I have a shopping problem.
Not so much in terms of money spent, although that’s probably higher than it should be, but in terms of how much time and mental energy I devote to shopping and related topics. Even though I know logically that experiences bring more happiness than possessions, and that becoming the person I want to be is more fulfilling than accruing the things I want to own, on an emotional level, I’m struggling to let go of the mentality that things are what make me happy.
If I had to choose a starting point, it would be my senior year of college. I joke that I went through a ‘second puberty’ in the latter half of college – I cleaned up my diet and lost weight, my body fat distribution changed, my hair went from unmanagable frizz to well-behaved waves, and my skin started to clear up. Clothes shopping suddenly became much more enjoyable, and I started getting into makeup beyond “cover up acne as much as possible.” Even though I didn’t lose a huge amount of weight (I only went down 2 pant sizes) and many of the tops and dresses I had worn at my starting weight still fit, I kept buying clothes because the way I felt in them was different, and I suddenly felt like I had so many different options that I could explore.
At the beginning of college, if I thought I wanted a certain item of clothing, say a black wool coat, I would write down the maximum amount I was willing to pay for it, and if I saw something I liked that was below that maximum amount, I bought it. Pretty straightforward, and I didn’t spend a lot of time shopping. But when I was experimenting with different clothes in different sizes, minimizing the amount I spent on each individual purchase became more important. I spent increasing amounts of time browsing clothing sites and monitoring sales, playing a game of “what could I buy for $X”, justifying to myself that this was harmless because I wasn’t actually spending money most of the time.
During my senior year of college, I dated a guy who was the complete opposite of materialistic – the kind of person who can probably fit everything he owns in a single suitcase and has no problem backpacking through foreign countries. He sent me the Paul Graham essay “Stuff”, and I was discomfited; I liked the essay and the sentiment, and I wanted to be the kind of person who wasn’t tied down by things, but I was having a rough time personally/emotionally and I felt like clothes and clothes shopping made me happy.
Somewhat tangentially: my mom had always told me to avoid horizontal stripes because they would make me look wider, which made sense to me, so I dutifully followed her advice. Horizontal stripes are now my favorite pattern (I have right now approximately 7 tees, 3 sweaters, and 4 dresses with horizontal stripes). Anyway, the first time I put on a striped top and found that it did not, in fact, make me look fat, I felt like I had accomplished something. Having spent most of my life either mostly unaware of my appearance or completely unhappy with it, putting on something new and liking the way it looked felt like a pleasant novelty every time. Even if other things in my life were unpredictable or stressful, I knew I could count on that feeling. Retrospectively, this is the point at which shopping became tied to emotional dys/regulation for me.
I am constantly playing games with myself, because I’m the kind of person that needs constant feedback, and creating arbitrary checkpoints or goals for myself is one way to fulfill that need. Most of the games are silly and harmless. For example, when I was driving home from college and had the GPS up on the dashboard, I “won” if I looked up and the remaining number of miles was a two-digit multiple of 11. I “won” if I arrived to an event exactly on time. In the same manner, as I started shopping more, whenever I found a good deal or bought something that looked good on me, I felt like I “won.” Constant positive feedback.
With all this shopping, I was now piling up clothes that didn’t fit me either in size or in style. In the past, I just donated clothes I no longer wore, but the sheer number of these unwanted clothes was higher than any amount I’d ever donated at once, and they were all in good condition. So I started selling them.
Even though I had previously purchased clothes from thrift stores and eBay, my real entry into the world of buying/selling secondhand clothes was through the now-defunct Twice (which functioned like a consignment shop: you shipped them a box of clothes and they paid upfront based on what they thought they could get from reselling the clothes). I was an early customer, and in addition to the store credit I got from trading in clothes (they gave you a bonus if you took store credit instead of cashing out), I racked up a decent amount of credit by referring people (mostly through Reddit), which led to a feeling of, it’s okay, I can shop as much as I like, I’m not spending real money. I also liked the idea that my old clothes were going to another customer like me, not getting shipped en masse to some third-world country to undermine the local economy (I was at least vaguely aware of this concept then).
