One Mom's Struggle with Brand Mania

When she was 10 years old, my daughter wanted to buy underwear at Limited Too. I just did not get it. "Why does the brand of your underwear matter?" I asked her.

"Because," she said, as if explaining the most obvious fact to a child, "my friends can see the name on the band and know that even my underwear is from Limited Too."

I still did not get it. "Why would the top of your underwear show?"

"Mommy, when I sit down, my jeans get pulled down slightly and it shows. Or, when I raise up my arms, my shirt gets pulled up and it can show then too." Of course, this opened another can of worms in my mind. Why is my 10-year-old daughter wearing clothes that just barely cover her body? But that, as they say, is another story.

It is now four years later and I think I have learned the motivations behind this brand-name mania. More important, I have learned things about myself and I have learned how to teach her some of the values that I hold dear.

To a teenage girl of today, using brand-name merchandise is like carrying important universally recognized credentials. It tells the world that she can afford this stuff, that she uses only the "best" and that she is way above using ordinary discount store merchandise. (Brand awareness is so pervasive that even teachers are not immune – a science problem was worded this way: A poor person must decide whether to buy store brand cereal or brand name cereal.)

As a caring, understanding parent I try to provide her with things that are considered standard issue. So, her backpack is from L.L. Bean ($55) instead of one from Bradlees ($20); her bathing suit is Speedo ($30) instead of one from Kmart ($15). Clothes are bought at one of these stores: American Eagle, Abercrombie and Fitch, Gap, Old Navy. If they are bought at stores like JCPenney or Sears, they are not the store brand like Arizona or Canyon River Blues – they must be L.E.I or Calvin Klein or a comparable well-known label. Shoes must be Nike, Adidas etc. ($50) as opposed to those from Payless ($15). (During the "Back To School" purchasing spree last September, Payless was empty and the store selling brand-name shoes was packed!)

The peer pressure is brutal and relentless. On one occasion, she noted that two of her friends were wearing what looked like identical pants. Immediately, one of them said, "but mine are Ralph Lauren." This happened with a group of girls who are her "best friends" or even "BFFs – Best Friends Forever. Clearly, when it comes to brand names all other loyalties are forgotten. I shudder to think how much worse it gets when she is not with her BFFs. Another time, she admired her friend's pea coat and mentioned that she might buy one at Costco. The comeback? "I doubt it is a real pea coat. Mine cost $300!"

Purchasing decisions are governed by how the item will "play" among her friends. She knows that she will be asked, "Where did you buy it?" She has paid what I consider exorbitant prices for otherwise ordinary T-shirts just because they have a Reebok logo, or a "cute" quip such as "Girls Rule" or "Princess." She bought a metal lunchbox with a 60s-style design for $15 and raved to me about how many compliments she gets because of it. The problem is that she hardly ever took lunch from home before getting the lunch box and, after buying the lunch box she took lunch from home for only as long as the lunch box was a novelty.

What happens to a child who does not have the requisite brand-name merchandise? Well she is considered a reject, not quite "A List" material. Not that the child is aware of all this in any explicit way. All she knows is that she "needs" these labels to be taken seriously by her peers. A low point was when my daughter was reluctant to go to K-Mart because someone from school might be there. My point that she would not be harmed by being seen by someone from school because that someone from school would also have to be shopping at K-Mart was lost on her.

Strategies for Sanity

As a caring, understanding parent I worry about what this slavish devotion to brand names does to my pocket book and to her morality. After almost four years of this type of brand-name awareness in our home, I have developed some strategies.

First, she gets a monthly allowance of $20. She must pay for all her discretionary purchases out of this money. That includes paying for lip-gloss, hair accessories and even candy/soda at the movies. This has given birth to an interesting phenomenon. When she wants some knick-knack, she tries to convince me to buy it for her. It's like thinking "better if I can get it with mom's money than with mine!" After a few false starts, I have learned to be steadfast in my refusal. Then she thinks really hard about getting it. She still buys items that I consider frivolous or extravagant. But now there is an automatic cap on these indulgences and without much aggravation for me.

Second, she gets a mutually agreed-upon budget for clothes at the beginning of the school year and she must choose her mix of brand-name/discount brand purchases to fit this budget. (We have not been very successful at this because she has "needed" additional clothes throughout the year – either because they "fell apart," got stains from spills, or she outgrew them.)

Third, I have tried to teach her to ask herself three questions before making a purchase: 1) Do I need it? 2) Can I afford it? 3) Is it worth the money?

I cannot say that this last has met with a great deal of success. But, I am hopeful that over time it will teach her valuable skills about managing her wants and needs.

Finally, I have taught her to keep her guard up even with BFFs when it comes to brand-name mania. It is OK to tell white lies - "I bought it at Bobs" (Bob's is one of the "in" stores); "I don't remember how much I paid"; "It was a gift from an aunt." And, if she feels particularly brave, laugh it off and say, "What is it with you and brand names? Jeez! Can we talk about something else?!"

Spending Style

Growing up in Bombay in the 60s and 70s "spending style" was not an issue. Kids wore what the parents bought them, took out the hem when pants/skirts became too short, sewed on buttons when they fell off, and thought nothing of using hand-me-downs. This was because of necessity, of course. But it was also because the culture was one of minimalism – why get more when one can make do with less?

Also, the pervasive presence of multitudes of people managing with much less and doing it with grace was enough to put an end to any ideas of false grandeur and pretense. Another important factor was an understanding of delayed gratification. I knew that I should-would-could allow myself all the indulgences that I might desire when I came into my own – after getting a good education, a good job and becoming both financially and emotionally autonomous. In fact, to this end, it was very important to do well at school and the good grades that I achieved were my brand!

When I explain all this to my daughter (where I am coming from, so to speak), she tries to understand. And I think she does, in her own way. It took quite a bit of explaining to convince her that my family in India was not poor or struggling or cheap. It has taken a lot more explaining to convince her of the need to put in the effort needed to produce brand-name quality – whether it is doing schoolwork, doing household chores or keeping her room clean.

Yesterday she said to me "If I were you, I would use a Gucci leather purse and not this thing that you bought at Sears." I told her that if I had $50 to buy a purse, I would spend half of that on a purse, save a fourth and give a fourth to charity. She just rolled her eyes.

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