A “brief” meditation

I have never known a world without Underoos. When I was born in late 1975 Underoos did not exist, but by the time I was old enough to say “mama I dropped my eggs” (reported to be my first sentence) or even something as simple as “I want,” superhero-themed underpants were being sold in grocery stores across America.

I imagine it, a world free from cartoon characters smiling or glowering from the surface of any product large enough to be so emblazoned. No Fred Flintstone on a box of cereal. No sultry tween, hands on her hips, pouting from the corner of a pair of cheap sunglasses. No plastic bits of crap that break immediately upon exposure to human flesh (TOA: Trash On Arrival) but were purchased because they happened to have a sticker of a Paw Patrol somewhere on their useless petrochemical body.

But such a world did once exist, and not so long ago. A world of solid colored, functional children’s underpants.

In 1977, it was calculated that children in the US wore out 250 million pairs of underwear each year. Sold at $2.25 a pair, this made for a $600 million dollar annual market. Wanting to increase their market share in children’s skivvies, the Union Underwear Company licensed the use of various comic-book characters. Images related to the characters were printed on underwear which was packaged as “Underoos” and sold for $4.79 per pair (more than double the going price for standard-issue drawers).

Philip Dougherty, in a column about advertising that he regularly wrote for the New York Times,discussed Underoos in 1978:

“There has never been a product like this before,” exclaimed Mr. [James W.] Johnston [Union’s marketing vice president], who noted that not only would it deliver higher profit margins than conservative underwear, but it would also react better to advertising and “for the first time add children’s influence to the purchasing decision…” Mr. Johnston … was later to say, “Advertising is not necessary to sell the product, because it’s a powerful product, but advertising is necessary to establish it as a permanent part of the children’s culture.”

Hey! That’s me he’s talking about! My culture!

Several years ago, after I had become a mom, I read the book The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, a story of the daughter of Jacob and Leah (from the Bible) that explores the traditions, and the brutality, of ancient womanhood. I remember a scene where the main character, Dinah, as a girl, sits in the lap of her aunt. As is common in the book there has been some kind of gory trauma that day. The aunt is brushing or braiding the girl’s hair to soothe her and singing songs that tell stories. The stories are about life, often using metaphor to explain the world and how to find meaning and what has value and what is beautiful. I remember being moved. I remember wondering, then, about the stories we use to teach children these same things in my world.

So back to Mr. Johnston’s quote, which I must acknowledge gives me a bit of a sick taste in my throat each time I read it, Underoos was a permanent part of my culture. So were Strawberry Shortcake and G.I. Joe and He-Man. All had TV shows that I guess were developed to sell products to me. I don’t know what came first, the characters and the shows or the plastic empire? Somebody made these things to sell them to my parents, via my brainwaves, my imagination, my myths, the ones that I would internalize as the stories of what had value, how we act, how we make decisions. My stories, the ones I spent the most time with, were thought up by people like this underwear guy who used advertising to make his product, his story, a permanent part of my culture.

I had a pair of Wonder Woman Underoos. I think my brother had Superman, maybe Spiderman too. Incredible Hulk? I don’t know, that kid loved to dress up like superheroes. In seeing the word, and trying to remember us at that age, all of my brain synapses in relation to the term “Underoos” are firing “happiness,” “joy,” “fun,” “love.”

Lewis Hyde discusses Underoos in his book The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, noting that the company seeks to market not an improved product but an image, in particular images of superheroes. Hyde writes: 

“The profit depends on this formula: an innocent and imaginative child plus a parent with money plus an affectionate tie between the two. The people who marketed Underoos sold them in supermarkets rather than clothing stores because children more often accompany their mothers to the market and the whole promotional strategy would fall apart if this third thing, the bond between the parent and the child, was missing at the moment of the sale.”

In The Gift, Hyde defines a true gift as something very different from an exchange, it is not transactional. A gift is a movement of value, it is a transfer from have to need, and it has a liveliness to it, it is an offer of creative, life energy from one being to another and it flows in a circular way, giving when you have an abundance, receiving when you do not.

And the problem we begin to encounter with Underoos is that the marketers know that the relationship between a parent and child is an emotional bond. There is a life force and a willingness to give, to let energy and resource flow to a genuine, heartfelt desire. And then the marketer takes the emotional, imaginative life of the child, his desire to be strong and powerful, an age-old, beautiful, vital, vibrant part of being a child. And Underoos rolls that into a transaction. In Underoos we see the love, the gift urge, the imagination, recombined into a new dynamic.

