Foreign Bodies: Performing American Identity Through Consumption
So here’s something that comes up a lot on like, ”expat” blogs or whatever: to live in a foreign country is to live in the negative space, to find yourself constantly defined by all the things you are not. More simply: you never realize how American you are until you’re no longer living in America. Obviously, unfortunately, there’s no shortage of nationalist sentiment in the US, but in a general sense, American identity tends to be an amalgam of different self-concepts - you’re from New York, but you live in the Midwest, and you’re Polish-German, or whatever. It’s rare to say “I’m American” and stop short. But that’s what you end up doing, living abroad. And eventually, you discover that there are indeed a (small) set of behaviors, practices, and ideas that not only code you as “Not French” but specifically “American.”
This is an essentially endless process - after four years here, I’m still finding tiny little differences in the way I relate to the world and comparing notes with my circle of American friends to find that they are, indeed, a product of our upbringings on the other side of the Atlantic. And conversely, I constantly hear, “That’s very American of you” - often centered around food, but also a litany of other things that I don’t necessarily think of as particularly “American” but are apparently coded that way, here, or at least read that way to French eyes because they’re being performed by an “American” body.
That dichotomy - the things that code me, in the French gaze, as American, vs. the things that I find make me “feel” American - interests me on a lot of levels, particularly as it relates to consumption. Because I’d be lying if I didn’t say there wasn’t at least a little more-or-less intentionality to it all, an identity performance through semiotic manipulation, coupled with more private consumer behaviors that feel more about self-concept than social identity: sometimes we do things that are American, on purpose.
This is the story of how I ended up owning a Patagonia jacket. Patagonia is super cool in Paris. To be fair, Patagonia is absolutely Having a Moment right now (vintage sportswear aesthetic + sustainable corporate practices). But here, Patagonia is more than a crunchy-granola-West-Coast-brand-turned-Fashion. The trend’s democratized, obviously, but at the start, it was an barometer of the cultural capital necessary for a French person to be familiar with the brand. It was an indication of someone who had traveled to the US, or followed the right people on Instagram, or was particularly in touch, for whatever reason, with whatever’s trending in Brooklyn. And I am a consumerist sheep at heart; it should go without saying that I now own a Better Sweater™.
Here’s the thing, I would never own a Patagonia jacket if I actually lived in Brooklyn. Or, who knows, I actually might if I was like a “Camping in the Catskills” kind of Brooklynite, but a) seems unlikely, and b) I’d probably lean more Outdoor Voices (I do enjoy Doing Things™). Patagonia, I don’t know, it feels kind of “finance bro.” Connecticut-y, if you will. Clothing made for preppies who’ve inherited a Protestant ethic of disciplined outdoor activity as character building, yet worn for tailgating. (Also, Unitarian Universalists in Tevas at the farmer’s market: these are My People.)
Several times now, friends and I have discussed an interesting phenomenon among the Americans we know in Paris. It’s a departure from wearing the brands we thought were synonymous with Frenchness in when we lived in America (Sandro, et al.), in favor of brands that are cool in France but that we wouldn’t necessarily wear in the US (Levi’s, et al.). You might call it, at first glance, a sign of assimilation. But if that were truly the case, we’d be wearing the same Levi’s and Stan Smiths as everyone else, and we don’t.
So the real reason that I own a Patagonia jacket is because it’s a visual referent of social placement, belonging to a certain consumer demographic as it exists in France. And if it seems a bit obvious to argue that the connotations of a given garment depend on its placement in a social context, I think the interesting thing here is that my friends and I are intentionally consuming products that we’d never use in the US. It’s as though we’re trying to concretize certain aspects of ourselves, performing a kind of semiotic manipulation intended to relay identity narratives and position ourselves within the Parisian context. We’re speaking, in a way, a foreign visual language.
Why do we do it? On some level, I think it’s a capitalization on an ever-present “foreignness”: being coded as American feels inescapable, sometimes for reasons that seem ridiculous (I generally appreciate the “tellement américaine !” comments, but sometimes you’re like, friend, everyone eats burgers.) You know that you’re being constantly “read”, so you might as well control the conversation. And then there’s knowing that certain things you’d otherwise use to express your identity - brands, behaviors, whatever - won’t read in the same way here, if they’re understood at all. It becomes a matter of translation: Brooklyn Me would wear Outdoor Voices, so Parisian Me wears Patagonia.
But of course, not all the American products we consume are part of our “public selves.” A friend of mine left the other day to go back to the US for the next month or so, and we got into a discussion about the “loot” she’d be bringing back: mostly hygiene products, and over the counter medicine. We kept laughing about it, because coming back with a suitcase full of personal care products is such a Thing among the girls we know. Personally, I don’t leave the US without a trip to the Co-op for my weird hippie supplements, and I have four giant boxes of American Tampax spilling out from under my bathroom vanity. Using these products feels less about social positioning and more about our own self-concept: these are the moments when I feel the most American.
There’s a certain practicality to it, of course. It’s not that French equivalents to these products don’t exist (French girls definitely use tampons). It’s not that we don’t use these products, if the American version is unavailable (I do buy deodorant more than twice a year, really). But these are all products that you just need to work. They’re products that often rely a lot on gimmick and advertising to distinguish themselves in the market context; French or American, they all perform the same essential function, but what small differences exist feel specific and distinct for us.
