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I was talking with someone recently about their early shopping and style messages. They had experienced a very specific set of experiences as a young woman where clothes buying decisions had been taken out of her hands and the clothing she wore was proscribed to her. This left her with little to no choice in what she wore and as an adult she was reflecting on how these early experiences had shaped the clothing and buying choices she was making.
It brought to mind a story I read about a woman who was living with ongoing feelings of shame about her body which she finally decided she wanted to shift. With the help of a counsellor, she traced these feelings back to an experience she had when she was 6 or 7 on a beach holiday with her family. Her mother had made her wear a pair of white bloomer-style underpants with no top, not a proper swimsuit, and this woman had felt unbearable self consciousness and great shame at having her body on show in such a public way. She had never fully recovered from this, even though her adult mind had managed to make some sense of it – on a deeper level, those feelings of shame had stayed with her through to midlife.
I find these stories extraordinary, and endlessly fascinating. I am intrigued by our early experiences and memories of clothing, shopping and style, and how they impact us as adults – how they shape our purchasing decisions, our clothing choices, how we feel about ourselves and how we choose to use clothing as adults to express who we are.
My own early experiences were a mixed bag. I grew up with a reasonably negative view of my body, shaped by negative names my older brothers called me, and I grew up believing I was tubby – not exactly fat, but certainly not slim or ideal in terms of my body shape and size. At the other end of the spectrum, my mother wanted me to grow up feeling good about myself and took deliberate steps to shape my body image. She did this by sending me to ballet and gymnastics (you can see me as a ballerina, can’t you?!). And I also remember a shopping trip she took me on when I was 12. She saw this as a transition time for me, which was astute, and true, and she wanted me to feel grown up enough in my clothing, without moving too quickly into adult wear. I remember that shopping trip to this day, and how special I felt being giving some choice in what I was going to wear, and how delectably grown up I felt in my new clothing. I will always be grateful to my mother for her foresight and the actions she took (and I must remember to tell her this!).
So this got me thinking about the early messages we pick up on about style, clothing, and who we are. Here are a handful of questions along those lines to ponder:
- What are your early messages and memories about clothing? What do you remember about the clothing you wore and how you felt wearing them?
- At what age did you start to choose what clothes you wore? At what age did you start to choose what clothes you purchased?
- What is the first item of clothing, or outfit, that you remember that you loved?
- What do you remember about shopping, growing up? Where did shopping for clothing (and other appearance-related items) fit in to your early shopping memories and experiences?
- Do you have any particular memories of shopping for a special item, like your first bra or your first grown up outfit?
- What is your earliest memory of expressing yourself through clothing and creating a “style”?
- How have your early memories and the messages you picked up on shaped you as an adult — the clothes you wear, the purchasing decisions you make, and how you feel about yourself and your style?
These are a small handful of the many questions you can ask yourself about style, clothing, self-esteem and identity. In a new book coming out in July, I suggest a range of questions that can help you explore your early style and clothing messages.
Exploring these early memories and messages can be fun and illuminating. It can also sometimes raise a few tender, possibly even painful, memories and feelings. So remember to be kind to yourself when you start exploring this territory!
Identity and how we see ourselves is an intriguing topic. So many of the choices we make in life can be traced back to our self-identity – how we see and experience ourselves, what we believe about ourselves, what we think we can and cannot do, what we believe we do and do not stand for, what our character is, what our personal qualities are, what our gifts and strengths are, what our weaknesses are, what we can and cannot change about ourselves, who likes us and who doesn’t.
Issues of identity are also linked to issues of consciousness and awareness. Our ability to stand back and see ourselves — the silent witness as Eckart Tolle referred to this entity and ability.
So I’m intrigued about how we see ourselves, and the links between this and our self image and self esteem. In two recent posts, one about body image and the negative messages we send ourselves and how harmful they are, and another about special clothing items that make me feel “most me“, I touched on the issue of identity – it’s clearly a central, foundation issue, but I didn’t explore it any further in those two pieces.
Which is what I’d like to do now. What is identity? How does it form? How do we become aware of our self-identity?
