Is pledging to give away your wealth the new conspicuous consumption?
Among the Pacific Northwest tribes, potlatch was a way to not only redistribute wealth, but gain prestige. The more a chief gave away, the more he raised his status. And the higher his status, the more he was obliged to give away.
What does giving up drinking have to do with billionaires who pledge to give away half their wealth? Or the Kwaikiutl potlatch ceremony in which chiefs set their most prized possessions on fire or give them away for show?
I haven’t had a drink in ten months and ten days. But who’s counting?
My decision to stop drinking for “a while” came after a close encounter with a bottle of organic (of course! It’s good for you!) vodka. But it had more to do with the habitual glass or two or three of wine that every single woman with young children I know in Manhattan drinks every single night (except maybe Monday night, when you’ve spent the day juicing because you’re detoxing from the weekend). You will drink more or less, probably, depending on what’s going on. Kindergarten notifications, after a whole fall and early winter of Kindergarten applications, are the main thing going on now. Please pass the vodka. Or in my case, don’t.
Manhattan mommies and other mommies across the country drink, most often wine, because it’s what we do. That is to say, while our drinking may be personal, or physiological, or psychological, it’s also deeply, and to my eye mostly, tribal. It’s nothing, nothing at all, to go out with girlfriends here (and elsewhere) and have three or four glasses of wine at a “mom’s night out.” Particularly if you don’t have to drive yourself home, as none of us do here–we’re a walking town, and a town of cabs and drivers and Uber—it’s virtually comme il faut.
The tribe I study would rather drink than eat. More than one friend who has gone to a nutritionist or holistic MD has reported to me that she agreed to give up X, Y, and Z but refused to give up alcohol. As Richard Kirschenbaum observed in the Observer recently, “I’ll have a couple of almonds” is the new motto of privileged Manhattanites. I might add that, while you will hear a wealthy Manhattanite say “a Martini, no olive” you will never, ever hear the reverse from a privileged Manhattan mommy. Drinking is something we won’t give up, most of us.
So back to not drinking. It seems to go against the grain of my culture to stop. But giving up drinking couldn’t have been easier thanks to what I like to call the New Deprivation. No gluten, no dairy, no soy, no lactose, no processed sugar, no wheat. Deprivation is the new conspicuous consumption. In the same way a group of billionaires have vowed to give away all their wealth, the women I run with have agreed to give up just about everything–except wine. When the good people at the Celiac Center at Columbia Presbyterian told me what would be required of me a couple of years ago, the doctor compassionately observed, “Many people find it very difficult to have so many food categories taken out of their diets and out of their lives. Some people even become depressed.” I told him it was a non-issue for me. He looked really, really perplexed. “My kids go to school on the Upper East Side,” I explained, “I’m already a semi-professional anorexic.” He nodded and said, that Yes, not long ago, another few women had told them essentially the same thing.
It’s not just that the wealthy and uber wealthy are eating less and juicing more. It’s that there’s a new philosophy afoot in town: having nothing is the new having it all.
But this New Deprivation, as exemplified by eating less, isn’t the languid “dieting” our mothers knew, in which you simply don’t have stuff. No, this new deprivation is fueled by an ethos of doing, along with a dash of supersonic entitlement and side of ultra inflated expectations. Now, and here, deprivation is an active state of affairs. You do stuff to your body—Soul Cycle and Core Fusion and Physique 57—and you also have less to eat, yes. It’s not enough for a bite to be merely low cal or low fat—that’s pathetically passé—it has to be organic, nutritious, anti-oxidant rich and detoxifying. Your food has to work very, very hard for you. Your expectations of your super foods are super high. It has to deliver, or you are just going to do without.
At a “class cocktail party” not long ago, servers offered platter after platter of delicious looking canapés, all designed with our pollution anxieties and elaborate rules about food in mind. But we still said no as we chatted and drank, again and again and again, to the point that I started to feel bad for the food servers (the drink servers, in contrast, were mobbed). “We all know the food is just for show,” I joked to the hostess. A good sport, she laughed and so did all the other women. We laughed big, uncomfortable, relieved laughs. It’s not that I’m funny–it’s that it’s titillating when someone has the bad manners to actually speak the deep cultural script that we all live and read from and don’t generally discuss.
Giving it up is way too easy around here. In poverty cultures, curves and flesh are status symbols. On the UES, the opposite belief prevails. Less is more. Much, much more.
What does the New Deprivation mean for our sex drives? Ah, that’s for another post.