They’re products that we’d probably demonstrate considerable brand loyalty to even if we lived in the US, there’s an undeniable familiarity and comfort factor at play. Like, remember that “1-800-Contacts” commercial with the dude and the brand and his special eyes? It’s like kind of that. Please do not ask me why American Tampax are so much better than the French version, They. Just. Are.
I use the term “personal care” above, but there’s a particularity to the products we bring back that seems key to their relationship to self-concept. What deodorants, tampons, Lactaid, leave-in conditioner, Ayurvedic supplements, and toothpaste have in common is the intimacy of their consumption and their proximity to the body. Their use engenders a very specific set of bodily sensations, practices and behaviors that are familiar to us in a fundamental way.
Theory kind of backs this up on two levels. Most simply, one of the principles of Belk’s Self-Extension (1988), which I discuss a lot in this space, relies on bodily proximity. Basically, he argues that the closer the item is to the body, the stronger the identitary associations we form with it. There’s this idea of “contamination” that correlates to that proximity, it’s the reason you might borrow a stranger’s jacket but not your best friend’s bra. Following that theory, it makes sense that we’d feel particularly American using products that go in and on and around the body. When my female relatives come here, they leave with suitcases full of LaRoche-Posay and Clarins - products that have equivalents in the US, but allow them to recreate a feeling of “Frenchness” on a very intimate level once back home.
But I can’t stop thinking about something my friend said the other night. I asked her why she preferred the American version of an OTC medication that I’m sure is available in France. She told me that she had this sense that the American version worked better for her, that it was just made for her body, in a certain way. She told me that it was more than familiarity, she had a weird sense that there was a “harmony” between product and body. And I felt that, I really did, because I was convinced for like three years that I’d never find a good French toothpaste that worked with my specific mouth chemistry (??). I mean, who knows. There might be some weird actual difference, Lord knows what sketchy unregulated stuff is getting into our American products. But it’s not like we’d know that; the American familiarity of these products is a powerful placebo for us. I may change my clothes, my hair, my diet; my body remains foreign.
I think there’s something interesting there. Like we said above, these are products through which we negotiate very specific bodily practices, feelings, and sensations. It seems silly, but it’s true - like, American deodorant does not feel the same on your body as French deodorant does. It doesn’t work the same. It’s often packaged differently and sold in different formats; the entire experience of its consumption is different. Taking an American medication involves a manipulation of physical processes through consumption, these supposedly “work better” through a socio-symbolic meaning we’ve assigned to them - a sociomaterial behavior. Could it be that, by using American products, we participate in a sort of American bodily praxis?
Hear me out: we know that intersections of the social, material, and semiotic can create specific practices that assign new meanings to each of these elements. I usually lean towards Reckwitz’ Theory of Practice (2003). Judith Butler might be good here, too, but I’m not familiar enough with her work. In any case, a “practice” as defined by Reckwitz consists of a way of performing a social action which: “forms so to speak a ‘block’ whose existence necessarily depends on the existence and specific interconnectedness of these elements, and which cannot be reduced to any one of these single elements.” The body can be and often is the locus of a practice: one of the loci through which we mediate interactions between elements.
So what does that actually mean? Getting into bodily sensation and all that is really more consumer psychology than consumer sociology, so not really my area of interest, and you’ll forgive me if I butcher this a little bit. But I think that using American products to manipulate our bodies and generate specific bodily experiences is, in a way, inherently tied to the social meaning we’ve associated with these products. We “know” they work better, even without any scientific basis to back that up, and in return, the products fulfill that promise for us.
Further, using products that allow us to reproduce particular bodily sensations (like the feel of a certain toothpaste, or the wear of a deodorant) allows us to participate in “blocks” of familiar social behavior and practice. Like, it feels really weird to say, “I’ve been wearing Tom’s of Maine since I was 15, that way it makes my body feel is “natural” for me,” but that’s sort of true, isn’t it? To use that product, found only in the US, is to bring my body to a physical state that I thus associate with “Americanness”, this is the function and feeling, the return to familiarity, of my foreign body. In this sense, the interaction between the social, the material, and the symbolic elements at play allows me to practice my self-concept as mediated through my bodily experience: Americanism is an embodied event.
I don’t know. In any case, I don’t really go out of my way to identify as American. It’s just that it seems so inescapable here, because that’s the first thing you say about yourself. I have an accent, it comes out every time I speak, in a million tiny daily interactions. Even at Monoprix trying to buy some emergency French tampons, I’m never not American.
Living in a foreign country is to live with difference as a constant experience, but those differences become smaller and smaller as time goes on - and I have to tell you that the list of American products that I have to bring back gets smaller every time, which feels notable. And there’s another thing my friends and I have talked a lot about, that very strange experience of going back to the US and finding that American food makes you sick, or whatever. Or like wearing some cool French trend that your friends in Brooklyn balk at - “It’s really cool there, guys, I swear!”
I’m also very aware how extremely, extremely lucky we are to come from a country whose signs and simulacra are not only identifiable, but desirable to the French gaze: there is such an insane amount of privilege implied by intentional displays of your foreign identity in order to look cool. And it goes the opposite way, too: for those aspects of Frenchness that have become a part of me, I’m fortunate that they’re generally coded as chic and sophisticated to the American eye. But in any case, (bringing it home with a Big Life Statement, here) the consumer reality that we live in places us, inescapably, in a system of signs and objects - we communicate, and indeed embody, meaning through their manipulation, whether intentional or not. So here I am, yee-haw. Let me know if you find any Tom’s stockists in Paris, the 19th’s turned up dry.