And by the time we become aware of it, is our sense of who we are so fixed that no real or lasting change to how we see ourselves is possible? Certainly there are those that believe that “give me the child until he is seven and I’ll show you the man” (a quote attributed most often to St Francis Xavier), the concept that the gripping documentary series Seven Up was based on.
Even if all that is possible is to observe and notice our self-identity, there is great value in that. My experience with people is that self-reflection, directed toward self, is not something that many people do. So those who do engage in reflections on “who am I?” are in the minority. At least, that’s been my experience.
I’ve long been intrigued by issues of identity, and have had a range of experiences in many settings where identity is discussed. Here’s a few:
- As corporate facilitator, I worked often with high performing teams and leaders in global firms. The focus of these sessions was often in the area with an umbrella term of “soft skills” – issues of communication, leadership, teaming… you know, people related topics. In some of these sessions, we would engage in a process of discussion about the team, or the broader organisation, and who and what it was, and wasn’t. The question was often phrased in metaphorical terms, providing both an element of fun and disassociation which was necessary for people to engage with the exercise. The question might be: ”If Acme Finance Company was a car… what kind of car would it be?” This discussion was so engaging, so intriguing, that I would often have to draw it to a close before people were ready to stop talking about it. And of course, the ‘answer’ was much less important than the discussion, and often no consensus could be reached. But it sure yielded an interesting conversation!
- A couple of years ago, I was attending a conference in San Francisco of the Association of Psychological Type International, the board of which I had served on for a few years. Professionals who work with psychological type are interested in the condition called “being human” and what makes us who we are. A group of us were sitting around with a nice bottle of red wine and discussing what kind of domestic animal/pet we would be. This started off as just a fun, almost silly discussion — are you a long-haired indoor cat, or a lap dog, a Labrador, or perhaps “39 flavours” moggy cat from the local animal rescue? The variations and possibilities were endless! But the interesting thing was how impactful this discussion was, much later, on how we saw ourselves, and what others thought of our self image (as expressed as a domestic pet) and how others see us — and what we make of all of that.
- I was invited to be part of a profile experience called Leading Questions on a website that is focused on helping women feel better about themselves and combating so many of the negative messages women are subject to, and take on board, about their body image. I was asked ‘what is the one thing I say most often about myself, to myself?’. This question really pulled me up short, as I realised that I still say quite negative things to myself on a regular basis. My awareness of this ongoing negative self-talk had dropped to alarmingly low levels, and I had allowed myself to fall into the very bad habit of not interrupting that cycle, and replacing those negative words with more positive ones.
- The work of Malcolm Godwin in his amazing book “Who Are You? 101 Ways of Seeing Yourself” – a book I literally could not put down for days, as I devoured the many ways in which Godwin laid out that we can see and experience ourselves.
So what are some of the ways you can see yourself? What are some of the metaphors you can use to help you see yourself as you are, or in a completely new different light?
There are no doubt hundreds of different ways you can see yourself, but here’s 21 metaphors you might find fun and illumating to play around with (and I should warn you that almost all of these are a bit esoteric and deliberately so. It’s your imagination we are tapping into…):
- If you were an animal (of any sort)… what might you be?
- If you were a domestic animal/pet…. what sort of pet might you be?
- If you were a bird… what kind of bird would you be?
- If you were a car… what kind of car might you be?
- If you were a vehicle of any sort… what might you be?
- If you were a colour… what colour, or collection of colours, or pattern of colours, might you be?
- If you were an item of clothing… what might you be?
- If you were words…. what sentence or statement would sum you up?
- If you were aware of the words you say most often about yourself…. what would those words be?
- If a celebrity was chosen to play you in the movie of your life… who would that be?
- If you were the title of a book…. what book would that be?
- If you were a song… what song would that be?
- If you were a kitchen object… what would you be?
- If you were a meal…. what kind of meal would you be?
- If you were a fruit… what sort of fruit might you be?
- If you were a person from ancient times …. what kind of person would you be?
- If you were a person of the opposite sex…. what kind of man/woman might you be?
- If you were a country or a geographical region …. what might you be?
- If you were a landmark …. what might you be?