In my experience, in the world we live in with cartoons on boxes of food, notebooks, shoes, crappy plastic rulers, this new dynamic often breeds a sort of horridness. Where, instead of gifts as defined by Hyde, we deal in transactions. And frequently in demands that are either met or not met. The innocence and imagination are still part of the equation, they still underpin the exchange, but there is such a weight of transactions in the life of my children. I imagine, from everything they have seen, from their lived experience, these products seem to be a rite of childhood, a given, an obligation. If I meet the demands, we lose. If I don’t meet the demands, we lose.

CHILD: Mom, can we get a box of Choco-Syrup-Stars? The one with the picture of iPhoneX Man on it?

MOM: Sweetheart, the picture has nothing to do with the taste of the cereal and those look really disgusting and also they are not food. There is not one food ingredient on the list. Look.

CHILD: But there are games on the back. You can help IPhoneX man find his missing charger and then there are instructions for how to take selfies and post them on a special site that will draw a phone right in your hand.

MOM: We’re not buying this cereal. We come to the grocery store to buy food. Not pictures of fake phones and a box full of corn syrup and glyphosate.

CHILD: When am I going to get a phone? Ella has a phone already. And she gets to eat this cereal. Her mom buys it.

MOM: I’m pretty sure we’ve gone over this before but I’m not Ella’s mom.

CHILD: We never get anything good. I wish I lived at Ella’s house.

(Mom silently pushes cart along, thinks about Caroline, mother to Laura Ingalls Wilder, thinks back to Underoos, shrugs).

More from The Gift:

But what is the fate of affection and imagination if, whenever we are drawn in their direction, we must pass a stranger collecting tolls?

Once goodwill has been separated from its vehicles, matter will increase without spirit. Objects will begin to appear that carry no social or spiritual feeling, though they are the products of human hands.

I hear friends say things like “Susie won’t wear [such-and-such].” But there was a world, not so long ago, where all these decisions weren’t up to Susie. There were functional things that a person needed and was provided with. Except for Nellie Olsen and we all know that she didn’t turn out well. A world full of trashy junk covered with stickers and logos, the one that needs Marie Kondo to help us all declutter, and that accepts the use of the word “clutter” as a way to remove us from the responsibility of all of the stuff we have somehow accumulated, it’s not the only path.

And it isn’t a satisfying path. It has taken what was love and imagination and it has created a transaction that almost always ends in dissatisfaction. Matter has increased. Spirit has diminished.

I’m curious about what it does to the relationships. The saying yes or the saying no. What it does to the experience of getting, of having, of valuing, of appreciating.

I’ve read about ads making us feel worse about ourselves. How marketers use the tension of our wanting to be or feel something different to get us to take some action. Occasionally the action taken leads to an improvement of some sort or a different feeling, at least momentarily. But often we are paying to feel the hopefulness in the gap between wanting and having, we are paying for the imagination of things being different. And then we have the thing in our hands and nothing is different and we still have to look at the thing, organize the thing, somewhat embarrassed to have spent the money and that it didn’t actually fix us by magic, life is still the same, and we’re determined to get some use out of this “matter” that is sucking the life force out of us.

In thinking about Underoos I’m wondering about the shift in our relationship to our things when this transactionality is introduced into what used to be a different kind of relationship. When the best parts of us, our love and our imagination are monetized. When what existed more in the space of a gift is intentionally manipulated to become a transaction, what is spiritually lost in that change? And does that have anything to do with how we feel about all of the things that surround us? Have they lost the energy to ‘spark joy’ because the transaction somehow depletes the life force, the goodwill has evaporated with the commodification of love and imagination?

I’m not going to come to any conclusions today. We loved our Underoos. We spent hours playing GI Joe, possibly with mixed psychological results. I probably have a screwed up body image but there are so many possible culprits, I don’t dare blame Barbie (or Three’s Company which we always watched after He-Man and GI Joe even though my mom doesn’t remember it that way).

It seems relevant to The Stuffed Project (one woman’s quest to reimagine our relationship to the material world) to consider the story of Underoos. To recognize the change that has occurred during my lifetime. To think about the nature of how a thing comes to be in your space, the intent behind it, by whom, and if that changes in any way your relationship to the thing. And if that changed relationship is in some way linked to less soul, more stuff. Just a lot of thoughts. Jotted down. Shared with you.


My first book, The Rise and Fall of Jenny Goodguts, is now available for purchase. You can learn more about my current work, including The Stuffed Project, or subscribe to the blog to get new posts directly in your inbox.

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