Saturday, January 12, 2013

Philosophy: DIY and Socioeconomic Privilege

This post is the beginning of the Philosophy posts, in which I talk about design philosophies and other things related to DIY.


I came across this article on XOJane, which discusses the rise of DIY as a white, female, upper-middle class thing to do. It's really worth the read to get the perspective. Let me pull out a few quotes that hit home for me:
Doing it yourself is framed as a revolutionary act -– we can all eschew consumerism and stick it to the Man by simply refinishing a coffee table or painting our rewired, upcycled lamps jaunty shades of teal. Never mind the fact that homemade items are still in large part made out of purchasable goods.
Not only is hardcore DIY yet another way for women to compare themselves and come up short... it’s also a luxury reserved for those with the means needed to sustain it –- plenty of funding (hot glue and organic yarn are not free), and plenty of free time. 
DIY is not about doing it yourself when you have no other choice -– it’s about choosing to do it yourself when you could just as easily afford not to. 
The writer assumes that the modern DIY movement arises out of a desire to 'eschew consumerism' and be frugal. She says it is 'framed as a revolutionary act.' Is that so?

Let's spell this out: DIY is an acronym for Doing It Yourself [when you normally wouldn't]. Doing what yourself? Anything!

I can't speak to the history of this social phenomenon (though Chris posits DIY goes back to the emergence of science magazines in the 20's), only to what I've seen recently. For me and my peers (admittedly white, female, upper-middle class -- but we'll get to that in a sec), DIY seems to stem from a desire to improve, customize, or create 'authentic' pieces from store-bought clones, or to simply immerse one's self in artwork and be proud of one's effort and results. DIY literally for the sake of just doing it yourself. For DIYers with kids, many of the DIY ideas serve as fun ways to keep kids entertained and creative, or to work on problem-solving issues. What's wrong with that?

For me personally, DIY is about not only the artistic fulfillment, but about creating stuff I can't purchase, because general merchandise doesn't fit my specific need or come in the right color, texture, etc. And, in many cases I actually can be more frugal, if I recreate something featured in an expensive store, such as Anthropologie.

But this leads into the true heart of what's bothering me: the privilege of DIY.

In some cases, DIY provides simple yet out-of-the-box fixes to common problems, that anyone could utilize. For example:

A shoebox and toilet paper rolls; a majority of families have these items, and could repurpose them to create this organizational tool for zero dollars.

Also these beautiful roses made out of leaves (free), or this space-saving idea one could utilize for the cost of a $5 tension rod.

But the writer of that article is correct, there are other projects that seem more inaccessible to the general population. For example, these pallet tables everyone's talking about, that seem like a frugal idea until you take into account the time and supplies required (saws, sanding paper, sanders, stain, nails, joints, etc.). Or the numerous sewing projects that require the user to have a) a sewing machine, b) the experience to use it, and c) the money for fabric, a cost which I know from personal experience adds up quickly.

Are some of these projects more expensive than a ready-made product? Yes. Are they time-consuming? Yes. Do they require skills and abilities not everyone has? Absolutely. But is it immoral to desire a certain level of authenticity, to create something unique, or to update what you have if you can afford it?

DIY is a hobby. Just like model airplanes, camping, horse-back riding, and other activities that aren't accessible to the general public. Calling out the 'privilege' of DIY seems similar to saying nasty things about people who only buy designer labels, or who drink a $5 Starbucks every morning, or who go to massages every month. Is the 'culture' of DIY inaccessible to everyone? Yes. But so is the 'culture' of almost everything. Not everyone can be a part of every movement or hobby.

So, do I feel uncomfortable having my privilege called out for having the time, money, and skill to make DIY stuff? You betcha. It's always uncomfortable to be reminded that you have something that others are denied access to. But does it mean I shouldn't participate in DIY projects because of it? No.

Furthermore, I find the writer's conclusions about DIY to be somewhat problematic.
Where are our lavishly designed infographic tutorials about how to take your crooked landlord to court? Why so many lovingly photographed step-by-step tutorials for the perfect hipster French braid, but so few showing us how to obtain free birth control, apply for Medicaid or build a modern black box
You can't take your crooked landlord to court without an attorney. Period. You can learn all about Medicaid through government websites. The ACLU passes out cards you can keep in  your wallet for what to do when you're arrested. There are talks on youtube on how to interact with the police (pro-tip: don't).

For all this 'subversive', 'stick it to the man' sort of thing the writer seems to desire, you can just Google for it. At the library if you need to.
While there’s nothing wrong with beautifully handcrafted centerpieces, hand-lettered gold leaf wedding invitations or homemade vodka infusions, it’s frustrating that so few DIY blogs and web sites pose any real threat to consumerism, or to society’s expectations of femininity.
DIY means Do It Yourself. Does doing it yourself have to threaten consumerism, or traditional femininity? It seems to me that the writer considers it our personal responsibility to thwart consumerism and defy gender norms. And while I think she has an interesting perspective, and it's good to consider other angles, I am unconvinced there's something wrong with the current DIY movement.

Well, that's 2 perspectives. Any others?

<3, Savannah


  1. Huh, I don't think the author of the article implied DIY was immoral. But my answer to the closing question of "Shouldn’t the DIY community serve as an antithesis to mainstream aspirational femininity, instead of just reinforcing it?" is an unambiguous NO. I think DIY should be whatever people want to make of it, which means it's not going to be the same for everyone.

    I do think that even the cheap and easy DIY projects you listed as examples are not accessible to everyone. More than raw materials, DIY takes free time and the luxury to spend mental and physical energy on something that's not a necessity, which not everyone can afford to spare. But like you said, I don't think DIY being a privilege is not a reason to not participate, any more than people shouldn't read because reading is a privilege.

  2. Totally with you, Savannah. I get what she's saying, and yes - privilege. Yadda yadda.

    But no, DIY did not originate as or become an "antithesis to mainstream aspirational femininity," even if that's what the original poster and I think it should be.