- If you were less of who you are right now… what would that make you?
- If you were more of what and who you are now… what would that make you?
Of course what is most fascinating, fun and ultimately illuminating about any of these questions is the discussion you have, either with yourself (you can talk it out loud – would suggest you do it in private, or perhaps through journaling) or with others.
It’s not the answer you come up with (“a jeep that desperately needs a wash” or “Jodie Foster” or “a peacock” or “those patent animal print slides with the bling on the front I bought in Dallas”), but the process you go through as you ponder the question. And your answer to the question “Why?” in response to your initial answer to each question.
It’s also fascinating to ask others their answers to their questions about you. What kind of bird or landmark or song do they see you as? Only to be asked of people whom you trust and who have a generous and abundant outlook on life (and others).
When you have some time this week, or soon, pick a few questions you like from the above list, or make up your own, and ponder: Who Am I?
A guest post by Dr Ruth Quibell
My Edwardian kauri pine wardrobe is an old friend. We share history. It was my first grown-up purchase when I started working. I paid $525. I know this because I still, inexplicably, have its neat price tag.
I was drawn to its old-world charm: gleaming wood, carved decorations, and mirrored door. I didn’t care that its top carving probably wasn’t the original design, and more the ingenuity of a backyard restorer. I also didn’t think about practical matters like how heavy it was. And, surprisingly, I didn’t give much thought to its function as a wardrobe: to safely hang and display clothes. On this last count, I quickly found the faded antique it to be a failure.
The main reason it fails is because it is far too small by today’s standards. In a culture of material abundance, we need and expect to store a lot of things. My compact wardrobe is a reminder that most people had far less in earlier times. The handful of brass hooks inside would have once been adequate for hanging up a few coats and dresses.
At some stage someone has added a central railing, made out of what looks like an old wooden broom handle. It’s serviceable and creates more hanging space, but it remains pokey, its dark corners difficult to access. The brass handle fell off some time ago, and its central door hinge is weakened from a battle with horrid wire hangers.
Why haven’t I traded it in for a larger, less cumbersome form of storage?
Well, I’ve certainly considered it while wandering through IKEA and seeing those custom closets, with pull-out railings and dividers. But, as I contemplate my wardrobe’s problems, I’ve come to a much clearer appreciation of why this is one of my favourite objects.
It isn’t only the sediment of habit, laziness or sentimentality that prevents me getting rid of it – as strong as these are. But also because this heavy lug of a robe actually does three important things that help me get ready each day: it makes me feel good, imposes helpful constraints, and creates the conditions for improvising.
Firstly, it lifts my mood. Its central mirror captures whatever daylight there is and reflects it back into my bedroom. It’s like adding another window, and together with its warm wood, it creates an aura of relaxed domesticity. An ordinary suburban bedroom becomes a Grace Cossington-Smith painting. And this makes me feel good, and this in turn makes me less rushed and anxious about getting dressed to face the day.
In this way, the wardrobe is to me what psychologist Sam Gosling terms a ‘feeling regulator’, an object we use to improve or sustain our mood. In the context of getting dressed, if I already feel good, the clothes I wear matter less. I can more easily settle for ‘good enough’, and get on with my day. (Of course, feelings are highly subjective things. For my husband, who has lugged the wardrobe’s dead weight from house to house, six times, it is no mood enhancer – aesthetic merits matter little relative to the burden of heavy lifting.)
Secondly, its small size means that: a) I chiefly only wear the limited number of clothes I can see right in front of me, and b) that I can’t have too many of them or I’m swamped. The surprising payoff is that I regularly wear most of my clothes, and I am more disciplined and deliberate about what and how much I add, otherwise the delicate balance fails.
Working with these constraints imposed by the wardrobe has focused me on having a ‘good enough’ small range of clothes that work for me. And this has been liberating. I have reliable core of favourite shapes, colours and textures rather than chasing every trend. They anchor getting dressed each day. Less choice, somewhat counter-intuitively, is more satisfying and requires less time and effort. I don’t feel as if quite so much is at stake as when my wardrobe was overflowing.
