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On using children as your personal billboards

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

It was 2003. I'd just had my first child nearly a year after I'd met her father. If you do the calculations it becomes apparent that she was unplanned. I was in Vancouver, BC presenting a poster on the research from my master's thesis on a scale I'd helped develop measuring emotional regulation (mentioned so you can see how far babywit is from my original starting point.) While checking out the city, her father dragged me into a Bang-On shop. Bang-On is the modern equivalent of the old time transfer shops you'd see in the malls except Bang-On offered mega cool images on ultra hip well-fitted t-shirts.

In the very corner of the shop I found a couple of blank baby t-shirts hanging from a rack. I looked up at the dizzying array of transfers covering the walls, I looked down at the blank baby t-shirt in my hand, I peered at the face of my sleeping 4 month old baby tied to the front of me and BAM there it was. "JIM, can you believe this? Do you get this? I can put ANY image I want on a baby shirt!" I went crazy and bought all my friends with babies some baby shirts. The shop only carried one size of baby shirts so everyone ended up with the 18-24 month. I bought Angus on a black baby t-shirt, Bowie, Blondie, Sonic Youth on Pink, Ramones on Black, The Smiths and I was laughing out loud the entire time imagining their faces when I gave them their shirts. I also imagined the faces of people who saw these babies on the streets wearing these crazy shirts. (Remember it was 2003. There wasn't a Ramones shirt for babies for sale anywhere yet.)

The blank t-shirts themselves without the transfers were also blowing my mind. The labels in the shirts said American Apparel and I hadn't seen a t-shirt fit quite like this anywhere else. I asked the clerk where this brand came from. LA?! in the USA? They were made in the US?

I bought a bunch of blank ones (ironically enough I prefer blank t-shirts to those with images) for myself. That was in August of 2003. By the end of September I had built out a website, opened up wholesale accounts with both Bang-on and American Apparel and in the first month I was in the black. Crazy, huh?

Not really, when you think about it.

What we do as social creatures is make social. We try to communicate with others. We are happier in groups. Function at a higher level. Make better decisions. Human brains are geared up for social interaction. Our brains automatically categorize and assign everything we see into groupings in order to make sense of our world, to identify dangers, allies and resources.

The negative side to all this categorization is the massive generalization necessitated by the heaping amounts of information coming in. It helps with processing speed but can also cause us to skip over the subtle nuances that might lead us into a much deeper level of engagement with the world around us. Generalization is necessary when processing billions of pieces of information so how do we know when to pause for a moment?

We don't really know. But, we do have the ability to send out signals to those around us to help with this categorization. So we do. As humans who are social animals, we also send out signals to those around us. Signals about ourselves. Markers that we hope others around us will pick up on. Points of allure that might allow the receiver to correctly interpret us even if all our other physical traits fall into the various stereotypes our society has created. Our society makes sure we are aware what these stereotypes are from a fairly early age. Language, family, media, school all provide points of inputs that form and reinforce stereotypes. Even as small children we quickly become aware, even if only at an unconscious level of our societal stereotypes. An overweight 40 year old black female has a different group of associations attributed to her than a slim blonde 22 year old white female vs a thin 80 year Indian female. Visual cues are the first in the line of mental absorption followed by aural cues. How we look, how we sound...this is how we are judged. Many of our extremities are given to us at birth and they are unchangeable. Colors including hair, eyes, skin. Height, body type, shoe size, vocal range. But, there are also external cues that are alterable.

You didn't think I'd ever get to the part about using your children as billboards, did you? I wanted you to understand exactly what position I think the t-shirt holds in our society and why the t-shirt may hold more influence than all other fashion cues. Think about it. Fashion costs money. But, what piece of fashion remains constant between all seasons, classes and sexes whose strength of messaging is least dependent upon the amount spent on the item? Shoes? No. Pants? No. Hats? A very small maybe on the baseball hats but only for the male. Socks? Can't really see em. Stockings? Female only. Scarves? No. Coats? No. We can move on from fashion into the resources we own. Cars, houses, boats, bikes. Same answer there. No.

The strength of the medium of the t-shirt as a cultural messenger is all too often overlooked. It is THE fairest messenger out there. In each t-shirt you slip over your head, you are handing a message out to the people around you to help them place you. And get this, anyone...from the homeless teen on the street to the richest female in the world, has access to the exact same t-shirt. I admit that the same t-shirt on a homeless teen can mean something completely different on a wealthy socialite but we all have fairly equal access to the t-shirt object.

Over the past decade what I have heard from my angry fans (and I refer to them as fans for anyone who engages in a dialogue is somehow a fan) is a hostility that my t-shirts somehow allow parents to turn their children into billboards to spread their stereotypes, their personal messages. That my customers are using their children and it is a nonconsensual hostile takeover. I have also heard that my t-shirts take away a child's innocence, destroying their very childhood. This was mostly during the Bush era when my most popular t-shirt was the President Poopyhead shirt.

I think the extreme hostility I encountered was due to the power of the t-shirt as messenger.
I understand this reaction. Those who were angry did not think our children should be used as political messengers. They are too innocent and much too young to understand.

But, in any fervent political atmosphere our children know.

I understand the anger of our children being brought into your political arguments. As being used as part of the categorization of good vs. evil.

I understand the horror at the thought that children are being brainwashed with ideas of hatred, of having them develop a solidarity towards an ideal they cannot yet conceptualize. Of being asked, coerced, trained to draw lines, to stereotype, to categorize.

The bigger horror is that our children are constantly being inundated with this information. They are already being used as billboards for the millions of unconscious messages our society pushes out. Disney, Barbies, dolls with giant eyes, dead monster hyde dolls, video games, lego ninjas, angry birds. What the upset folks don't recognize is that their children, their babies are already being preprogrammed by our society.

I am not calling all lefties to insert messaging onto their babies as a way to mitigate the waves of consumeristic messaging prevalent in most activities we participate in. By selling my shirts, I am not condoning any sort of hostile black and white good vs evil billboard sort of warfare. I acknowledge that the t-shirts I make are indeed intended as a messaging system. It is in recognizing and becoming conscious of what messages we are trying to disseminate to our children and to those around us that our shirts become more than a mere billboard but enter into a realm of mental expansion...and conversation. You are offering your child a tool to express who they are. By interacting with the public with their messages they are receiving feedback. They are learning and cultivating their individuality. I consider my t-shirts the beginnings of conversations. A lot of conversations. Between family members, friends, people in your community you might never have spoken to before, strangers, lovers.

When I started this business my daughter was 4 months old. She turned 10 yesterday and the shirts she chooses to wear are truly an extension of how she sees herself. I have heard her explain to people what the meaning of her shirts are. I am so proud of her independent thoughts. I am honored when she says with such pride"And my mommy made this for me."