After Twice closed I switched to ThredUp, which like Twice allows you to ship them a lot of clothes at once; they pay upfront for some, do consignment-type listings for higher-ticket items (you set the sale price and get a percentage of that when it sells), and donate anything they decline to sell. ThredUp paid less than Twice had, despite the fact that their sale prices were higher, which I found disgruntling. I had used eBay before and found the listing process frustrating, and having to pay fees on listings that didn’t sell just made that worse, so I ended up on Poshmark instead. Again, I ended up buying as much as I sold, and even though this felt good at first – I’m trading things that don’t bring me joy for ones that do – I slowly started to feel guilty again, realizing that I wasn’t actually paring down my belongings, just replacing them.
Around this time, Marie Kondo’s eponymous ‘KonMari’ method was exploding in popularity, and I loved the idea of being someone who only owned things that “sparked joy” – but I found this harder to implement in practice. I did clear out a chunk of my closet, learned to fold clothes neatly, and used boxes I already had to organize my shelves and drawers, but I know I failed at the first step – to toss everything that didn’t bring me joy.
I’ve always had hoarder tendencies. I always think, ‘but I might have a use for this later’ and tend hold on to things not because I really love them, but because having them makes me feel more secure. It’s odd that I have this subconscious thought pattern, even though I have never had unsatisfied material wants (or really, needs). Neither of my parents (who both grew up poor, not even sure if they would have enough to eat or clothes to wear) think like this. Tangentially, this kind of thought pattern also extended to why I had to lose weight in the first place. I had to retrain my mind to realize that I would always have enough food, that I didn’t have to eat everything in front of me with the fear that it might disappear later. In that case, I was able to find a balance where I enjoy food in a healthy way – so why am I struggling to do so with respect to shopping?
I recently watched the documentary “The True Cost” (2015) on Netflix and was struck by one line in particular, paraphrased by Dr. Richard D. Wolff from the article “Consumptionism” by Earnest Elmo Calkins (originally published in the trade journal Printer’s Ink): “Consumptionism is all about getting people to treat the things they use as the things they use up.”
This is certainly part of my problem – that clothes have become a consumable good, something that I replace far more frequently than is strictly necessary. What percent of clothes do I actually end up tossing because they’re worn out? Five percent, maybe, or ten? Can’t be any more than that. On the flip side, however, I have also been treating makeup, something that you’re supposed to use up, as something to collect.
I reorganize my beauty products constantly, which I call “makeup Tetris” – there’s a game element in finding new ways to fit things together, and I “win” whenever I find a perfect setup for a group of items. Also, I find it reassuring to see things lined up in an orderly fashion, in part because I can see how much I own (and owning more things gives me a sense of security), and in part because when my life as a whole is not in order, it’s comforting to to know that I can at least control this tiny corner of the universe. I always told myself that this was a productive endeavor, but gradually I’ve come to realize that it’s just another part of the overarching consumptionism problem.
So this is where I am now. I’m using the app ClosetSpace (which I would recommend with reservations – it’s quite frustrating to set up and not entirely intuitive to use, but it’s free and works both on mobile and desktop) to track how often I wear different pieces, and eventually I plan on using that information to pare down my wardrobe to the pieces I find myself reaching for over and over. In concept, I like the idea of capsule wardrobes or even a uniform, but realistically, I don’t think I’m anywhere close to that. Baby steps.
I’m also making an effort to use up the beauty products I’ve accrued. I had catalogued them at least partially at one point, but kept forgetting to update, and since I buy/sell/give away/use up beauty products at a much faster rate than I do clothes, whenever I did remember to update the list I would get confused. Right now I’m just choosing a few products at a time and making a concerted effort to use them up. Someday soon I’ll re-catalogue everything and print a physical copy so I can track what I’m using/using up.
As Lily Allen sings, “I am a weapon of massive consumption/ but it’s not my fault, it’s how I’m programmed to function.” There’s no question that we as consumers are constantly being programmed through various forms of advertising to always want more, but “fault” isn’t the issue here. The issue is simply, does this make me happy? Do I want to continue living like this?
For a long time, my answer to those questions was an uneasy, “I guess?”
Now, that is changing.