This is something I’ve struggled with at various times. Psychologist Barry Schwartz writes compellingly on the psychological problems created by having too much choice in his book, The Paradox of Choice. More choices can be psychologically taxing, and result in poor decisions. The small size of my wardrobe adds a helpful external layer of discipline. Whenever my wardrobe gets too full, it is a spur to reflection: about what I need, who I am, who my audiences are (and how much their good opinion matters), and what I value. Asking these questions is counterbalance to my reticence to make decisions on what to keep or let go.
Thirdly, living with the wardrobe’s physical limitations is a prod to improvise, both in how I store clothes and how I wear them. The dark corners which are difficult to access, for instance, are the perfect spots for storing out-of-season clothes in vacuum bags. The back of the mirrored door, just the spot for hanging scarves, in easy range to coordinate or contrast with faithful jackets. The battle scars from wire hangers are the impulse to exchange them for the smaller, pretty padded satin ones which are much better for my clothes in the long-term.
Twenty years later, the wardrobe and I are both a little the worse for wear. Yet, I’ve learnt more things about my relationship to clothes from this odd partnership than I suspect I ever would have from the mythical ‘ideal’ closet. I’ve learned that the ideal working wardrobe for me is distinctive, old, and small. One that removes some of the unnecessary burden of choosing what to wear, sparks a little creativity, and helps to put me in a good mood to start the day. Little wonder we’re still old friends. Today I even fixed its handle and gave it a polish.
Copyright © 2013 Ruth Quibell
About the author: Dr. Ruth Quibell is a sociologist and writer, with an interest in objects, identity and the ‘good enough’ life. She has written for The Age, Sydney Morning Herald and Canberra Times.
This blog-post is an early draft from Precious Things, a book she is writing about our entanglements with intriguing and memorable objects. She blogs sporadically here.
We all have moments in our lives when a choice presented itself. You could choose Door A and all it brings. You could choose Door B and face those consequences.
Some of us were lucky enough to recognise that moment, to see the fork in the road where more than one path was open to us.
Others of us, or all of us at different times, didn’t realise there was more than one choice.
But there usually is. Very rarely is there only one way to go.
When it comes to overshopping and impulsive and compulsive shopping, we can often delude ourselves into thinking that we had no choice. That we simply had to have it!
I am very familiar with this feeling, and spent many an unquality hour justifying a purchasing decision that later I knew was a choice, not a foregone conclusion.
Like those leopard print Converse sneakers I bought on College St in Berkeley in November 2009 – a month before starting my Year Without Clothes Shopping (the experience that changed my life). I already had enough ‘urban sneakers’ in a variety of colours, prints and styles – more than enough. I didn’t need another animal print anything, let alone another pair of shoes.
And yet without stopping for a minute to consider the purchase, out came my credit card and into the bag those shoes went. No thinking. No choice making. No stopping to pass GO between “I love them!” to “I’ll take them!”
It was only later that I had the time to consider that purchase. To wonder where my “choice point” was, and why I had bypassed it so quickly.
It was only later that I had the time to luxuriate in my regret, and feelings of guilt.
I could tell you 100 stories like that. The only thing that would change was the item in question. I deluded myself for many a year about items that I saw in stores that grabbed me by the throat and made me buy them. Items so compelling, so desirable, so “me” that they practically jumped into my shopping cart all on their own!
So I know what that feeling of “I had to have it – I couldn’t help myself!” feels like. I’m very, very familiar with it.
The thing is: it’s a bit of a cop out. It isn’t true that we had to have it. It isn’t true that we had no choice.
And when you tell yourself things like that, you give away all your power. You make yourself weak, and helpless.
I’m very big on empowering others. Everything I do on this website and in my work is about providing ideas, inspiration and practical help to others.
I believe in helping people set themselves up to succeed. In providing handrails (not handcuffs) that will guide them, keep them steady and true, and get them where they want to go.
And awareness is the often the first step on that journey. Without the gentle light of awareness, you can’t see clearly to make a different, better choice. You can’t even see the choices, let alone have any insight into which one to take.
So when it comes to your shopping behaviours and beliefs, it’s helpful to explore the defining moments and powerful choices you have.
