How a New Coat Can Affect Your Brain


by Jeff Grogan and Operation Warm staff

Research shows that keeping warm not only protects your body, but also can affect your brain. Because of this, giving a child a warm winter coat can have lasting psychological and behavioral impact.

How Clothing Choices Affect Your Brain

It seems strange to think that a coat can affect your brain. There are interesting studies behind how this might happen. Our clothing choices are more than just what will keep us warm or cool in a given season. The clothes we wear express who we are, not only to the world, but also to ourselves. If you are limited in the type and condition of your clothing choices, then you are limited in how your brain sees yourself. Imagine how this effect might be multiplied when you have no choice with an essential item, such as a coat.

Piacentini & Mailer, in a 2004 study, found that the clothing choices made by young people affect their understanding of who they are. But the most interesting part of this study is this – it also influences how they judge others. Could this imply that a child wearing an ill-fitting, used coat might think differently about those around him? If you are a child in need, would a brand new colorful coat affect your brain like the proverbial rose-colored glasses? Would it give you a more positive view of how you fit into the world?

Second-Hand Clothing and Social Anxiety

Kids growing up without new clothes experience constant stress as their classmates and friends dress up in clean, coordinated outfits day after day. This social anxiety has a name: dispossession.

As Dominique Roux explains in her paper on symbolic meanings of second-hand clothing, people dispossessed from their clothing choices “feel condemned to assume other people’s identities and to leave their own behind… threatening their perception of their own value.” This means that these kids are at risk of not being comfortable with who they are. But what if the item of clothing is similar to something worn by other children but used or of a lower quality? Wouldn’t a decent used coat make the same difference as a new one?

In a report by the Children’s Commission on Poverty, inquiries revealed that many British primary (elementary) schools that require uniforms actually made children in poverty worse off because their parents couldn’t afford the same quality of uniforms as other families. They don’t feel as though they have value, and may suffer from low self-esteem.

A new coat offers the choice that a used coat does not. Being able to choose a style and color of one’s own eliminates the risk of dispossession.

The New Coat Difference

When Operation Warm offers kids brand-new coats with their name written on the tag, they meet more than a child’s practical need — they also meet the psychological need for possession. “Possession allows them to differentiate themselves, express their personality, or maintain a tie with the past,” Roux says.

An Operation Warm coat, which kids pick out on their own, begins a new story about ownership, confidence, and generosity. No one could say it better than Anissa, who noticed what was special about her Operation Warm coat: “I like how you let us pick the color we wanted. I also like when you helped us put the coat in my bag because that means it is mine.”

Sources: What Cost Exposing the impact of poverty on school life – Full Report.pdf

Piacentini & Mailer. 2004. Symbolic consumption in teenagers’ clothing choices 

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