Bright lights. Upbeat, inviting, yet mellow music. Fragrance wafting out of carefully curated window displays. Enormous signs proclaiming discounts in the high double-digits. Stores are literally designed with scientific precision to pull you inside and make you think “I need what’s for sale here.” Based on the self-identified materialism of our culture, it’s clear that many stores and companies succeed in this very goal. They make us feel special and worthy and loved when we walk out somehow changed by the experience of shopping, even when the only real difference in the before and after is our possession of a thick paper shopping bag with iridescent jewel-toned tissue spilling out of the top.
Shopping isn’t just an individual thrill: it unites women, bonding friends and sisters, giving strangers to compliment one another. Who hasn’t felt a sudden intimacy and thrill when hearing, “I love your bag, where did you get it?”–and getting that look of recognition and affirmation of good taste?
Until recently, I thought of myself as a proud member of the tribe of feel-good shoppers. Many a Friday night, I’d look forward to easing out of a hectic work week with a “treat”: something small from Sephora or even a new tin of loose tea at my favorite local tea shop. I’d hold my new possession in my hand and smile. Last Friday, though, on a such a consoling shopping trip fueled by a coupon that was about to expire (my mother’s voice in my head reminding me that letting a coupon go to waste is like throwing away free money!), it was all I could do to not run out of the national-brand clothing store as fast as I could, a store that could easily have lit up all of Broadway on its own. What I went in for wasn’t on sale; they didn’t have my size anyway. All the “new” styles seemed just like what I had, growing soft and cozy, in my closet and bureau for the past 5 years (the time of my last major wardrobe refresher), surviving numerous moves between “homes.” My growing headache from the day was getting worse under the brash, fluorescent lights; the dance-remix playlist was drilling a hole into my brain. I wound up buying socks, and later that night I stuffed them in my drawer not with a satisfied smile (hey, socks matter too!) but with a sigh. Another disappointing shopping trip to add to the log.
On my way home that night, I set out to discern the reasoning behind this dissatisfaction. What was wrong with me? A young woman such as myself, living in one of the most fashionable and shopping-centric cities in the world, should be able to walk into any store, let alone a mega-chain, and find something. What I wanted, it seemed, wasn’t something you could display on a rack sorted neatly by color and size (though I do appreciate the art of a meticulous display).
Walking uptown along Broadway, stores of all kinds to the right and left each trying to persuade passers-by that their wares are the most necessary, I reflected on my lifetime of shopping. I grew up in suburban New Jersey: the mecca of malls. People literally drive to NJ just to go shopping. One of the main activities that thus united my mother, younger sister, and I, was going to the store for some sale or another, in search of something we “needed.” New shoes. A new Aeropostale hoodie. The latest item of *NSYNC memorabilia. But there was always something more to need, and so inevitably each outing demanded another, and another, and another. How much could we possibly buy, and when would we feel it was enough? To my teenage self, shopping seemed a bottomless well that often ended in someone being frustrated or annoyed rather than grateful or excited.
As I grew older and away from home, shopping became less of a fixture in my life–by necessity and by circumstance. My college dorm and student’s part-time wages wouldn’t allow for weekly trips into the city to the department stores (though some of my roommates tested the boundaries of those limits). As a young professional, I’ve had even further limits placed upon my shopping habits that seem to at once exacerbate my longing for those colorful bags and make me wish the temptation could be eradicated entirely. Going to the grocery store each week for a real need–nourishment–was about all I could handle mentally and financially, with an occasional meal out with friends or other form of entertainment.
Defining for myself what a “need” really means is what I realized would break my addiction to shopping for good. Instead of going into stores expecting to find something that was inherently satisfying but failing, I had to understand what I thought I needed there. It wasn’t clothes or shoes or accessories–at least not all the time. Unlike my family members, some of whom find real enjoyment in new things–I don’t value possessions in the same way. There’s no thrill for me in adding another option to my wardrobe or another knick-knack to put . . . somewhere (?) in my apartment. There is satisfaction for me, though, in finding a great new ingredient to cook with for the week. Using up a tube of lotion and replacing it with a new scent makes me practically giddy. Stumbling upon a quirky bowl in an indie shop or yard sale makes me feel like I’m curating my taste and domestic world, though not because advertising had manipulated my emotions.
Armed with this new self-awareness, I think my Friday nights will be even greater opportunities to decompress. The pressure I’d felt in the past to buy things as a way to reward myself is greatly lessened already, allowing me to be more content with what I already have in terms of possessions and self-worth. I didn’t need to create more needs, simply recognize when they were there, what they were, and look for ways to fulfill them. As I once told my sister, after I’d been defeated yet again during our annual Easter egg hunt, I was not a hunter but a gatherer: someone who liked to wander in the forest picking up what seemed good along the way, not setting traps for unsuspecting prey. The temptation of those darling shopping bags will persist, of course, so for now I’ll say I’m in recovery for my shopaholism–and looking forward to the day when I’m clean, and casual shopping can be fun again.
Photo: Markus Koller via Flickr