For all you know you could be a chocolate cake

March 2000

Across the street from my office the local outlet of a large clothing chain decorated its windows with huge photographs of teenage girls dressed in the company’s clothes. The photos had an Alice-in-Wonderland quality: big as the prints were, the girls seemed bigger, their large heads cramped by the top border; and, shot close-up, the girls’ faces—broad, open, without the least hint of sophistication or availability—were distorted, swollen. As such, the models didn’t look particularly pretty; rather, what was arresting about these photos was precisely this question: Are these professional beauties pretty or plain? One day I found myself wondering how the models were found. With such faces, I thought, they could hardly have been seeking work as models.

And then I wondered if this was not the point. As those of us on the street wondered whether the theoretically stunning models were in fact plain, so might we wonder if we, the theoretically plainer shoppers, weren’t better-looking than we had been imagining ourselves. And this door once opened, several others were offered: the company’s plain, ill-fitting clothing could, in fact, be quite stylish; the lack of sensuous, caressable or lustrous fabrics, the clothing’s refusal to respond to the curves and procreative zones of the human body—this could be the clothing’s sex appeal. (Or, alternatively, perhaps contemporary teenagers, overwhelmed by the expectation that they are ready and eager to have sex, greatly appreciate the clothing’s boxiness. It allows them to enjoy and conceal such sexiness as they do feel, while offering the diversion-hungry world little to play with.)

In America we have long had the phenomenon of beer manufacturers building large, profitable businesses by making their products as bland as possible. In this way the companies reduce their costs, avoid intruding on any specific tastes that customers may have; focus their resources on distribution and advertising; and, above all, create a blank screen on to which their advertising agencies can project whatever images seem for the moment most likely to increase sales.

We must credit these manufacturers with a singular insight: that flavor—which, along with the alcohol buzz, might once have contributed to a beer’s appeal and identity—was better done away with. And we must also give some credit to this clothing chain for having, years later, realized the extent to which the beer model could be applied to clothing. Like flavor, the myriad variations of the human form and the highly charged role that certain anatomical features play in the mating process might best be ignored. By using loose-fitting rectangles of inexpensive fabric, the requisite blandness could be achieved and a series of production costs—precise gradations of size, skilled patternmakers and tailors, unusable scraps of expensive fabric—could be avoided. Thus more of the company’s talent and cash could be reserved for distribution, advertising, and executive and investor income.

And now these oversized photos suggested that the clothing company had taken the beer model one step further. It was not simply using advertising, as many a company has, to pretend that its product has precisely those features that it most lacks. This was not the notoriously stingy insurance company portraying itself as caring, the affordably priced family car made to seem luxurious or sporty, the healthy looking people photographed smoking along a verdant stream. The clothing company had gone one step further, trying to confound our notions of blandness and beauty. (I have an image of two sticks, blandness and beauty, being rubbed together, our imaginations fired by the confusion.)

I suppose this is the sort of thing that in the Maelstrom of our consumer society we should either proclaim ingenious or condemn for threatening to suck us yet further into the abyss. For some reason I am, for the umpteenth time, recalling a sophisticated philosophical observation made to me in a sandbox. I and the other kids who played in that particular box must have gotten into one of the spiraling arguments we used to specialize in, larger and larger numbers being invoked—one child claiming to be a thousand times smarter or stronger or righter, the next a million, a billion, a googol, a googolplex.

In the middle of one such argument, in a fit of genius born of frustration, the boy who lived next door and who, on another occasion, less inspired, smashed my sister’s lip with a shovel, now shouted: “For all you know you could be a chocolate cake!”


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