I ’m trying to remember the first time I enjoyed shopping. Not having a new thing, or spending money, but shopping. I’m thinking of a Chennai bookstore called Odyssey, where my parents took me on the occasional Sunday afternoon through my childhood, left me to roam through an unfolding universe of children’s books. I’m specifically remembering, right now, how it felt to stand in the stationery aisle on the evening before the first day of a new school year.
I’m nine years old, running my fingers across shelves of highlighters and sketch pen sets, deliberating with utmost seriousness between this pen-pencil and that, cooling my small palms on the steel lids of geometry boxes. I remember: the thrill wasn’t in taking home a new highlighter or multi-coloured pen. The joy peaked right there in that aisle, feeling through the possibilities for who I could be in the coming year. A person who highlights? A person who takes notes in different colours?
Of course, no amount of pleading with my parents worked. I brought home the basics. And anyway, no amount of money sunk into elaborate stationery could possibly make me any of those people. To this day, post-its and coloured pens (now impulsively purchased with my own money) run dry in my home as I scribble notes in book margins with my singular black Pilot pen.
But if not more colourful note-taking, another lifelong habit took hold in that stationery aisle: browsing through potential better selves by browsing through products. Now I feel the same thrill in home decor and appliance stores. Could this blender make me a person who starts her days at dawn and with spinach smoothies? Or this polka-dotted ceramic waterer — is it the missing link between who I am now and the type of person I’d like to be, who owns cute gardening tools and keeps houseplants alive? I’m a pro now at letting the possibility of a purchase carry the promise of a wholly transformed self. I was born the year India opened its economy to foreign brands and India’s advertisers were tasked with building a poor nation’s appetite for acquiring new, non-essential things. By age eight or nine, I’d been around enough ads, on TV, on billboards, to have fallen for the basic logic of advertising — the way to Be A Better Person is to Have Better Things. To be smarter, eat a better breakfast cereal. To be more adventurous, get a bigger car. For luck in love, this deodorant and that fairness cream will do the trick. To strive for self-improvement is as human as it gets and as I grew up, the linkage of self-improvement with product acquisition grew thick in the air around me, where it still hangs now, thicker than ever.
While our grandparents were barely marketed to at all, and our parents only when they turned on a radio or TV or opened a newspaper, my generation and I carry our sources of targeted, individualised advertising everywhere in our pockets with us. They come with us into bed. All we have to do is roll over and, still half-asleep, open our email or message inboxes to be propositioned by brands. My last two SMSes are from a makeup retailer and a pizza place. Advertising closely follows entertainment and nobody has ever been as entertained as we are. Open TikTok or Instagram and, within seconds, you’ll be told by a celebrity or influencer that you need this face-pack to clear your blemishes and that meditation app to optimise your mind. (It can’t be coincidence that the vocabulary of entertainment perfectly mirrors capitalist imperatives: content is produced and consumed.)
I’m nervous that even when we resist following them to needless purchases, seeing ads all day comes at a cost. Ads get you to click ‘add to cart’ by first convincing you that your life without the product in question is lacking. Never before has a whole generation been told so regularly, nor in such insidious ways, that our lives are lacking.
Ads create an illusion that some Perfect Life exists — perfect skin, perfect vacations, perfect romance, perfect joy — and insist that the secret to attaining such perfection is buying new things. We end up finding our own real lives, messy and greasy and imperfect as they are, intolerable. And rather than focusing on the real labours involved in finding contentment — reflection, solitude, authenticity, love — we shop, are left poorer and poised again to fail.
I want to guard my psyche against these attacks. I’m not yet sure how. Like everyone else my age, I settle for sharing memes about self-loathing and generalised anxiety. Like other young women on Instagram, I issue strict public instructions to myself and the world to “love yourself” and “be yourself” — feeble defences against the capitalist regime I grew up in, whose ubiquitous mandate is “improve yourself by buying this thing”. As long as we’re seeing images of other people’s joy, we’ll be tempted to mimic it by buying what they have. As long as our buying keeps national and international economies churning, we’ll be inundated with images of other people’s joy, left dully questioning our own. Reminded regularly, on perfectly good days, of blemishes that need removing and teeth that could, I suppose, be whiter, now that you mention it.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.