Is My Self Expression Someone Else’s Oppression? Evaluating My Identity As A Consumer And A Feminist

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I’m in a strange liminal state (post-college, pre-permanent responsibilities) wherein I spend a lot of time thinking about the kind of person I want to be and the kind of life I want to make for myself. Matters of social justice have become increasingly prominent in these considerations, but I often find myself stumbling over the dissonance between the degree to which I hope to help create change and the way the world actually works. I worry that the part I’m playing in the larger picture, just by existing and participating in our consumer culture, will have harmful consequences for others.

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My sense of individuality is important to me. A large part of how I, and many others, convey our individuality to the people around us is through the use of possessions. They serve as visible representations of our selves. Virtually all the things I use in this way have only been made available to me as a result of capitalism and consumer culture. Both rely on my own oppression and the oppression of others, through exploitation of labor and the perpetuation of harmful social structures among other things, to function. Therefore I inadvertently rely on that same oppression to convey my individuality and assert my independence.  I’m obviously not happy with this realization, but my participation in these processes feels like an unavoidable evil. I really can’t see myself wiggling free.

When I consider my position within our culture, I see myself as part of a large group of women looking not only to convey the more personal aspects of our identities, but the larger idea of ourselves as strong and empowered modern women. As we seek to be as great as we can be and convey that greatness to those around us, we’re encouraged to exercise our spending and earning ‘power’ as consumers. We assert our independence by acquiring enough stuff to hopefully add up to the images we wish to project. These physical displays of independence serve as proof that we can earn and have all the things that men can.

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I have a horrible feeling that this type of consumption has been created as a gross ploy. While we’re busy feeling like we’ve reached the “ultimate goal” of personal empowerment, we’re constantly consuming and curating our images, ensuring our active reinforcement of the harmful effects of global capitalism.

As someone who considers themselves a budding feminist and supporter of equality of every sort, I feel like I’ve been made the butt of a terrible Soylent Green joke. Like an evil guy with a glass of scotch and a hairless cat is sitting somewhere laughing at my hypocrisy. I wonder if it’s possible to be a consumer and remain a true proponent of any social justice movement. How can we ever be sure that the means that allow us to seek justice aren’t the source of somebody else’s oppression?

The only option I can see is to completely secede from the consumer environment, which doesn’t seem like an option at all. I’m not even sure I could find a place to flee which would not require me to participate in these systems in some way. Living off the land is also not an option. I have short limbs, horrible eyesight, and my menstrual cycle gets real mean when not regulated by artificial hormones.  Anyway, what good can I do to help create change within our culture if I am no longer a part of it?

I hope to find some kind of middle ground from which to maintain my identity and fight for equality while causing minimal harm. I will look for ways to consume less, choose stores which have less harmful impact, and remain mindful of the repercussions of every purchase might make. I really hope these attempts prove to be more than an exercise in patting myself on the back, but I guess I’ll have to wait and see.

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Madelaine Walker : Anthropology enthusiast, bookworm & couch potato. In search of a life I’ll be proud to recount in old age. New Motto: Do no harm, but take no shit.