The Profound Impact of a New Coat
by Jeff Grogan and Operation Warm staff
Kids living in need know what it’s like to have a closet full of hand-me-downs. Studies show that never having new can have lasting psychological effects, such as being more susceptible to bullying and not developing a healthy identity.
Instead, what if these children were given the opportunity to overcome this disadvantage? Learn about the profound impact of a new coat and how it just might change the script for children born into poverty.
The Luxury of New Clothing
Our clothing choices do make a difference, not only in how the world sees us, but also how we see ourselves. The clothing pieces we are able to put on our bodies are more than just items to keep us warm or cool in a given season.
When we can choose new things, clothes can become self-expressive statements. They can show the world what we like, who we think we are, and even to which social group we belong. Most of us can change our clothing according to our moods or the needs of the day. For those who can hardly afford a practical wardrobe, new clothing and self-expression can be a luxury. Often, those living with need have little left after housing, food and medical care to spend on anything else.
There Is Nothing Wrong with Used, Is There?
To the average family, there may be nothing wrong with taking advantage of hand me downs. Items handed down from siblings, cousins and friends are a great way to save a little money and get more wear out of once-new clothing. The difference here is choice. Usually the used clothing from family and friends or at a second-hand shop is in great condition and of a current style. The family can choose not to keep or purchase items that they don’t like.
The situation may be different for a family in need. They have little choice and must accept whatever someone is generous enough to give, including items that are ripped, stained, stretched or ill-fitting. This is especially true when a family desperately needs expensive outerwear and winter items items, such as coats, jackets and snow bibs. Many times, a family is lucky to find used outerwear at all.
The Psychology of Used Clothing
It can be stressful growing up as a kid without clothing choices. As their classmates and friends dress up in clean, coordinated outfits day after day, the visual gap can cause psychological impact. This social anxiety actually has a name: Dispossession.
As Dominique Roux explains in her paper on the influence of second-hand clothing, people who have few clothing choices “feel condemned to assume other people’s identities and to leave their own behind. . . . threatening their perception of their own value.” Low self-esteem is linked to all kinds of long-lasting physical and psychological consequences, and can be made even worse by bullies who can plague kids who dress differently than everyone else.
Schools that enforce uniform policies might think they’ve solved the issue of dispossession in students, because every kid wears the same clothes while they’re at school. However, in a report by the Children’s Commission on Poverty, inquiries revealed that many British primary (elementary) schools with expensive uniforms actually put children in poverty in a worse situation, because their parents couldn’t afford the same quality of uniforms as other families. One girl said she was made fun of because she didn’t own the typical uniform skirt. “I wanted a skirt for ages. My mum couldn’t afford a skirt so I wore trousers.”
The Snowball Effect on Health
According to the Children’s Commission report, dispossession of their clothing caused children more than just subtle social distress. It actually affected their school performance: “This [lack of suitable uniforms] contributed to poorer children being made to feel different and could increase bullying and not attending or taking part at school.”
Many times, especially here in the US, children can not take part in activities if they don’t have adequate clothing. Children can be restricted from outdoor recess, if they don’t have the right outerwear to keep them warm. What this means is that kids in poverty are far less likely to experience the physical and social benefits from recess and physical exercise.
The Impact of a New Coat
When Operation Warm offers kids brand-new coats with their name written on the tag, they meet more than a child’s practical need for warmth — 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. She 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.” That is the profound impact of a new coat/
Euan Holloway, Sorcha Mahony, Sam Royston and Dorothea Mueller. 2014. At What Cost? Exposing the Impact of Poverty on School Life. The Children’s Commission on Poverty.
Roux, Dominique. 2006. “Am I What I Wear?” An Exploratory Study of Symbolic Meanings Associated With Secondhand Clothing. Advances in Consumer Research, 29–35.
Jeff Grogan is a professional freelance writer and editor who volunteers with Operation Warm. “I work for Operation Warm because they meet practical needs for children in poverty and have a profound effect on communities. This organization does one thing exceedingly well, and is clear about its purpose and process.”
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