Except for a few cute and funny “I love daddy!” onesies, the first year of my daughter’s life was largely ad-free. We avoided dressing her in clothing or shoes with logos or words printed on them. It’s not so much that I want to avoid #brands, it’s that I don’t want her to be a walking advertisement. I buy her plenty of cute jackets and sweatshirts at the Gap, but none with “GAP: 1969” emblazoned on them.
Once the year mark passes, things startt to change. It’s subtle at first, and it goes hand in hand with exhaustion-induced laziness. I have become less meticulous: I relented and had to admit that the pajamas that said “Later” with an alligator (her favorite animal, according to me) were so cute I would break my own rule to purchase them for her. I couldn’t resist buying her a cheap nylon set of Wonder Woman PJs, cape and all. Then I bought her a pair of Nike tennis shoes, conspicuous “swoosh” and all. I felt bad but also simply had to buy the Keith Haring-branded leggings, although I felt that Keith Haring himself would have been somewhat ambivalent if he had known he was designing baby gear from the grave. “Me too, Keith,” I thought as I paid for the leggings, throwing in the matching t-shirt, the words “Dance All Day” across the front, right above Mr. Haring’s iconic signature.
But it quickly gets worse once you invite the brands in the front door, and now I am powerless to stop it. I don’t even care, I sometimes tell myself. About a month ago, on a rare trip to Target, we purchased a tiny Frozen coloring book for Zelda. Didn’t even really think about it. She can’t color yet, but she loves the book, carrying it around in her little hands, turning its pages one by one, chewing on the edges of the book in her zombie-walk, as if to say: “Give me more Disney: I must have Disney.”
It’s not as if I were raised to rebel against brands: My first birthday cake was Tweety Bird. I loved Mickey Mouse and Sesame Street. I still love Sesame Street! And yet, I don’t want every purchase I make to signify compliance in the world of licensed merchandise. Did my rejection of the hospital’s diaper choice (Pampers) also suggest a rejection of the Sesame Street characters printed on their asses? Only if you think I prefer Winnie the Pooh, whose characters are on all Huggies diapers. I don’t really care about either, and Zelda is still too young to know the difference: I just think that Huggies makes better diapers.
There are, I have noticed, ways to try to avoid branded baby essentials: One of them is to avoid the middle price point. You can go a little higher, and buy the slightly more expensive, organic diapers. I tried this. The plain unbleached white of the Seventh Generation diapers appealed to me, until I found that they leaked nearly every time. The Honest Company (that’s the one owned by Jessica Alba) makes the cutest diapers anyone has ever seen: colorful stripes, strawberries, chevron! “Why has no one ever really done this before?” I asked my husband in amazement as I swaddled Zelda’s bottom in fashionable, ad-free bliss. Those leaked too. And they were so expensive. You could also go cheaper: You’ll get generic “characters” on ones made by CVS, Target, or Amazon — which were amazing and never leaked, but were suddenly and sadly discontinued, so I simply went back to the Huggies, Winnie the Pooh and all.
What is the point? My daughter doesn’t know who Cinderella is. Not yet, anyway. And that’s what makes me sad about the brands: They know that it’s just a matter of time, so they start early. I can keep my daughter from seeing television and movies. Her toys and books and games don’t need to be billboards for Frozen or How to Train Your Dragon 2, because she doesn’t know what those things are. But any day now, she’s going to ask for them by name. She’ll go off to school with her adorable, European Fjallraven Kanken backpack and someone will make fun of her “generic” bag, and she’ll come back to me, asking for an ugly pink piece of crap with the latest Disney movie vomited all over it. And, like Kim Kardashian relented and got North a rolling Frozen suitcase — which sticks out like a sore thumb against the child’s stark, health goth wardrobe — I’ll give in. I’ll shoot over to Target or whatever big box hell is nearby, emerging an hour later laden with brands. Brands. Everywhere.
What matters is that Zelda is safe and happy and healthy, and has a bag — any bag — to tote her crayons and books (iPad) around in. But brands, when they’re aggressively after the malleable and limited real estate of a child’s mind, still make me shudder. I know we won’t do ourselves any favors in bowing to the temple of the branded backpack. We might think we’ll save money — This My Little Pony backpack costs one third of that Swedish thing! — but we’d be kidding ourselves; she’ll want another in six months, when a new movie or TV show arrives. And that’s the power of the brand, especially for children. The thirst for brands, once whetted, is a gaping hole that can never be sufficiently filled. Soon enough, Zelda will have her chance to be a walking, talking advertisement for SOMETHING which doesn’t exist yet, but will likely feature a blond-haired, blue-eyed, white girl in a dress.
“Who gives a shit!?” I’m tempted to ask, “Brands never hurt ME after all.” But when I look back at my childhood, I have to be honest: brands DID hurt me. I lived in an affluent suburb with a large family. My parents couldn’t afford a new Swatch or Air Jordans or Hypercolor or whatever shit the eighties were shovelling at us full force. And that bothered me when I was very young. Because brands, to a great extent, are how we form and state our identity. Your Louis Vuitton wallet says something. It’s vague and meaningless but it says something. And this brand obsession, whether it’s in the form of cheap or very expensive goods, it starts early: It starts with the fucking Frozen backpack. So as much as I want to be fun and easy going, as much as I want to throw up my hands and say, “Oh, who cares if Zelda wants a Cinderella t-shirt,” it bothers me. I don’t want her sense of who she is to be formed by Coca-Cola or Apple or Disney. FUCK BRANDS.
Everyone I know is beside themselves with excitement for the new Star Wars movies. I shrink away from getting too caught up in the hype, because I know their release dates will strike when the iron of my daughter’s mind will be newly warm and pliable, not to really be shaped by whatever lesson the movies will project, but to buy: the pajamas, the action figures, the lunch box (if they even still make lunch boxes?). Sure, I guess I’d prefer it be Star Wars — the new main character is a woman, at least — to some other, likely more gendered brand, but still the unavoidable truth is out there: My daughter is a brand ambassador in the making.
Photo modified from an original by thelittleone417