Editor's Choice

Conviction consumption

Rob Walker's Consumed column in this week's NYT Magazine is about Lululemon, a vendor of overpriced "yoga-inspired" apparel, including clothing that one couldn't possibly use for yoga, like raingear. As Walker points out, what the company really sells is faux-inspiration, a sense of goal fulfillment without actually having to fulfill any of them. The best face one could put on this is that the company provides an opportunity for a kind of monetized creative visualization: wearing expensive yoga clothes make people feel like the sort who does yoga, which then prompts them to do it more often -- a variant on the notion that if you dress professionally, you will end up being more professional at work because people will regard you more respectfully and the clothes symbolism lend a sense of confidence and so on. But not surprisingly, I am more persuaded by the critique that Lululemon takes something free and ancient and ruins it for Americans by associating it with a specific affluent lifestyle, making it seem exclusive and cliquish.

It's not at all surprising that the company's founder, Chip Wilson, has apparently promoted the Forum, a vaguely creepy self-help workshop derived from EST, profiled here in New York magazine and parodied on Six Feet Under as "the Plan". (If you know anyone who has done the Forum, you know what I mean by "vaguely creepy.") The Forum seems to trade in the same kind of monetized creative visualization, but apparently with a more of an emotional-bullying edge than anything you are likely to experience in a yoga class (with the possible exception of Bikram).

What I wonder, then, is whether the consumption of yoga clothes functions in the same way as consuming "intense" self-help sessions, whether the appeal is the same: you can buy a new self and effectively efface the past. Consumerism typically promises that we can reinvent ourselves at any moment, that the pose we adopt is basically convincing as long as we believe it and put our money where our mouth is. Consumerism lets us treat spending as a mark of unquestionable conviction, even if the skeptics and naysayers cry about inauthenticity. Whether we feel this conviction at any deeper psychological level then becomes irrelevant. In other words, what I wonder about is the switch in our minds that allows us to buy Lululemon clothes and feel like we have bought into the "yoga concept" in a meaningful way, untroubled by our not doing much yoga. And once we've thrown that switch, do we have to keep on buying and buying lifestyle goods to make sure it doesn't get thrown back over, plunging us into a self-doubt and shame?

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