, we have to wake up to the notion that we have a complicated relationship with our stuff"

I'll accept that!