On being … a status symbol?

By Ingrid Sapona

I was flipping through the TV listings the other day and I noticed a show on TVO (Ontario’s public broadcasting station) called If Walls Could Talk. I tuned in to find it’s a 2011 BBC series hosted by Lucy Worsley. The first episode I saw was about the history of bedrooms. It was absolutely fascinating. Worsley is an adorable, quirky Brit with a bit of a lisp and an amazing knowledge and way of making history come to life.  (Turns out she’s not just a BBC personality – she’s a historian and in her day job she’s Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces in the U.K.) If you ever come across this series – I highly recommend it!

Anyway, the next episode was on the history of the kitchen. It was even more interesting. To say we’ve come a long way from the medieval peasant’s cooking setup – basically a single iron pot hanging over an open flame – to the modern conveniences we cook with is a drastic understatement. Indeed, toward the end of the episode Worsley commented on the fact that kitchens have become a status symbol – they’re a place where people show off their wealth and power and, sometimes, their culinary skill. I was quite taken aback by the notion, as I’ve never thought of kitchens as status symbols.

One of the people Worsley spoke with about this phenomenon said kitchens are similar to cars as status symbols. That might explain why the idea never occurred to me – cars as status symbols typically doesn’t register with me either. I used to sail with a guy who drove a Viper. The car meant nothing to me, but it clearly meant something to him, as it seemed to come up in conversation a fair bit. So, I nicknamed him Viper-guy. Though I was sort of mocking him, he seemed kind of proud of the moniker.

It wasn’t until long after he left the club that I found out that a Viper costs well over $80,000 and is considered a status symbol to many (if not me). That’s the thing about status symbols – their value really depends on others “appreciating” (read: being impressed by) their cost or their inherent value. If others don’t fully appreciate them, their cachet as a status symbol is kind of lost.

In general, I don’t feel I’m particularly “susceptible” to status symbols. I think part of the reason is that I associate status symbols with the notion of being covetous, which, as the 10 Commandments tells us, is something to avoid. Another reason I try to avoid falling into the status symbol trap is because so much of it’s based on manipulation and marketing. Proof of the role that marketing must be playing in transforming kitchens into status symbols is the fact that since the 1990s, according to Ms. Worsley, over 1 billion pounds (£) per year is spent on kitchens in the U.K.

That said, I’ve been giving some thought as to how I reconcile not falling into the status symbol trap with wanting a well-appointed kitchen. Well, I think there’s a distinction between wanting something because it’s a status symbol and wanting it because of its features or specific qualities that are valuable to you. In other words, I tend to take a functional view of things. So, when I see a kitchen, though I certainly notice the number and types of appliances and gadgets it’s outfitted with, and its overall aesthetic appearance, my mind pretty quickly turns to utilitarian aspects. I think about whether it would make my cooking and baking easier or let me do more than what I might be able to do without them. For example, I see significant counter space as a plus because it would be useful to me – I’d have more space for elaborate preparation. Others, I suspect, see counter space as a sign of a bigger kitchen and therefore, most likely, a larger home and, I guess, higher status.

It seems to me that there’s also a difference to be made between something acquired as a status symbol and something acquired as a luxury. I think a status symbol is intended to tell others something about the owner, whereas a luxury is just meant to provide the owner with comfort or pleasure.

As we head into the holiday season, I think this distinction is useful to keep in mind when you give gifts. I say there’s nothing wrong with giving someone something that’s a luxury, so long as your reason for giving it is to please the person, not to impress them or others.

© 2014 Ingrid Sapona


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