Let’s explore ten shopping choices you have
- The choice to let go and move on. The choice to put it down, engage the power pause and walk away. The choice to think about something else, to do something else – other than go to the mall, or click over to your favourite online shopping site. You can let it go, you can let go – and you can move on.
- The choice to confront our beliefs with data. Don’t just assume that what you believe is true – check it out, do some research, read about that label, do a wardrobe review, challenge the belief that we need to constantly update our wardrobes and ‘looks’. Choose to challenge your shopping attitudes and beliefs with facts and information.
- The choice to see the game and offer to change the rules. There is definitely a game going on when it comes to shopping and consumption, and we, the consumers, often don’t even realise it, let alone have consciously chosen to participate in it. Recognise that there’s some hoodwinking going on and that shopping isn’t the answer. Choose to wake up to the many messages we’re given about what to buy and why – and choose to tune out those that don’t serve you.
- The choice to go for something bigger. Your life is far too important to spend it. Your life should be lived! Your life should be savoured, explored, lived large - not spent searching for that perfect handbag or accessory or ensemble that will make you feel complete (it won’t – not for long enough anyway). You’re bigger than your shopping habits – live your life that way!
- The choice to support others in doing things their own way. Rather than making a snap judgement about the choices someone else is making, adopt an attitude of curiosity instead. Their choices make sense to them, so how can you see it their way?
- The choice to admit ignorance or fatigue and ask for help. Sometimes we all need a helping hand, an encouraging word and a moment to stop and reflect. We’re not sure if we should give up or go on, and we’re darn tired into the equation. Stopping to ask for help from a friend, or a professional, or just stopping to rest are valid choices, sometimes the best choice we could make (and remember, I’m here to help).
- The choice to call a time out and regain perspective. In times of overwhelm and confusion, it can be tempting to heed the call to just keep moving, to keep doing, to take action, any action! If you’re in a shopping environment, you may feel the best thing is to just pick something and buy it. But sometimes the best choice is to stop for a moment, take stock, ask questions and do nothing. Insight and inspiration will appear but they happen on “God’s time, not mine”, so invoke the power pause, leave it behind, and luxuriate in the sense of calm that comes when you give it a break for a while.
- The choice to get real about our fears and hopes. Unexplored fears and hopes can be the source of much confusion and frustration – and over-shopping behaviour. We only have a vague sense of what we want — more! — but we don’t have a clear sense of what’s driving that emotion. Impulsive shopping behaviours have left many of us unfulfilled, as our shopping has been driving by unexplored fears and hopes. Stop feeding into the confusion and spend a moment or two (or three) to become clearer on what your hopes and fears are.
- The choice to speak a difficult truth. Ah, this one can be a toughie. If you’ve been a “shopper” for some time, it can be challenging to put the brakes on all that ‘incoming’ and explore who you really want to be, and what you really want to be doing with your life’s precious energy and other precious resources such as time and money. Do you really need another handbag, pair of designer jeans, leather wallet or animal print anything (okay, that last one was for me)? Once you face up to your own individual difficult truth, you’ve passed through the doorway where new and better choices can be found. Take that step – face and speak that difficult truth. It won’t kill you.
- The choice to accept fully what is. You are where you are (and possibly some of these qualities will ring a bell for you), it is what it is (the real costs of being a shopaholic can be illuminating to explore – what’s true for you?). Without recognising the situation as it stands, no other choice is available to you. Sometimes the burden you are holding is only ever revealed as it truly is – heavy and awkward — until you put it down. And accepting your shopping behaviours and habits as they truly are is the beginning of that setting-down process, and of becoming aware of all the other more life-enhancing choices you have.
These ten questions are a good starting point for you to start shining that gentle light of awareness onto your shopping behaviours and attitudes. Take some time to sit with these questions and respond to all of them, or just those that call out to you the loudest.
What might you discover?
Which choices will make the biggest difference to your success and happiness, and how you feel about yourself and your shopping habits?
This post was inspired by the powerful choices questions created by my friend and colleague, the inspirational Pam Fox Rollin of IdeaScape.