Confession: I fucking loathe shopping. I’d rather eat glass than pop in a store and check out the sale rack when I have a few minutes to spare. I can’t spend hours online trawling for the perfect handbag. I’m not on a quest for a bargain. There is no dopamine rush. I don’t have too many shoes, and my heart doesn’t burst into song at the sight of a freshly delivered Amazon package on the porch. But I concede this is not normal, since I am a woman with a little walking-around money, and I live in America. And if anything, this missing “gene” has caused me more grief than it should.
I know I’m the exception. My entire life I have hit against the stereotypical expectation that women are born to shop, and I’ve been met with equal side eye from men and women for falling short. Women want me to want to shop with them (my mother; sisters; female friends) and men expect me to have a shopping problem, and look for any evidence they can find to support it (Aha! You bought a $15 salad!). We have so normalized excessive mindless spending, the desire to constantly acquire new things, and being bad with money as a female thing, that we actually have no idea when shopping is an actual problem.
Luckily, a recent personal story at The Cut from a shopaholic who compulsively burns through tens of thousands of (her husband’s) dollars in luxury goods on a whim — and has to go to therapy to figure it out — made the distinction. Her womanly crime leads to a pattern of lavish spending to numb the pain of her life, namely hidden purchases, secret credit card debt, and some marital issues:
When I’m shopping, I feel no pain. If I’m sick, I don’t feel sick anymore. My right hip stops hurting. I don’t feel hunger. My adrenaline is pumping. I love the anticipation of shopping — just thinking that I’m going to go buy a new dress makes me happy. It’s only about a week later that I’ll say, “Why did I spend $3,000?” I do return things, but that doesn’t help the problem. I think I use it as an excuse to shop, to be honest. I’ll tell myself, “Go ahead and get it; you can always return it.”
This is a real psychological disorder called Compulsive Buying Disorder. It affects, on average, about 5.8 percent of the population. And hold onto your credit card, boys: by gender, it breaks down to 6 percent for women, and 5.5 percent for men. In other words, the number of men and women who are actually addicted to shopping is pretty much equal. Recall the story of Friday Night Lights author Buzz Bissinger, who copped to being a shopaholic in 2013, confessing to owning a $22,000 Gucci coat. What’s more, some 41 percent of men in one survey admitted to hiding purchases from their partners.
Not that you would know any of this from cultural perceptions, which present a cartoonishly one-note representation of only women’s acquisitional nature. From women be shoppin’ memes to Born to Shop bumper stickers to numerous shopping montages in movies (ahem, Pretty Woman), shopping is a distinctly feminine pastime and a sport. It is the female sport. And we tend to lump in the addicts with the recreational users, when there’s a big difference between the two.
But men ought to know why this is the case. In part, women, as caregivers do the lion’s share of the buying for the entire family, including gifts, household items, greeting cards, and groceries. But second, we’ve also been conned into doing it. In a history of why ladies love shopping, Polly Young-Eisendrath, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont, lays it out: In essence, the female urge to shop is not explained by biology, but advertising. Historically, it ramped up during the Victorian era through the 1920s, when, in a marked departure from accepting their utter lack of real economic power, women were suddenly enticed to department stores to exercise their freedom. Only the freedom was the freedom to spend, shop, try on, hang out, talk, and buy their way into empowerment that also fit neatly within their roles as wives and mothers. She writes:
When glamorous, well-lit and artfully decorated “department stores” first opened in cities like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, they were celebrated as a cultural achievement. Macy’s, Marshall Fields, Wanamaker’s and Altman’s were among the first to lure middle class women into their soothing interiors. Shoppers were encouraged to come to the stores for pleasure, conversation, and to avail themselves of a range of new, ready-made garments. But it wasn’t just to “buy things;” they were encouraged to “make their own choices.” Attendants brought a variety of attractive offerings into a sitting-room environment (where shoppers were having tea and refreshments) for women to review. For the first time, the American woman was being asked directly what she wanted! She was being encouraged to become the Subject of her own Desire (instead of the Object of Desire, the muse). And so, well before upper and middle class women had won the right to vote, they were allowed to practice individual freedom in department stores and told they could shop for what they wanted.
Fashion, once an upper-class privilege, was now within reach of the average woman, if she only got out there and spent her liberating downtime perusing and bargain-hunting. As a result of all this, suddenly women went from shopping once or twice a month for dry goods to shopping every couple of days.
This is important, because shopping for women was always and is still heavily associated with power, control, and liberation, and it has worked to satiate many women in lieu of actual real power or wealth. This is why so many women use a language of therapeutic freedom in describing shopping; “Retail therapy” is a shorthand for the way the act of buying whatever a woman wants symbolizes her agency and autonomy from men. Nevermind if that money was earned by her or her husband. Nevermind that men participate in retail therapy too. Buying power is power, or at the very least, it was the closest thing to power many women would ever experience, and still will. It is no coincidence that the shopaholic at The Cut spent most when she was a stay-at-home mother and had the least real-world power of her life.
Today, little girls are raised with shopping as the very backdrop of their “natural” feminine identity. They bond with their mothers at grocery stores, on spa days, at the mall or flea markets, and in countless of shopping excursions they come to associate with positive experiences. Those experiences translate into defining aspects of the female experience, which then gets extrapolated into a female right. Women put up with a lot. We have less power. We face greater threats of physical violence. We earn less. We are expected to look pretty. By god, we will treat ourselves to a little something special when we feel like it, and you will not question it.
What’s more, women are rewarded for this hobby. Being into fashion passes for a personality for many women. And it’s not just by other women, who admire their trendiness or ability to accessorize, but by men, who lavish extra praise and more eyeballs on women who make that kind of sartorial effort. Instagram and Youtube are the most natural progression of this sort of thinking — women post haul videos of their purchases for other women to admire, review, or critique. That message and association of the power in even the most trivial of purchases, and shopping as therapy or a valid form of self-care, pervades the female experience more than ever.
This is not to say that there’s actually anything wrong with shopping, or women exercising consumerist freedom in this way. On its own, it’s not objectionable per se, but compared with how we portray male shoppers — as curators, not mindless consumers — it’s clear we use this totally contrived habit as a justification for how women are innately more trivial, and fixated on shiny objects. Divorced from the real history of the why, we turn this into justification for treating women as less authoritative and less serious. As ornamental, not instrumental. Women, meanwhile, pass it off as personal freedom, even if, as Eisendrath notes, that freedom is expensive, time-consuming, leads to nowhere, and ultimately illusory.
Even just while writing this, I got an ad for a New York Times story with the headline, “Buy a Pretty Dress for Memorial Day Weekend Because Why Not?” The opening line lays it all bare: “No one really needs a pretty new dress, just as no one really needs a bouquet of flowers,” it reads. “But who can resist the charm of either?”
Well, I can. Like most of the women that message is aimed at, I need a pretty dress for Memorial Day like I need another hole in the head. But that’s not really the point. The point here is that I should see a no-occasion occasion dress as a powerful, self-loving form of splurging, not to mention privilege and luxury, that need not be questioned.
Picking up a dress for no real reason, or especially, for a completely invented reason like a holiday meant to honor deceased veterans, the article suggests, is as automatic as grabbing a few groceries on the way home. Most women, and most anyone, who reads that will not bat an eye. They might even just go out and pick up a pretty dress. Just because. And why not, right? Times are hard. Work sucks. What’s wrong if I want to look nice?