BOSTON -- The woman is standing in the drugstore suffering from acute consumeritis. The attack has been brought on by the excess of choices on the shelf before her. Its chief symptom is mental paralysis, the total inability to make a decision.
The woman did not expect that a simple trip to the drugstore would bring such a disease. But this is not your old-time drugstore with soda fountain and jerk. This is the mega-drugstore with acres of offerings for things to put in and on the human body. Each part of the anatomy -- from the toe and its corns to the fingernail and its polish -- has been allotted its very own half-acre.
At the moment of acute consumeritis, the woman in question is in the space devoted to the head. She came here on a quest for a refill of shampoo. But when her usual brand was no longer available, she was tossed willy-nilly into the chaos of the modern day world of shampoos.
What did she want after all? Which of the three dozen options lined up before her would make the dead follicles that grow out of her busy head come alive? A moisturizing formula? A body-building protein? A mysterious chemical soup of elastin? Collagen? Keratin? Balsam?
She was compelled by the labels to ask herself some penetrating questions. Was she the sort of person who needed her PH balanced? Or would she prefer her PH a bit off kilter? Should she put essential fatty acids in her scalp? Or were they bad for the cholesterol? Did she want a shampoo with a pectin extract? Or isn't that what she uses to make jelly?
To her shock, this woman who earns her living making decisions, who knows and says what she thinks of Baby M, Robert Bork and the meaning of life, was having a shampoo identity crisis. Holding two products aloft, she finally turned in a panic to a perfect stranger next to her and asked: ''Tell me, is my hair Normal or Dry?''
With that our subject broke. After a few brief catatonic moments, she turned from the startled stranger and sped back through the mega-drugstore. She passed the half-mile devoted to teeth without once considering whether she wanted tartar control in her toothpaste or cinnamon flavor in her dental floss. She nearly vaulted over the checkout counter.
Home again, in the quiet of her shower, pouring her daughter's leftovers over her scalp, it occurred to her that she had learned a good deal about the pitfalls of the modern consumer world. The proliferation of personal products had turned shopping into a decision-making marathon. The competing claims of manufacturers, the specialties and subspecialties, had produced an information glut.
Informed consumers are now expected to compare the claims and ingredients, not to mention the unit pricing, of hundreds of everyday products. More to the point, they are propelled into examining their bodies in ever more minute detail. Does my skin need intensive care? Do I have plaque on my teeth? Ridges on my nails? Split ends on my hair? Am I Normal or Dry?
It's bad enough that the drift of all this is toward an obsessive self-absorption. We are also led to believe that picking one bottle over another is an important, meaningful decision. Maybe as citizens we don't have much control over our lives, but surely as consumers we do. Buying is the way we push the lever in the economic voting booth. Why, we can choose between elastin and keratin.
One thing is clear to the woman lathering the body-building protein into her scalp. What the advertisers call brand loyalty is a low-level consumer protest movement. It's our way of cutting through the bouts of decision-making, avoiding the barrage of useless information. It's a defense against the need to waste energy differentiating between things that barely differ.
Could it be that the Great American Consumer Society has topped out, subdivided, proliferated into one overwhelming shopping aisle? Could it be that what the American consumer really wants these days is less choice? Heresy. The woman will wash that treasonous thought right out of her normal-to-dry hair.