Day One Hundred and Eighty-Nine: Consumables

Yesterday I watched one of those internet train wrecks, wherein an intelligent and articulate group of women devolved into shrieking children over the number of lipsticks one person should own. The question at the center of the debate seems fair enough: what is the line between owning too many things and not owning enough? Of course, that’s a question with a hundred individual variables. Financial considerations and tendencies toward/away from minimalism seem the most pertinent, but even those aren’t cut and dried.

Complex personal variables aside, one side of this argument fascinates me. It attracts my attention because it’s the same argument I see happening amongst knitters about how much yarn a person should own. The two sides here break down roughly into: “I buy only things I can use, and my goal is to use things up.” and “This is a collection, and it makes me happy. My goal is to surround myself with beautiful items.” The use-it-up side often expresses the idea that love is use. For them, loving a skein of yarn means turning it into a beautiful sweater you wear every chance you can, or wearing a lipstick so often that you use the entire tube. The it’s-a-collection side has a more purely emotional definition. Loving something, for them, means that its mere existence makes them happy.

For something that is exclusively collectible, this debate doesn’t exist. While doll collectors, for instance, might quibble about how much money it’s fair to spend, other collectors don’t object that one has more porcelain dolls than one can play with. That is, the definition-of-love debate doesn’t exist, or certainly not in the same way.

A second problem with collecting consumables, like yarn or makeup, is the very idea that they are consumable. Some people have/can let go of that entire idea, and some haven’t/won’t. I’ll switch my example to knitting, now, because this is more my area of expertise. I, personally, stopped buying yarn years ago, because I realized that for me the “yarn stash” felt more like a really long to-do list than a joyful source of inspiration. I bought things with a use in mind, and not putting it to that use in a timely manner was causing me anxiety. Yarn buying, for me, is not like buying a porcelain doll; it’s like buying a head of lettuce and then watching it rot in the crisper drawer. This kind of anxiety about not using things up adds a level of guilt that makes discussions of “collecting” very fraught. “I wish I hadn’t bought so many things, because I feel guilty that I don’t use them” very quickly turns outwards, to “I don’t think anyone ought to own so much,” which in the sandbox that is the internet gets reduced further to “you disgust me.”

We also have a much more sophisticated cultural pathology for collecting than for its opposite. The less-is-more side has a rhetorical advantage, given to them by everyone from Suze Orman to Hoarders. We are a culture of consumers, so we are hyper-attuned to consumption. When someone gets rid of everything they own to travel the world with exactly 100 items, very few people stop to question the psychological or practical utility. Owning 100,000 items seems to make one a “hoarder” much more quickly than owning 100 makes one obsessive-compulsive. (Which is far from the opposite of hoarding, but I think the lack of a clear vocabulary proves my point.) In fact, most people in my acquaintance have a mild kind of envy that those 100-items people can “let it all go and be free.”

The pat solution in these arguments is always offered as “do what makes you happy, and let other people do the same.” Which is both true and kind, but, as with all questions of “happiness,” it masks a cultural problem that is worth examining.

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