The Born Identity
By ROB WALKER
Published: July 30, 2010
When I heard that Huggies had begun to sell a “limited-edition jeans diaper,” and that its bigger rival Pampers was offering a new diaper line carrying the imprimatur of the fashion designer Cynthia Rowley, it struck me as a throwback. Could there be a more absurd example of the sort of mindless conspicuous consumption that marked the years before “credit default swap” entered the national vocabulary? I seem to remember a lot of declarations that the urge to buy anything signaling nonthrifty behavior had been left behind as decisively as a house with an upside-down mortgage. Even TV commercials said so!
George Marks/Getty Images (top and middle); Three Lions/Getty Images.
But upon further reflection, it’s a little too simple to conclude that designer diapers signal the return of the splurgy ’00s. An ad for the Huggies jeans diapers — obviously they’re not really denim, just a denim-suggesting pattern — pokes goofy fun at fashion tropes: women peep over their trendy shades to glimpse at a stylish player who turns out to be diapered child, pimp-rolling in slow motion to his convertible. A Euro-voice coos over an electro soundtrack, “My diaper is full — full of chic.” It’s parody, except the product is real, and really does cost more than standard diapers — 40 percent more, according to a Los Angeles Times “parentology” blogger who reported that the product was selling out in some stores and than an “online frenzy” was under way.
Rowley’s Pampers line, devised in conjunction with her ongoing relationship with Target, offers a more straight-faced rationale for setting aside tightwad habits to pay more for the very finest in things that will be soiled with excrement and thrown away. According to an official Pampers announcement: “The diaper collection, which will be available in pastel designs including madras, stripes and printed ruffles suited specifically to babies and toddlers” — not to teenagers or the middle-aged, you understand — “delivers the perfect blend of utility and aesthetics.” The same document quotes Rowley: “As a mom, I wanted other moms and dads to have more options in every part of their lives — even diapers. It’s the first piece of clothing your baby will ever wear, and it should be special.”
Maybe you think that one thing America consumer culture had successfully delivered to its moms and dads was a sufficient number of options, or maybe you don’t think of diapers as clothing. If that’s your reaction, you’re missing the point, just as I was. Designer diapers do not portend widespread return of pre-recession overspending habits. Most of us are going to need something more convincing than economists’ declarations to persuade us that the recession has ended in the face of all the bleak news about jobs, income and debt. But even in penny-pinching times, parents still want to demonstrate how well (or at least tastefully) they are bringing up baby. Designer diapers are a useful tool for sending that message. And perhaps more to the point, they are also an extension of the well-established tendency among contemporary parents to treat their children as identity props. And it’s plausible that this version of that behavior says something about this specific cultural moment.
For years, we’ve seen youngsters in luxury-brand outfits (if not in real life, then at least in magazine ads, where they often look distinctly insolent). Similarly, the onesie has long since been converted into a wearable billboard for parental taste, a means of swaddling infants in visual endorsements of the Ramones, the Yankees, Sarah Palin and any number of other things that a budding human does not yet understand. And it has been a couple of years at least since I marveled to a friend about tiny Timberland boots on the feet of beings as yet unable to walk, and she patiently explained to me that the concept of a fashion-aware baby was both funny and pleasing. If that is so, then clearly there’s no reason not to extend the general idea to diapers.
Especially, perhaps, now. Surely there are those among us with the means to reclaim flashier pre-recession behaviors — back before the president called upon us to “set aside childish things” — yet remain squeamish about doing so. Why not satisfy the urge by putting your baby in a top-notch diaper? I have to admit, though, that this development makes me sad. One of the few genuinely charming things about infants, in my view, is their indifference to, and indeed ignorance of, the identity projection and status signaling that will soon enough complicate their lives. Do we really want the burden of society’s designer desires being newly borne by the newly born? I don’t think so.
Moreover, the disposable diaper seems like a particularly unfortunate vehicle for identity signaling, given its status as a longstanding bugaboo of many environmental crusaders disturbed by our throwaway culture. It’s a regular tactic of the eco-concerned to prod us to imagine a future in which our children ask us, “As the evidence mounted that the way we live might not be sustainable, what did you do?” In this case the answer would be, “We bought you some trendy diapers, and baby, you looked fantastic.”